Freedom of Expression

Threat of Sedition Charges Looms as ABVP Objects to Mahasweta Devi Play on Campus

The right-wing student group has demanded that students and teachers who staged Draupadi at the Central University of Haryana be arrested.

(Watch parts 2 and 3 of the play)

New Delhi: After JNU and Hyderabad, the latest battleground for the clash between academic freedom and jingoistic nationalism is the Central University of Haryana (CUH) at Mahendragarh.

The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – student-wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – has targeted the university for letting its teachers and students perform renowned Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi’s famous play, Draupadi. According to the ABVP, the play is ‘anti-national’ as it shows Indian soldiers in poor light. Therefore, it alleges that the performance of the play on campus is an ‘anti-national’ act. It has filed a police complaint against the teachers and students who participated in the play and has demanded that they should be booked under sedition.

The play was part of a day-long programme organised by the English and foreign languages department on September 21 in memory of Mahasweta Devi, who died recently. Set in 1971, Draupadi documents the Adivasi resistance against zamindari exploitation. Dopadi Mejhen, who is the protagonist of the play, is shown to be a survivor of custodial rape. The event, which also screened Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa, a film based on Mahasweta Devi’s novel that also looks at the police forces critically, was meant to introduce the author’s works to the students. The English department had received the necessary permissions from the university.

Interestingly, many senior leaders of the BJP, to which ABVP owes its allegiance, had expressed their condolences when Mahasweta Devi died in the last week of July this year. Among those who condoled her death were Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president Amit Shah, and cabinet ministers Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh.

ABVP activists at CUH believe the play has offended many students. Soon after the play was staged, a few ABVP activists filmed the show and circulated it amongst their supporters, including members of the RSS, BJP and Bajrang Dal, who then staged a violent agitation in front of the university against the play. Over the next few days, the Sangh parivar turned the matter into a political issue in and around Mahendragarh. It has mobilised army men in nearby villages against the university and its supporters have been pressing for charges as grave as sedition with the police.

The university is almost 12 km outside Mahendragarh, but the ABVP has organised most of its protest rallies in the town. The saffron activists also conducted a mock funeral of the university’s vice-chancellor, R.C. Kuhad. It also took out a march to commemorate the dead soldiers in the recent Uri attack. Senior BJP leaders of the area have also addressed the ABVP protests.

The organisation has also been mobilising farmers who lost a portion of their land to the university. “They have been canvassing in the nearby villages and asking farmers whether they gave their land for anti-national activities,” Rakesh Kumar Meena from the department of law told The Wire.

A few teachers The Wire spoke to fear the polarised opinion in and around campus may lead to a violent scenario. “We have never seen such a planned campaign against teachers and students of the university. We were rehearsing for the play for the last one month. The VC, the head of department and most students knew about the contents of the play. No one objected to it. And suddenly we find that sentiments of a section of students were hurt! ABVP students constantly guard the university gates,” Snehsata, assistant professor in the english department told The Wire. Snehsata was one of the organisers of the event and is at the receiving end of the ABVP’s allegations.

Most students and teachers dismissed the allegation that the play was intended to defame soldiers. “No common student objected to the play. The university is meant to be a space where we can discuss different ideas. The ABVP is trying to put us in its superficial nationalist box,” said a student of the university who declined to be named.

University’s response

Interestingly, the university administration that had given all the due permissions has constituted a six-member enquiry committee to look into the matter. University registrar Ram Dutt has issued notices to the coordinators of the event, asking for an explanation. The committee is supposed to submit its ‘fact-finding report’ by the first week of October. Four of the committee members are external. The committee includes Kuhad, former army official and former vice-chancellor of Kurukshetra University Bhim Singh Dahiya and the present VC of the Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Kuldip Singh Agnihotri.

This enquiry committee was formed despite the fact that the ABVP made no official complaint with the university administration and had only organised protests outside the campus.

On being asked why the university agreed to a probe the play’s performance despite the fact the event had due permissions, university PRO Siddharth Shankar told The Wire, “The ABVP raised an objection to the play. It also has protested many times. The regional press highlighted the matter too as the group also lodged a police complaint. So, the university was forced to take cognisance of the matter.”

Sanjeev Kumar, dean of students’ welfare and also the head of the English and foreign languages department, who addressed the students at the event, told The Wire, “At the departmental level, we know the event was purely academic and literary. On the same day when some students started protesting, I as an HOD issued a press note that we did not intend to hurt anyone’s sentiments but still if somebody feels offended, we regret.”

However, justifying the university action, he added, “But if some people are still getting offended, the university has to take note of it. After hearing the observations of some ex-servicemen who had joined the protestors, the university constituted an enquiry committee. It will now submit a fact-finding report.”

The faculty members view this decision as a sign of administration buckling under the saffron group’s pressure.

Snehsata said that students and teachers saw the programme as an academic and creative pursuit and their intention was never to defame soldiers. “In this event, I read the epilogue of the play recounting the data about atrocities on tribal people, especially sexual crimes against women by the Indian army. How ordinary soldiers are used by the state as a tool against its own people and how the body, especially the female body, becomes the site of revenge in the hands of Indian soldiers by the same state. All the teachers and students who were present there came up and congratulated us.”

Draupadi Epilogue

Similarly, Meena told The Wire, “The event was called ‘A tribute to Mahasweta Devi’. Naturally, her works were the focus. How does it amount to disrespecting the Indian army?”

Another faculty member, who declined to be named, said, “The ABVP, since 2009 when the university was founded, has been attacking the democratic forces here. It wants to hegemonise opinion in the campus. I remember it had also attacked a few students who had come in support of the students movement after PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s death in the Hyderabad Central University. It has vitiated the university environment by its anti-Muslim rant and by branding everyone who is willing to engage with varied opinions as anti-national.”

The university seeking an explanation from a faculty member associated with the play

The faculty member's response

Part of a larger pattern?

The ABVP has been trying to get a foothold in the university for some time now. The Wire had reported earlier how the university administration has worked to accommodate the ABVP’s agenda. A few months before, the university administration had stopped classes for a lecture on ‘National Integration and Youth Contribution’ by ABVP’s Shriniwas. The local unit’s office bearer was introduced by the vice chancellor himself.  A few ABVP members had violently threatened some students who took out a condolence march for Vemula, who killed himself after the ABVP and the university administration ran a campaign against him and his friends for participating in ‘anti-national’ activities.

As a group of ABVP activists disrupted the march, some of their members also went ahead and filed a police complaint against the students who held the commemorative meeting.

In a strikingly similar incident, the ABVP, in November 2014, stalled the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Ram Ke Naam, which explores the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign to build a Ram Temple at Ayodhya in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the communal violence that followed after the Babri Masjid’s demolition in 1992. The screening was organised by CUH’s department of law and had all the necessary permissions from the administration.

“Ten minutes into the film, the administration cut the electricity off in the auditorium. When we enquired, the officials said that the ABVP had complained against the film to the then VC U.P. Sinha, who ordered to stop the screening and get the auditorium emptied,” said Meena, who was the organiser of the event.

Some teachers also talked about ABVP’s sustained campaign against Kashmiri students on campus. “In March 2015, around the time of Holi, the Hindu-right student activists created a ruckus during a cricket match. After alleging that a Kashmiri student raised the slogan of ‘Pakistan Zindabad,’ they took out a protest march. That incident was also turned into a political issue. Most regional press reports supported the ABVP campaign and projected the university as sheltering terrorists. The situation was so tense that students of Kashmir felt threatened. Some Kashmiri girls were eve-teased in the nearby markets,” said a faculty member on the condition of anonymity.

He said that when the teachers enquired informally about the incident, most students denied any such sloganeering during the match.

Most teachers The Wire spoke to said that free speech remains constantly threatened on campus. They alleged that university administration, which gives disproportionate weightage to ABVP’s demands and complaints, has also been complicit in this. For instance, earlier this year, the university administration not just blocked Facebook on campus after a few students wrote a post about administration’s alleged high-handedness, but also filed a police complaint against the student who wrote the post.

“We run a page called CUH media on Facebook and occasionally point out what we think is going wrong in the campus. Sometimes, we also question the administration like the way we question some of the student activities on campus. After it got blocked in campus, we use the neighbouring internet cafes. We did not expect that the administration would file a police complaint against us!” a student who is also one of the administrators of the page told The Wire, but did not wish to be named.

Meena said that there is a sustained campaign in the university to suppress freedom of speech. “Barring the controversial meeting on Rohith Vemula, no other student body has organised any public meeting. Many students are scared of doing so. Only the ABVP conducts workshops and a few meetings from time to time,” said Meena.

At HCU and JNU, the ABVP had alleged that both universities promoted ‘anti-national activities’ in the name of academic enquiry and free speech. The JNU episode, in which JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar and two students Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid were arrested on charges of sedition, polarised political debate and allowed the rhetoric of nationalism to distract public attention from more pressing issues of governance. Therefore, political observers believe that similar campaigns on university issues may be on the agenda of Hindutva groups. In Haryana, Hindutva groups have been particularly active over the last few months. The state has been in the news recently for infamous Biryani raids and atrocities committed by right-wing cow vigilante groups.

The final script of Draupadi as performed at CUH

This article has updated to include a background on the ABVP’s activities on campus.

  • Anjan Basu

    What a shame that our universities are being attacked by these neo-Nazis time and again, and with complete impunity! The German Nazis had begun their ‘cultural mission’ by burning books. Our homegrown Sanghis are assaulting men and women who read ( and write) books, presumably because being a ‘nationalist’ ( whatever that may mean) relieves you of the need to read or think. Heine had said, presciently, — a full hundred years before the Nazi book burnings — that those who start by burning books eventually go on to burning men. The Nazi gas chambers were a stark witness to the truth of his words. Our ‘patriotic’ bigots are doing very well in terms of destroying sane voices all around the country, and especially in the universities. The ‘authorities’ everywhere are right loyally crawling when they are asked to bend. So, it is not difficult to visualise what the findings of this learned ‘enquiry committee’ in the CUH will come up with. The students and the teachers of the university may go the way of Kanhiya Kumar and Umar Khalid and find themselves inside the great nationalist prison-houses of India on charges of sedition. Bharat Mata Ki Jai, yet again!

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Only recently, condolences messages were issued on the demise of mahasweta Devi by the top government officials bele onging to the same party to which ABVP is affiliated. Now, the same writer has become ‘ anti- national’ . The lines between sedition , patriotism … are too blurred for anyone to understand… academic education is becoming a theatre of the absurd !!!