Room number 101 at the School of Social Sciences (I) in Jawaharlal Nehru University is locked. On the door is a poster with a couplet by poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “So what if my pen has been snatched away from me, I have dipped my fingers in the blood of my heart. So what if my mouth has been sealed, I have turned every link of my chain a speaking tongue,” reads the poster.
The office of professor Archana Prasad, chairperson of Centre for Informal Sector and Labour studies (ISLS), the room has been locked since the day she was named in the murder of Chhattisgarh resident Shamnath Baghel.
On November 4, Baghel was stabbed by alleged Maoists outside his house in Nama village, Bastar, Chhattisgarh -- over 1,500 kilometres away from Prasad’s first floor office in Delhi.
Nandini Sundar, a professor in Delhi University’s sociology department, is also named in the FIR. While the two have gone on leave, a Chhattisgarh police team is in the city to summon them for investigation.
Last week, police claimed Baghel’s wife blamed the two professors for her husband’s death. Baghel had filed a complaint seven months ago, accusing them of inciting villagers against the government.
At Delhi university sociology department, Sundar’s colleagues are busy getting signatures on a petition against Chhattisgarh police. They say the police are framing the two professors. They have got 250 signatures, most of them sociologists from across the country.
“She has been framed for exposing human rights violations in the state against tribals. She is a genuine researcher who has travelled extensively. Through her PILs, the marginalised tribal people have found avenues to voice their grievances. She is being targeted because her view is contrary to that of the state,” her colleague Satish Deshpande said.
Deshpande said Sundar has been working for the tribals over two decades. Wife of journalist Siddhartha Vardarajan, Sundar was one of the petitioners in the case that led the Supreme Court to ban the state-sponsored vigilante group, Salwa Judum, in 2011.
Sundar’s first book was on the anthropological history of Bastar. Her colleagues said she has been with Delhi University since 2005. Known to be an expert in tribal affairs, Sundar was a member of many fact-finding committees sent to states across India.
One of her colleagues said that contrary to police allegations, her recent book, ‘The Burning Forest: India’s war in Bastar’, has been critical of Maoist actions.
“Read her latest book, she takes a neutral stand on the issue of Maoists. Sociology involves field work, which is why she has travelled across the country and not just Bastar. All of us travel to villages and interact with marginalized people,” said Sudha Vasan, associate professor.
Vasan said Sundar recently travelled to Jharkhand on a project. “Should we stop travelling and meeting people?”
At JNU, the teachers union has been holding meetings to condemn the FIR against Prasad and firefight the ‘state oppression’.
A JNU alumna, she had earlier worked at Jamia Milla Islamia University. She joined JNU in 2013. Till September, she was the chairperson of the ISLS. “She is an expert on the history and study of tribals in India. She recently visited Maharashtra with our students for a research on how workers of informal sectors have no protection from the state,” said her colleague Pradeep Shinde.
A member of the research advisory committee of the ministry of tribal affairs said most of her books focus on modern tribal identity and development of societies in contemporary India.
“We are completely behind her and condemn the FIR. She is a writer and not a murderer. The state is targeting academicians,” said Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers Union President Bikramaditya Choudhary.
Last Tuesday (November 7), when news broke out about the FIR against the two professors, Prasad reportedly applied for leave the next day till Friday (November 11). But she has not returned yet. Both her cell phones were switched off. There was no response on her residential landline.
Inspector General (Bastar) SRP Kalluri told HT that the two professors would have to join investigation. “Our teams are in different states, including Delhi, investigating the case. The charges against them are serious. If they do not join investigation, we will approach court for a warrant against them.”
Over the last few days, all talk inside the School of Social Sciences was about the professors and Bastar police. Twice on Wednesday (November 8), students gathered outside the chairperson’s office when there were rumours of cops reaching the university campus.
Near Prasad’s office, a group of students could be seen reminding passers-by of poet Martin Neimoller and his words: “First they come for the communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist…they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. They came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”