Indian president-elect of Oxford student union quits after racism row

Updated on Feb 18, 2021 12:23 PM IST
Although Samant initially offered an apology for the social media posts, some of which dated back to 2017, in the form of an open letter, she quit as president-elect on Wednesday after facing continued criticism
Indian president-elect of Oxford student union quits after racism row.(Oxfordstudent/Website)
Indian president-elect of Oxford student union quits after racism row.(Oxfordstudent/Website)
ByHT Correspondent | Edited by Smriti Sinha

Rashmi Samant, the first Indian woman to be elected president of the Oxford University Student Union, has quit after the emergence of old social media posts that were deemed to be “racist” and “insensitive”.

The posts, mostly on Instagram, included one with a play on words about the Holocaust and a photo of her visit to Malaysia with the caption “Ching Chang”. Both were deemed offensive by Jewish and Chinese students. She also upset others by comparing imperialist Cecil Rhodes to Adolf Hitler in a Student Union debate, and for separating “women” and “transwomen” in an Instagram caption.

Although Samant initially offered an apology for the social media posts, some of which dated back to 2017, in the form of an open letter, she quit as president-elect on Wednesday after facing continued criticism.

She announced her resignation on Facebook, writing: “In light of the recent events surrounding my election to the Presidency of the Oxford SU, I believe it is best for me to step down from the role. It has been an honour to be your President-elect.”

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Samant, an alumna of Karnataka’s Manipal Institute of Technology, was elected president of the student union last week. The student of MSc in energy systems at Linacre College received 1,966 of the 3,708 votes in the highest turnout for a student union election.

She belongs to Manipal town in Udupi district. Her father, Dinesh Samant, is a businessman and her mother, Vathsala, a homemaker. Samant did her schooling in Udupi and graduated in mechanical engineering in 2020.

She had positioned herself as an “inclusivity” candidate in the election and campaigned to “decolonise” the Oxford syllabus and to remove all statues proven to be imperialist, including that of Christopher Codrington at the Conference of Colleges.

One Instagram post that showed her at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin in 2017 was captioned: “The memorial *CASTS* a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds.” Samant contended this was an attempt at punning on words that was hampered by the fact that she is a “non-native English student” and that she “wouldn’t even dare to be insensitive” about such a topic but the post led to her being accused of being “insensitive” by Jewish students.

Another post showing her outside a Buddhist temple in Malaysia had the caption “Ching Chang”. Though Samant claimed the phrase translated from Mandarin to “eat the plants” and was a joke about her being unable to find any vegetarian food at the temple, Chinese students said the term was a reverse Google Translation not used by native Mandarin speakers.

Samant upset others by writing “women, transwomen and men” – thus separating women from transwomen – in an Instagram caption and was accused of transphobia.

She quit after facing pressure from the Oxford University Chinese Society, Oxford Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality and the LGBTQ+ Campaign.

The Oxford University Chinese Society (OUCS) responded to Samant’s initial apology by saying: “Regrettably, we have not yet heard anything directly from Rashmi Samant. Her long-overdue public apology does not seem sincere to the OUCS. In her apology letter, Rashmi seems to be avoiding addressing her mistakes directly, and it does not show her taking responsibility for her insensitivity to race or ignorance towards the trans-community. We cannot see Rashmi as the SU president we ‘rightfully deserve’ or trust.”

However, the Free Speech Union defended Samant, saying it was disappointed to see her resign. “She has apologised for the things she said and that should have been enough,” a spokesperson for Free Speech Union told MailOnline.

“Publicly shaming young people and hounding them from the public square just because they’ve said something a bit daft on social media will deter all but the most boring to get involved in student politics,” the spokesperson added.

The Oxford Student Union Sabbatical Officers issued a statement to apologise for the “hurt and discomfort caused by the actions of the president-elect” and said: “Oxford SU has a no tolerance policy towards discrimination. Racism, transphobia, and anti-Semitism have no place in our organisation.”

A by-election will now be held to choose a new student union president.

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