NEW DELHI: College is an experience you learn a lot from The past few days have been full of instances that have taught us how do deal with emotions we never really experienced before: we learnt how to deal with fear, agony, and helplessness. Ramjas College was under siege after the English department’s event saw an inversion: the event with the theme ‘cultures of protest’ became a site of protest. Sheer brutality was displayed by the lynch mob composed of members of a right wing-BJP allied, student party, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) as an unreasonable reaction to Umar Khalid, an activist and more importantly an academic, being invited to the event to speak about his doctoral research on Bastar.

By the time we reached the college, the atmosphere of ferocity was building -- the police shied away from providing protection to Khalid, culminating in the cancellation of his session. The ABVP then, and even now -- through social media -- raised questions about his credentials as a speaker and on his reputation, since he is out on bail under charges of sedition -- another controversy from last year which entails similar themes and stakeholders.

Students, professors and other panelists in the seminar room on the day of February 21 felt that this was a direct infringement upon their right to free speech and expression and a university that celebrates the culture of debate and discussion, needed to stand up for these ideals. As a result, they carried out a peaceful procession within the college premises and planned on resuming the seminar sans Khalid.

The authoritarian theme that underscores the event was made explicit once the lynch mob retaliated, targeting the peaceful demonstration with violence. An act like this falls in direct contradiction to the principles of a democracy underlined in the Indian Constitution. This needs to be brought out innumerable times that it is the ABVP who is insecure of Khalid, of a space for debate, disagreement or dissent and hence absconds deftly by labelling everyone as “anti-national,” as if our nation is just one lecture away from disintegrating.

Their response has never been in the form of an engagement with anyone in the room through debate or questions. Since it was an open seminar, that could have been the method employed. Instead, bricks were thrown in the seminar room, where we, along with 40 other students and professors, huddled under a table, without electricity, without a route to escape, feeling helpless and trapped for an hour that felt like ages, as fear and panic took control of the room. However, what the ABVP and its affiliates fail to understand is that ideas like these are bulletproof and pelting of stones and bricks may shatter glasses but only serve to make their underpinnings stronger in our heads.

Peers were threatened, beaten with stones, broken glass and sticks; teachers abused, terrified as chairs were hurled towards them. The second day, February 22, was grimmer as a group of us were trapped inside the college, surrounded by cops who distanced the goons but never took any action against them as they kept returning, beating people up. Evacuation was even scarier as they pushed us inside police buses only to drop us at a metro station, making us feel like we’re escaping a war zone as casualties. Books meant for reading and professors trained for teaching protected us by forming human chains, while many were being taken to the hospital as they stood up for their students and colleagues.

Since then, slogans of “azadi” have been misconstrued, videos decontextualized and images of AISA members or an average peaceful protester defending himself and herself reconceptualised… they have been made out to be the attacker, while ABVP hooligans flourish under state patronage.

Threats of rape, assault and even midnight raids on “identified” supporters of the seminar has compelled students to leave north campus and live with friends or relatives elsewhere. As many have claimed, this isn’t an attack on AISA or the political left, or an attack on an institution of education -- it is an attack on the freedom to express itself. It is an infringement on the right to know, learn and in some instances live, especially for those who may not necessarily ascribe to the uniform culture that the ruling party is trying to propagate.

To look at militarism on campus we’ve to alter our lenses slightly and not focus entirely on the ‘tools’ of aggression, but rather look at the steadfast resolve with which these storm troopers of patriotism (and patriarchy) were out to incapacitate if not kill anyone who seemed to them digressing their normative ideal of nationalism. I have seen classmates who were members of the ABVP group reach out to hit whoever was in front of them, teachers or students alike, with a sense of blood fuelled rage. The most disheartening aspect of this was not the sheer brutality of the act but noticing how their eyes betrayed a uniform look of wrath and indignation that blinded them to any barriers of age, gender and above all, humanity. Stones and bricks were pelted at helpless students, journalists and teachers who could only duck for cover in the face of this unprovoked and asymmetric aggression.

While the ABVP may deny all violence and either show itself as the victim party or shift the blame to ‘common’ and ‘unidentified’ protesters in a classic post-truth fashion, it remains paradoxical when they move around in swathes across colleges and streets of the university with the same ‘unidentified’ and ‘common’ students it is a show of support and strength to their agenda.

Another feature was their unapologetic monopoly over nationalism. The chant of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ reverberated throughout even as the call to this imaginary female deity served to legitimize their harassment and threats towards flesh and blood females. During the time we were being held hostage inside Ramjas College on February 22, at one point they brought the tri-colour and draped it across their bodies, again, as if embracing yourself under the guise of the flag justifies your ability to label and thrash ‘anti-nationals.’

After this we were challenged into a verbal duel where it was demanded that we chant ‘Vande Maataram’ and ‘Jai Hind’ to prove our credentials. Although we agreed and responded with veracity, the feeling of helplessness and captivity was stronger than ever. To have the right to sit in your own college challenged and approved on abstract and illegitimate grounds of jingoism seemed unquestionably symptomatic of fascist and authoritarian tendencies.

An immediate reaction by the media and students has been to link the series of events in Ramjas College with the happenings in Jawaharlal Nehru University last February. Exactly a year ago, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and others were arrested with charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy, labelled as they were allegedly found shouting anti-national slogans and discussing the fate of Kashmir. Though Umar Khalid was an invited panelist for the event at Ramjas College, which also fueled the lynch mob culminating into a violent upsurge by ABVP members, this event cannot be reduced to what happened in JNU on multiple accounts.

The jump from discussion of a seemingly controversial issue to dissent to Kashmir to patriotism to jingoism has been witnessed where the world of imagination and political reality are being crudely manipulated into who is for/against nationalism, which, in the case of India, is heavily intertwined with religion, particularly Hinduism .

Another common element, media misreporting -- an issue that needs to be addressed with severity, has led to chaos reminiscent of the 2016 JNU incident, where tampered video footages were broadcasted on national television. Some media houses have even reported how Ramjas, like JNU, is an AISA stronghold. Ramjas isn’t JNU, on the contrary, ABVP has a huge support base not only in the college, whose president is a representative of the party, but throughout Delhi University where it swept the 2016 student union elections.

The spread of misinformation on social media is alarmingly high with reporting of instances like imposition of section 144 and the threat of midnight raids to students who were part of the protests adding to the already tumultuous scenario. This also led to a lot of helpless students being forced to evacuate the campus under fear and panic.

Images of wounded students and outraged goons are being used by the ABVP to create a narrative which portrays them as the victims, while denying any association with the stone pelting and brick throwing. Conventional media has also misconstrued facts and reduced the issue to just another scuffle between AISA and ABVP where members of the two political parties are trying to leverage for political benefits.

All of this has taken away from the essence of the issue where the ability to dissent and think critically remains in the kernel. Critical thinking is the core of social sciences, History isn’t about memorizing dates, Literature isn’t about reading novels, Political Science isn’t about abstract theories and Philosophy isn’t about getting drunk but the ability to analyse, comprehend and debate different ideas without resorting to physical violence against people who may hold views contrary to yours.

It is the duty of any university to provide and encourage practices that demonstrate this in an unbiased and independent manner. The larger picture brings forth the influence of external agents to create a uniform ideology and culture, especially across institutes of higher education from Hyderabad Central University, FTII, JNU and now Delhi University, which is a distinctive token of authoritarianism. The curbing of voices that deviate from the majoritarian viewpoint, whether it is denying Nivedita Menon to speak in Jodhpur University, which in fact went unreported, to the fate of the Ramjas seminar “The Cultures of Protest” are all indicators of the same.

Now, after reports from various media houses have come in arguing how the issue is merely one of ‘clashes’ between the two student groups, ABVP and AISA, a majority of the students that do not subscribe to the views of either party have come out and have sought to ‘reclaim’ the subject and to prevent what they see as ‘politicization’ of their issue. Their argument rests on the idea that their needs to be a distinction between what the political motivations of either party were behind supporting the protest march or opposing it and the common students fight over a specific issue which in this case is about the idea of freedom of speech and expression and how the cultures of protest and dissent need to be celebrated and questioned on university campuses that are meant to be a safe space for debate and discussion.

In my/our opinion this view is highly degenerating and is precisely the sort of apathy that leads to the chasm that is created between the ‘left’ and the ‘right.’

We believe it is highly naïve for people to come out and create this binary between the issue and a party, and consequently seek to isolate themselves from one, or both. It is highly important to note that these issues of speech and expression for us might emerge occasionally when we encounter the protest in Ramjas, but they form the bedrock of what constitutes the division across the political spectrum. While we understand that the contention right now is to not be painted under a uniform brush of AISA/SFI in the opposition to ABVP, but the active opposition to any sense of ‘politicization’ of the issue is also problematic.#

The moment we relegate our effort and interest to being merely ‘issue-specific,’ we open up ourselves to a sense of passivity towards what goes on beyond this bubble. This sense of disregard is what allows people from ABVP to come into power because when the election days come, we just feel glad for the holiday and see it as an opportunity for a house party later on. All of us, including myself, are guilty of this.

We are afraid to come out and take a position, because any position begets a sense of commitment on our behalf that is lost because our personal engagements like college applications, internals, society commitments take over and to stand up for issues that might not directly impact us but are issues that affect our university and its constituents become a secondary matter in our order of precedence.

However, we need to see how times like today are a reminder for us to come out and take a stand about not just what is of immediate concern to us, but issues that go beyond our self-interest. It is about maintaining a sense of intersectionality within our protest and acknowledge and stand in support for issues like unfair hostel timings for girls, fee hikes that disproportionately impact socio-economically weaker students, need for more disabled friendly infrastructure among many others where the stakeholders require commitment from the ‘common’ students to oppose their detractors.

If today we begin to celebrate our apolitical nature, it merely enhances and justifies our inaction to ourselves. We need to be cognizant that our inaction is also an action, it is also political. Just that when we relegate ourselves to this sort of action, it sends out a message of apathy and ignorance to causes that go beyond ours. In such a scenario where the ABVP and its kind are operating on action which is a relatively neutral way to address their vandalism and hooliganism, it is important that we respond with action on our own front as well, while obviously ensuring it does not stoop to their level. However, to be able to do any of that requires a collectivization under this “we” that cannot happen until we recognize that what goes within our ‘personal’ is political, as much as it ever has been.

("Shreyya Rajagopal is a student of Political Science at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi. Yash Sharma is a student of Political Science at Ramjas College, University of Delhi)