I saw it for real and it left me shocked. So far I had only watched this on television. Yes, I had seen the venom through trolls on social media. But this was happening right in front of my eyes. Groups of men, yelling and shouting, sloganeering “Bharat mata ki jai” – straight at a woman who was speaking on trolling in the online world and what it does to women’s safety. They called themselves ‘students’, but nothing they did depicted behaviour of people who study in colleges.
When trolls from the screen arrived in person, disrupting our talk, SheThePeople was holding a workshop on women’s safety online. Minutes after one of our panelists Kawalpreet left the stage, ‘students’ who looked much older to be in college started disrupting the workshop and huddled together. They were creating a ruckus and speaking loudly, interfering with the workshop. SheThePeople hosts events to highlight the need for safety of women online – and this was another of our efforts to get college students sensitised to online harassment and share tools to avoid the same. Ironic that during such a workshop, goons barged in, and tried to disrupt what’s clearly dialogue necessary for our times.
The professors, themselves aghast, were wondering if this was turning out to be a repeat of what happened at Ramjas College last year.
Their first target was Kawalpreet, a DU student who has been trolled in the past. She was there to draw from her experiences and talk on how trolling affects women and what steps can help prevent it. The mob went after her. If it wasn’t for professors (who guarded) her and the students and our colleagues (who later made a human chain around her), I shudder to think what would have happened to her. The noises got louder and the workshop was disrupted.
At one point, all the students protecting Kawalpreet were pleading with these union members, asking them to leave. All the volunteers who helped us put together the workshop were crying out of helplessness, admitting that they had never seen this before. A few security personnel also entered the venue to shunt these men out.
I was aghast when two boys tried to raise their hands on a professor. A couple of them paid no heed to the principal’s request asking them to leave their college premises, even as a teacher didn’t leave Kawalpreet’s side. Some of the boys from the union went a step ahead and tried to snatch the phones of those present. It was as if the trolls from the screen had arrived in person.
I have no idea what they wanted to achieve, but this incident left me asking many questions. What will stop them? What is it that emboldens their spirit and guts to be the way they are? They were ready to attack. It was a ‘lathi-charge of abuses’. How can this atmosphere of fear and intimidation be wiped off? When will women really be safe in India? Will they ever be safe? In educational institutions, why do we need unionism?
Politics in universities is supposed to be for students’ rights, not against them. The outcomes of such an incident could have been far more severe (than what we saw today, which stopped at just threats and intimidation). Ironically, this happened at an event that was putting together a dialogue to look at solutions to online threats to women. Our resolve at SheThePeople is to put an even bigger focus on women’s safety.
Why do men find it so hard to deal with women who have an opinion of their own, who don’t conform to the majoritarian conversation and who believe that they must have their own voice? It’s high time that women speak up against such intimidation and threats.
I am proud that the workshop was completed. It was resumed after the hooligans were taken away by the authorities who intervened. For the benefit of all the others who attended it, we can hope that these people will champion the message of keeping women safe online with safety tools – and spread it among the others.
A version of this article was first published here.