In Kolhapur, Students Are Transforming Into Communal Mobs: Fact-Finding Team

Several educational institutions across Kolhapur have seen communal tensions rising recently, with pressure on the police to file cases against teachers who question right-wing Hindu groups.

Mumbai: Kolhapur and its neighbouring districts in western Maharashtra are witnessing a new phenomenon over the past few months. In just two months (July and August), over a dozen incidents of mob intimidation of teachers and school administration have come to fore. But more disturbing still is the constitution of this “mob”. In most cases, it is students who are suddenly transforming themselves into a mob, finds a fact-finding report put together by a group of women activists, who have come together under the umbrella ‘Women Protest for Peace (WPFP)’.

The group WPFP, comprising gender rights activists and educators, travelled to different institutions across Kolhapur and the neighbouring districts of Satara and Sangli to understand the growing but disturbing trend of communal disturbances. The group has handed their report over to Kolhapur district collector Rahul Rekhawar early this week.

Kolhapur, known for its anti-caste legacy, right from the time of Shahu Maharaj (the 19-century king known for his progressive anti-caste policies) has witnesses communal tensions in recent times. Many radical caste-Hindu organisations have got a strong footing in the region, giving rise to communal tensions, including violent attacks on the Muslim community. The most recent one was in June this year, which was triggered over celebrations of the anniversary of the coronation day of King Shivaji.

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Within days, at a local engineering college – named ‘Kolhapur Institute of Technology’ and located at Gokul Shirgaon – a woman professor was heckled by a group of students as she began to discuss the topic “gender discrimination” in the class. Statements like “Muslims are rapists”, “Hindus are never involved in any kind of riots” and “Babri Masjid was demolished by order of Supreme Court” were reportedly made by a group of students in the class. The professor interjected and tried correcting the students. “Rape is not limited to any religion or caste. Rapists have no religion or caste. Rape is the most heinous form of crimes against women,” she said. The students, feeling challenged by the teacher’s stand, filmed her lecture, edited it and put out doctored parts which would make her statements anti-Hindu.

In no time, the doctored clip had gone viral, and many local Hindutva groups came to the institute. The institute, in a knee-jerk response, sent the teaching faculty on forced leave and later insisted she apologise. The said professor, however, refused to render an apology. On refusing to apologise, the professor was asked to work from home and join only in the new academic year that began end of August.

transgender rights activist Sudha Patil speaking about intimidation in educational institutions to the Kolhapur District Collector Rahul Rekhawar. Photo: Special arrangement

Dr Megha Pansare of the Shramik Foundation, one of the persons who led the fact-finding exercise, said that in most instances, the institutions take extreme actions against their teachers out of sheer fear. “Even when the teachers, like in the case of the engineering college here, are not at fault, still they are sent away just to dissipate the anger,” she said.

This behaviour is evident in over 10 cases that the team studied as a part of the report. Another such instance mentioned in the report is of the Seventh-day Adventist School in Kolhapur. On August 4, a student, appearing for an exam, wrote “Jai Shri Ram” on his answer sheet. The invigilator, following the strict exam rule, told the student that such a religious marker on an answer sheet was not allowed. This allegedly agitated the student and he tried to instigate other students to scribble similar words on their answer sheets. In no time, the student was able to mobilise 40-50 more people outside the school, who chanted slogans and barged into the school premises.

The police soon reached the spot and a local Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction) MLA intervened. The school management here did not take an adverse action against the teacher, but they did not take any action against the unruly student either, the report points out. The same school had another reported incident where a cleaning staffer, belonging to the Christian community, was bullied into chanting “Jai Shri Ram” in the school.

Many radical Hindu outfits have mushroomed in the region over the past decade. These organisations, Pansare points out, organically mobilise people and then hold a strong grip, particularly on the youth, through social media. “When riots broke out in June in Kolhapur, many youths who participated in the violence were known to each other only on social media. The messages circulated on WhatsApp almost acts like a clarion call,” she observed.

Saroj Patil, Megha Pansare, Meena Seshu and other members of the Women Protest for Peace present a fact finding report “Inciting disharmony in educational institutions in Western Maharashtra” to the Kolhapur District Collector Rahul Rekhawar on Sept 7, 2023. Photo: Special arrangement

The intolerance of these Hindu outfits is palpable and both the college and district administration have given in to their pressure. At Yashwantrao Chavan College in Satara recently, a guest speaker talked about Govind Pansare’s book Who was Shivaji? Pansare is one of the four rationalists to be killed allegedly by Hindutva outfits.

The speaker had read the title of the book without suffixing Shivaji’s name with “Raje” or “Maharaj” (both means king in Marathi), and local villagers had protested against the speaker. Along with the speaker, a school teacher was targeted too. When the teacher refused to apologise, the local police asked for “disciplinary action” to be initiated against her. The college has forwarded a letter to the administration against the teacher.

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In schools and colleges too, mobilisation of a mob happens through social media. The report identifies multiple instances where doctored videos are instantly circulated on these social media groups and in no time, they have gone viral. Like it happened in the case of Chandrabai-Shantappa Shendure College in Hupari village in Kolhapur. Soon after Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi president Prakash Ambedkar visited Aurangazeb’s tomb in June this year, a lecturer at Shendure college had written a social media post saying that “since injustice is being done to both the Muslims and Dalits, they should unite”. This post did not go down well with the villagers, garnering a negative response across social media platforms. The lecturer was surrounded by a mob and the police were pressurised to file a police complaint against him. On pressure from the villagers and other Hindu organisations, he was eventually transferred.

To submit the report to the district collector, over 60-70 women had gathered. Some representing the teachers’ groups, some as trans rights activists and some belonging to the minority communities had participated in the meeting. The group urged the collector to put down a protocol in case of such incidents in the future. “In such a vitiated atmosphere, it is important that the educational institutions, the teachers (who are invariably at the receiving end), and the police have a clear protocol to deal with such issues in the future,” Pansare said, explaining the group’s demand.

Along with Shramik Foundation, members of rights organisations like Mahila Dakshata Samithi, Sangram Sanstha, Andha Sradha Nirmulan Samithi, Muskan and Maharashtra Minority Christian Development Council among others also participated in the discussion with the district collector.