A very uneasy calm was restored to the Delhi University’s North campus by Thursday, with anxiety still gripping colleges and hostels after two days of violence. Trouble started on Tuesday when members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student organisation linked to the BJP, stormed Ramjas College to disrupt a seminar titled “Cultures of Protest” organised by its English department and the literary society. They focussed attention on the participation of Umar Khalid, a student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who had been controversially booked for sedition last year in a particularly fraught ideological stand-off between the establishment and the left-leaning JNU. They forced the cancellation of not just his session at Ramjas College but also what remained of the two-day event.
A day later, as a protest against the incident was organised on the DU campus, ABVP members again arrived at the gates of Ramjas College to prevent students from participating in the march. In no time, clashes erupted, with students of the college alleging violence by the ABVP members and a hands-off response from the Delhi Police. Student politics in DU has often been edgy, but this week’s events mark a dark and worrying turn. Fearing trouble, many students associated with the anti-ABVP protest who live around the campus left to stay elsewhere. Students are mobilising to demand that the first information report make a distinction between those who disrupted the seminar and those rallying in its defence. But the most grave consequence is the message that is being sent out about the possibility of free debate.
Umar Khalid was to have spoken in a session on “Unveiling the state: Regions in conflict — the war in Adivasi areas”, reportedly based on his research on Bastar. It was part of a programme cleared by the college authorities. If they are so quickly intimidated into cancelling the seminar, if the police do not rally sufficiently to protect debate on the campus, the signal goes out that students and faculty are on their own in defending the right to free debate. The Ramjas College incident also comes a year after the events at JNU when the ABVP led the Sangh’s charge against what they deemed to be “anti-national”. Then too an impression was created that the police were too easily led to heed the ABVP’s agenda; the reverberations of that episode are still being felt. Universities are arenas for intellectual evolution, they are meant to be spaces where discussion and debate push boundaries, where students learn not only the art of provocation but also the argumentative skills to defend and oppose such provocation. Certainly, there are necessary curbs such as a bar on speech that incites violence and hate. But when a students’ organisation uses violence to have a seminar cancelled, and when the authorities succumb so easily, Indian academia stands diminished.