The English department of Ramjas College and Wordcraft, its literary society, first conceptualised “Cultures of Protest: A Seminar Exploring Representations of Dissent” in October 2016. The organising committee for the event, a team of over 20 members of which I was a part, comprised undergraduate students and faculty members who were eager to explore and engage with the idea of dissent. During the several meetings that the organising committee held over five months, we carefully chose the names of the speakers we would invite, and zealously debated the issues we would cover. These included, but were not restricted to: resistance movements in academic spaces; the political expression of marginalised communities; and the state’s role in conflict regions. Our meetings would elbow their way into our classes and our afternoon sessions would often stretch into late evenings. The seminar, which was slated for 21 and 22 February 2017, consisted of eight panels and close to two dozen speakers. Through the event, we hoped to understand the modes of protest that were employed to articulate political resistance. We planned feverishly, determined to host a seminar that would spur critical thinking and conversations on the subjects we were highlighting. Unfortunately, the event never reached its logical conclusion. The seminar, which was meant to be a discourse on dissent, became a site at which we were forced to defend the right to dissent instead.
On 21 February, I reached campus at around 9 am, half an hour before the first session, “Bodies in Protest: At the Interstices of Gender/Sexuality” was scheduled to begin. Two police officers stood outside the campus gate. I went to the registration desk, and was standing there with a few other students, when one of the officers came inside. Addressing no one in particular, he said that he had heard that one of the speakers at the event was Umar Khalid—a PhD scholar from the Jawaharlal Nehru University who was arrested on charges of sedition in February 2016. (No charge sheet has been filed in the case till now.) We had invited Umar, who is working on a dissertation with a focus on tribal communities, along with the filmmaker Sanjay Kak and the academician A Bimol Akoijam, to be a part of the panel titled “Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict,” which was scheduled for 1.30 pm that day. I responded to the police officer in the affirmative, adding that perhaps we would need the protection of the police to ensure that the discussion was not disrupted. “Protection chhodo, pehle permission kahaan he yeh batao”—Forget protection, first tell me where your permission is, he said. Within earshot of this exchange was Professor Mukul Mangalik, an associate professor of history at Ramjas College, and a speaker at the seminar. He walked over. Professor Mangalik attempted to reason with the police officer, arguing that the seminar’s organising committee had obtained the approval of the principal of Ramjas for its programme. He added that both Umar and Shehla Rashid—a student from JNU and the former vice-president of the JNU Students’ Union, whose name came up during the conversation, and who had also been invited to speak at the event—were citizens of India too, and that it was unfair to scrutinise their invitations. “Aise deshdrohi kaam aap karoge, toh bacche bhi yahi seekhenge”—If you commit anti-national activities such as this, then the children will learn this too, the police officer said.
Nevertheless, Professor Mangalik persisted, and the officer eventually gave in. However, he was visibly upset, and glared at us. When I expressed some discomfort with his intimidating posture, he said, “Hum dhamka nahi rahein hai, bas dekh rahein hain”—We are not threatening you, just looking at you. By this point, a small crowd had gathered around us. I realised as I scanned the group that these were students who were associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student affiliate.
It was evident that the seminar had begun on a hostile note. A group of agitated students representing the ABVP, had collected outside and within the campus, many of them brandishing lathis. While I recognised some of these students, many did not seem familiar, and were not from Ramjas. The number of police officers around and within the campus grew; several were stationed near the conference room, the venue for the seminar. Things came to a head at around 11.15 am. Professor Mangalik, Professor Vinita Chandra and Professor Nellickal Abraham Jacob—an associate professor and an assistant professor and in the department of English, respectively—went to meet Rajendra Prasad, the principal of Ramjas, along with a police officer, to discuss the situation. According to a person who was aware of the proceedings of the meeting, Yogit Rathi, who is a member of the ABVP and the president of the Ramjas students’ union, had presented the principal with a memorandum, demanding that Umar’s name be dropped from the event. All three faculty members, I was told, argued for the inclusion of both Umar and Shehla. However, the police officer stated that the police would be unable to provide protection either for the two speakers, or for the attendees. Professor Prasad, along with the faculty members conceded, and agreed to drop Umar from the list. Yogit was called into the office. When he came in, the person said, he had a new demand. He wanted Shehla’s invitation to be revoked as well.
News of this meeting spread rapidly within the campus. Those who sided with the ABVP were jubilant, while several among us, who were either attendees or a part of the organising committee, were left dejected. By this time, the second session, on “Mapping Subaltern Resistance from Pre-Modern to Modern Times,” had ended. Around 150-170 of us—including speakers from the event, members of the audience and students and staffers from the college—spontaneously decided to protest the decision to exclude Umar and Shehla by marching around the campus to the venue of seminar. We chanted slogans such as, “Humein Chahiye Azaadi” (We want freedom), “Inquilab Zindabaad” (Long live the revolution), “Delhi Police Hai Hai” (Down with the Delhi Police) and Gundagardi Nahi Chalegi (Hooliganism will not be tolerated). As we approached the conference room, we realised that members of the ABVP and those protesting with them had occupied it. We formed a human chain and tried to enter the venue peacefully, but they attempted to break the chain. They then began hitting those who were a part of the formation. Some of them had also gotten access to the rooftop of the college canteen, from where they threw what seemed to be steel pipes and fragments of wood, injuring a few people. One of the men who was with the ABVP members approached me. He tried to grab me by the collar, and when I ducked, he bent down and slapped me across the face. A faculty member who was standing on my left helped me get up. While the human chain was pushing forward, the man disappeared.
We managed to enter the conference room, at around 2.15 pm, after the police intervened, and escorted Sanjay Kak and A Bimol Akoijam to the venue. The room was packed with close to 100 people. Just a little after Kak began his speech, we could hear slogans of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” and “Vande Mataram.” We then heard the sound of the windows in the room shatter. Everyone instintively ducked. The power supply to the room was cut off, and we realised that the venue had been bolted from the outside. We did not know for certain who was responsible for this act, but at that time, it did not seem to matter. We were being pelted with stones that were steadily streaming in through the broken windows. Everyone was terrified, and sought refuge under any piece of furniture we could find. We cried out for help, but there was no respite. Through the dim light, I saw the silhouette of another student next to me; his face reflected the fear I felt. I crawled over to him and hugged him, crying vehemently as I struggled to contain my panic. I looked around the conference room and felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Had I played a part in creating this chaos, putting all these people in a situation fraught with danger? I tried to drive these thoughts away, telling myself that I must not normalise the violence we were being surrounded by.
A little less than an hour later, the room was unlocked, and we were allowed to leave. As we walked out in a single file, the police urged us to go home, while members of the ABVP, still inside the campus, hooted, branding us “Naxalities,” “Commies” and “Deshdrohis.” The seminar was unceremoniously called off.
On the morning of 22 February, at about 11 am, the faculty and students of the English department and members of the literary society convened to discuss a joint statement that we were planning to release to condemn the incident. As we collected in a room, some members of the ABVP stood outside, recording a video of the proceedings. Professor Prasad was taking a round around the college, and when he saw us, he stopped to talk to the faculty members who were present at the meeting. After the conversation ended, the teachers told us that we should leave because according to Professor Prasad, the police had recommended that students not gather in groups so that it did not seem like they were “conspiring.” Soon after, I left campus with group of around six or seven people, and went to the Delhi School of Economics, located nearby. We felt vulnerable in our own college. After lunch, at around 12.30 pm, we returned to Ramjas. I had, by then, purchased a pepper-spray can from a nearby store; many of my friends had already done so after the events of the previous day.
Several students, around 15–20 of us, collected near a passageway in the college. We were sitting there, discussing the events that had unfolded, when suddenly, a group of around 30 people descended upon us, chanting, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” One of the students I was with was holding a rolled-up chart paper in his hand. This apparently irked the mob, and one among them slapped the student. Some of the students who were sitting with me protested the violence, and the group started retreating. But as they were leaving, the same man who had slapped my fellow student turned back and looked at us. At that point, I felt an acute sense of danger. A friend and I ran to the English department’s library, where some faculty members were already present, and locked the door. A few more students joined us, and the faculty members escorted us to the staff room. They then helped us leave the college premises so that we could head to our respective homes.
Meanwhile, as my friends and I were hunting for refuge, first within and later outside our college, students and faculty members from Delhi University had gathered outside Ramjas, for the Common Student Teachers March towards Maurice Nagar Police Station. The march was organised in the wake of the events the previous day and was scheduled to begin at about 1 pm. Although I did not go for the march, those who did, told me that it was disrupted even before it could begin; members from the ABVP and their supporters launched an assault on some of the protestors. Akshay Ragupathy, a student from the Delhi School of Economics, said, “I was outside Ramjas college at around 1 pm when four or five ABVP members pulled me and started punching me. It was completely unprovoked.” According to another male student from DU, who is in his second year and asked not to be identified, these attacks continued throughout the march, which lasted until late evening. The student said that four or five ABVP members pulled him while he was walking and “started kicking me. I was trying to protect my head. Some police officers lathi-charged them to stop them. If it wasn’t for them, I would be dead.” According to news reports, three teachers from various colleges in DU—Prasanta Chakravarty, Suvrita and Mousumi Bose—were injured during the march and taken to Hindu Rao hospital. A friend of mine, who is a sociology student pursuing his PhD at the Delhi School of Economics, sustained a head injury and had to be admitted to the hospital as well.
The police’s actions have not inspired confidence either. The second-year student from DU said that after he filed a complaint at the Maurice Nagar police station late in the afternoon, the police took him to Hindu Rao hospital. He said that members from the ABVP were present at the hospital as well. There, they began intimidating him. “They told me they would kill me, kill my family,” he continued, “The fucking cop was standing right next to me! He did not stop them; he was only there to ensure that I do not get physically assaulted, but the vitriol was still there. The cop also joined them and asked me, ‘Why are you so anti-national? I am only here because it’s my job.’”
There is an atmosphere of unprecedented chaos. Our faculty members have advised us to stay in “safe spaces”—since our college, and in some cases, our hostels and homes, from which we have been exiled, can no longer be counted as one. Rumours abound of ABVP members breaking into student accommodations and beating up people with abandon.
This was not about Umar Khalid or Shehla Rashid alone. Those protesting did not seek to just take down these individuals, but attack the non-conformist ideas that they stand for. The ABVP’s paranoia has engulfed one academic space after another. The cowardice of such actions must be exposed through the very culture of protest that the seminar at Ramjas sought to celebrate.
Abinash DC is an undergraduate student in Ramjas College