On June 5, 2017, students of Jamia Millia Islamia protested against an iftar party hosted by the Muslim Rashtriya Manch on the campus. Most of the newspapers carried the news. However, one needs to dig deeper and unearth the worrying trend of similar events.
On the 11th day of the holy month of Ramadan, June 7, 2017, as one entered ‘Gate 07’ of Jamia Millia Islamia, the campus was unusually abuzz with activity despite the fact that summer vacations had started more than a week ago. Students were sitting and chatting in small groups, occupying almost all the benches around the central canteen and central library. The number of security men, in and around the campus was more than usual. However, more than anything, there was an air of urgency and a sense of unease.
For the past two days, JMI is once again all over the news. Indresh Kumar, a certain patron of the RSS-affiliated Muslim Rashtriya Manch, accused various times of spreading hate, regressive ideas, and even violence, was invited to attend an iftar party on June 5 on the Jamia Milia campus. During the party, he asked Muslims to “stop eating meat because it is a disease,” and said that “the Prophet never ate meat.” Students are least bothered by ‘what’ he said. The question which led to the students of Jamia Millia to organise a protest was why did the university administration allow such a politically motivated event to be organised by forces that are often deemed ‘communal’ inside the varsity?
In its defence, the university administration said that the Bhopal Ground, where the iftar party was organised, was rented out to MRM and the institution had no involvement in its affairs. However, the venue mentioned in the invitation poster circulated by the MRM was Castro Café, which one has never heard of being ‘rented out’. From the looks of it, in a bid to distance itself from the event, the administration shifted the venue to Bhopal Ground, which is often ‘rented out’. Either that or the venue was shifted to provide security to the event and its organisers in the wake of the protest called by the students of Jamia.
In fact, on June 5, 2017, the iftar party inside the Bhopal Ground was guarded by hundreds of police officers, both armed as well as unarmed. Not more than 50 meters away, the protesting students, barely a 100 in number, were first barricaded from all sides outside the main gate of the campus, and then even allegedly lathi-charged. Six students were reportedly detained in the New Friends Colony Police Station and were let go two hours later only after other protesters refused to budge. The protesting students offered their evening prayers on the road itself.
Talat Ahmad, the Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, decided to skip the event even though his name had been mentioned as a chief guest alongside the MRM patron Indresh Kumar in the invitation poster.
Another worrying incident had taken place in the university in February this year. A brainstorming session was organised at Jamia by the RSS-supported Forum for Awareness of National Security (Fans) which also counts Indresh Kumar as its chief patron. At that time, Shazia Ilmi, politician and JMI alumnus, alleged that she was not allowed to speak at the event because the university put pressure on the organisers to drop her name from a panel of speakers for a seminar on triple talaq. The event had also garnered a lot of media attention because barely a week before the event the organisers of a certain seminar in Ramjas College had been attacked by members of the ABVP and some DU students. The two events had thus sparked a series of debates on the questions of free speech and academic freedom. This further led to institutions attempting to unduly censor students and impose restrictions on organising events to avoid controversy.
As a student of the university, I strongly feel that the purpose of events like the one that took place in JMI on June 5 is to get legitimacy for RSS among the Indian Muslims. To do so, a Muslim minority institution in the National Capital Region, which also happens to be a reputed central university, must seem like the perfect place to start from. At the same time, many students have time and again accused RSS and the BJP-led government at the Centre of trying to ‘saffronise’ the education in general, and the universities and academic spaces in particular.
However, the most important question remains unanswered. Why did the Jamia administration allow such an event to be organised on the campus despite knowing that the students would protest against it?
Either it believes that a university is a free space where any event can be organised, and everyone should be allowed to speak, which is hypocritical if Shazia Ilmi’s allegations are true. Or it is of the opinion that this event was a ‘normal’ iftar party and that the issue was blown out of proportion by the students and the media, which would be naïve on its part but is nevertheless a possibility. Or the organisers of the event had ‘a way with the administration’ and the latter could do nothing but submit. I really cannot decide which among the three would be the worse of the all.