The arrest of Delhi University professor Hany Babu M.T. sent shockwaves across the academic fraternity on Tuesday even as his former and present students vociferously objected to his arrest by the National Investigating Agency (NIA) in Mumbai where he was being interrogated since July 23.
As The Wire had reported on July 28, Babu’s wife Jenny Rowena, who teaches English at Miranda House, has said that the investigators had asked Babu about a hidden folder in his laptop. When Rowena spoke to Babu on Tuesday morning, she learned that the NIA had been insisting that the contents of the hidden folder implicated Babu in Maoist activities. She also said that NIA sleuths were pressuring him to name colleagues, fellow activists and students.
To this correspondent too, Rowena expressed disbelief. “They told him that some letters exchanged between Maoists saved in his laptop were the only issue. They had nothing else against him. Those letters apparently mention him. How can someone be arrested on the basis of that! There has to be something that he has done in real life! He is not even a Left activist. He is just a scholar!” she said.
It has been a tough time for Rowena and their daughter, who is in high school. When Babu went to Mumbai after receiving summons to turn up as a ‘witness’ in the Elgar Parishad case, he and his wife thought the trip would be for a day or two. “He went without any luggage. But then they kept asking him to come back. For the first two or three days, they only made him sit all day. I spoke to him on Tuesday morning. Then in the afternoon, I got a call from the investigating agency informing me of the arrest,” she said.
Babu’s friend and colleague at the Department of English, Dr Ira Raja made a significant point when she described him as one who always saw the law as ‘an ally and not an adversary’. She had recently called Babu up and joked that the NIA was summoning him to Mumbai to return his laptop before the start of the new semester so he could prepare for his classes.
Raja told The Wire, “I have learned much from him over the years, his cool-headedness, his logic, his composure, his wisdom, his compassion. What strikes me about him, now that I think about it, is his commitment to the law, a subject in which he has a second degree. I know from having served on numerous departmental committees with him, that he always sees the law to be an ally and not an adversary. He seeks to fix things he thinks are wrong always, but always, from within the framework of the law. Which is why I find it very hard to believe the kinds of things he is being accused of.”
Eminent scholar and professor emerita at Jadavpur University, Supriya Chaudhuri said Babu’s arrest seemed to suggest that truth and justice held no meaning for the citizens of this country any longer.
“I am shocked and saddened. This appears to be the latest in a series of arrests that have resulted in the confinement of respected intellectuals for long periods, denying them bail on the basis of suspicion, and without producing evidence to be assessed in court. I am appalled at the threat to human rights and civil liberties, especially in the cases of those who have campaigned for social justice in our profoundly unequal society,” she said.
Babu, who is originally from Trichur in Kerala, did his BA and MA from University of Calicut before completing his PhD from EFLU, Hyderabad (then known as CIEFL). He joined the English department at Delhi University’s north campus in 2008, where this correspondent was among his first batch of students. The faculty page on the DU website lists language ideology, politics and policy, linguistic identity, marginalised languages and social justice among his areas of specialisation.
As The Wire‘s Sukanya Shantha noted on Tuesday, his recent academic papers, including one published in EPW titled ‘Breaking the Chaturvarna system of languages: The need to overhaul the language policy’ and for Roundtable India on ‘Unequal rights: Freedom, equality, life and liberty of citizens and “others”,’ essay the extent of his involvement with issues of caste oppression, linguistics and the government’s suppression of dissent in universities.
For former and present students, Hany Babu has always been the friendliest of teachers and among the most approachable ones. Tathagata Dutta, now a teacher at The Shri Ram School, remembers how Babu went out of his way to help students.
“Those were pre-WhatsApp days. Before our exams, professor Babu created Google groups to discuss and clear our doubts. He then called up students asking them to join the group. He would be answering our queries till late night. I haven’t seen a more dedicated teacher in my student life.”
Soumya Sethia, an MPhil scholar working under Babu, said, “He is exemplary in his efforts to activate social change through various choices he makes as a teacher — be it regarding syllabi, lines of intellectual enquiry or interaction with students.”
Author and academic Maaz Bin Bilal, another ex-pupil, said he was ‘incredibly disappointed’ to know of Babu’s arrest. “Surely standing up for the rights of other academics and intellectuals who are imprisoned under draconian laws and denied bail over years cannot be an offence in a democracy where the right to justice is a constitutional guarantee. A society is damned when it cannot trust its best minds,” he said.
Describing the arrest as atrocious, professor of English at Deshbandhu College, Krishnan Unni P. demanded Babu’s immediate release.
“Dr. Babu is one of the best teachers in the Department of English at Delhi University. He has always worked with the marginalised sections of society and has been a powerful voice for the upliftment of backward classes for many years. His vision of equality is essential inside any academic institution,” he said.
The police version of his involvement in the Elgar Parishad case is totally baseless, said the professor. “Last September, police seized two books from his house. One was a dissertation published regarding the Maoist rise in Telangana and the other is a book on caste. There is no professor in any university who doesn’t have a book on caste or Ambedkar in their house. During these terrible times, the state is coming down heavily on dissidents. This atrocious act of arresting academics should be stopped and Dr. Babu should be freed unconditionally.”