Rajesh Mishra’s political socialisation happened in the heady years of the 60s and 70s – during the Hindi movement, the anti-Hindi movement, the Naxalite movement, and the anti-emergency struggle. It was then, perhaps, not a surprise that as a sociologist in Lucknow University (LU), he became a serious student of social movements.
Little did he know that flagging an article for others to read – which he considers part of his duty as a social scientist – would provoke a backlash. Mishra had on Facebook shared a piece titled, ‘Umar Khalid, my son’, by DU academic Apoorvanand. The next morning, Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad students stormed his department, chanted slogans, called him anti-national, and demanded his expulsion.
Mishra, who recently suffered a heart attack, was visiting his doctor when the protests began. The vice-chancellor asked him for an explanation. On the verge of retirement, as tensions have partially dissipated, Mishra now smiles and says, “I would be proud to have children who question, who dissent. I told the university: ‘Throw me out if you want. Let me become a hero also’.”
The reaction alarmed many who see it as a sign of intolerance. Conversations with a range of upper caste students in the university explain the reaction and the intellectual environment that drives it. There is hostility for Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), little sympathy for the free speech argument, and disdain for Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad University Dalit scholar who committed suicide.
JNU as bubble
It is late evening, and as we enter the university through the Bhaurao Singh Deoras Gate – named after an RSS icon – Sanjay Singh is sitting with two other young men.
Singh is pursuing a PhD in national security and defence. His aim is to stand as the Samajwadi Party’s student wing presidential candidate in the university elections. LU hasn’t had student polls for the past decade, but he is hopeful it may happen this year. Outside, a big hoarding sporting his name and photograph welcomes students.
When asked what he thinks of JNU and the recent controversy, he says, “As student activists, why are JNU students interested in everything but student issues? They are arrogant and think they know everything – they should come and debate with us.”
Singh is further bitter about the fact that JNU gets all the facilities and government support.
“We give more tuition fees, more hostel fees, more mess fees than students in JNU. Shouldn’t they think about state universities? But all they do is think about Modiji.”
A little distance away, we meet Abhay Singh, pursuing his B.Sc. He claims to have led a flag march with friends from Mahmoodabad hostel against JNU in the campus, organised independently. “I raised slogans against Kanhaiya, Umar and Apoorvanand. Anti-national forces have become stronger and it is our duty to repel it.” And why did he believe Kanhaiya was ‘anti-national’? “I watched Zee News and saw the videos. He was there and chanted slogans.”
If there is general coolness towards events in JNU, the case of Rohith Vemula is dismissed with contempt.
Sanjay Singh, the SP student leader, argued that students commit suicide all the time. “A B.Tech student committed suicide recently but no one raised it. Why? Because he is from the general category. People like (the anchor) Ravish Kumar only think it is suicide when a Dalit dies.” He added that Rohith’s suicide was a sign he was a ‘coward’. “Didn’t Ambedkar face difficulties? Did he commit suicide?”
The refrain that the suicide was a reflection of a problem internal to Vemula finds wide echo across the campus. Abhay Singh, an undergraduate student, says Vemula killed himself because of ‘guilt’. “Rohith had organised a beef party. He was calling terrorists deshbhakts. He must have realised he was wrong and thus committed suicide.”
In a nearby canteen, a group of mostly upper caste students of the Habibullah hostel are chatting. Jitendra Singh, a masters student in ancient history, said that a student in Kerala had committed suicide, a student in Bengal had killed himself, but these did not get any space. “In the case of Lucknow, a guest lecturer killed himself. Did you hear about it? No, it is because he was a Mishra. You don’t care about general castes.”
The upper caste narrative on Vemula is widely entrenched now – his suicide was his fault. There has been unnecessary ‘politicisation’ of the matter.
There are a few distinct voices, though few and far between. Indra Yadav, a new student at the university pursuing his PhD in Hindi, said that Vemula had been deprived of his fellowship and that was wrong. Arghaman Rabbi, an MA student of western history, pointed out that the suicide was not the issue – the issue was that he felt he had to commit suicide because he was a Dalit, and no one should feel that because of their identity.
Free speech as abstract
It was in this intellectual backdrop that Mishra was attacked. Most students Hindustan Times spoke to remained convinced that he had written the article himself and called an ‘anti-national’ his son.
Mishra told HT he barely got a few calls from his colleagues in the university when the protests happened, but he was not surprised. “I am a part of a few WhatsApp groups – including that of the Lucknow University Teachers Association. No one feels any shame in sending messages that are completely communal and Brahmanical, that mock events in JNU.” He claims that during emergency, it was the executive and one leader who shrunk the democratic space, but now it was ‘society, a mob mentality sponsored by ideologically driven people’ who are shrinking it.
Mishra is not too optimistic about the mood in the universities, and says the issues at JNU are too confusing to strike a chord here. “Freedom of speech is an abstract principle. It is not present in society; families don’t encourage it. Unless it is concretised it, it will be difficult to rally support around it.”
And it is this mix – of distance and bitterness towards JNU, of contempt for Rohith, and of limited value for free speech – that ensured that the upper caste-driven atmosphere in Lucknow University facilitated an attack on Mishra.