New Delhi: The Rajasthan Central University in Ajmer suspended at least 11 students – most of whom are Muslims – for watching the BBC documentary India: The Modi Question that is critical of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots
The students were suspended from both academics and the hostel for 14 days on Friday, January 27, following a proctorial enquiry that was constituted soon after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad released a list of 24 students who allegedly watched the documentary and demanded action against them.
Most students who faced action are postgraduate students who alleged that the university authorities buckled under pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated students body, ABVP, which “created a ruckus” on Thursday evening and forcibly tried to enter the hostel rooms of those who allegedly watched the BBC documentary.
The university on Friday also issued an order enforcing “a ban” on any form of screening of the BBC documentary and asked all its department heads to “sensitise the students in this regard.” Curiously, the order also added that the ban was being enforced to “maintain law and order and safety of the student’s fraternity”.
On January 21, it was reported that the Narendra Modi government asked both YouTube and Twitter to remove content with links to the BBC documentary, to which the two platforms agreed.
One of the suspended students who didn’t want to be named, however, told The Wire that the order was issued only after ABVP activists created a tense atmosphere in the campus and raised slogans like “Jai Shri Ram” and “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaron saalon ko (Shoot the traitors of the country)” – a slogan that has been in vogue among saffron activists since the 2020 anti-Muslim riots in Delhi – at the basketball court on Thursday late evening.
The student said that a group of friends had circulated a poster in their WhatsApp status messages inviting students to collectively watch the documentary on their mobile phones on Thursday evening. “We did not screen the film on a projector. A few students came and watched the documentary on their mobile phones at the university’s post office,” he said.
He added that the ABVP activists also gathered at the post office as a few students watched the documentary and tried to disrupt the event. The security personnel who had already been informed by the ABVP about the event attempted to stall it in the meantime. “A verbal altercation followed between the ABVP activists and those who watched the documentary, following which everyone went back to their rooms,” the student said.
The commotion escalated, the student said, when ABVP activists – at around 10 pm – began shouting hateful slogans at the basketball court. “They also tried to barge into the hostel rooms of some of the students who had watched the documentary and switched off the lights in their rooms,” the student said.
On Friday, many of the students whom the ABVP had named in its list of 24 who had allegedly attended the event were suspended, the student alleged.
The proctorial enquiry cited clauses 3.3 (disobeying a teacher), 3.5 (demonstrating in late hours at places other than the designated sites), and 4.3 (expulsion) of the university’s ordinance 47 to conclude that the suspended students were found guilty of indiscipline.
However, the suspended student who spoke to The Wire said that he had neither disobeyed a teacher nor demonstrated anywhere at any time.
“All some of us did was watch the BBC documentary, which has not been banned. The post office is a spot where students gather on a daily basis for usual chit chat. You can’t call it a non-designated site. Moreover, our event wasn’t a demonstration. It was merely a mark of protest where students wanted to watch the documentary peacefully, ” he said.
He also alleged that some of the students who have been suspended didn’t even attend the event. “It is clear that the university authorities targeted only those who had been named in the ABVP list. The proctor didn’t call any of us to hear our side,” he said.
The security personnel on Saturday escorted the suspended students out of the campus, citing that they can’t stay in the university premises until their suspension period is over.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties termed the suspensions “illegal and unfair”. It said that the action taken by the university against select students was despite the fact there had been no public screening of the documentary, and the film has not been banned in India. The Modi government used its emergency powers only to block the documentary from Twitter, Youtube, and other media platforms but the “question of an individual viewing on mobiles is a private matter and comes within the right to privacy of the students”, the civil rights’ association said in a statement.
“The University action of suspending the majority of minority students, mainly Muslims, by itself shows how communally selective the action has been. These students were never heard,” PUCL said, while lampooning the university administration that has still not taken any action against ABVP activists who allegedly raised hate slogans in the campus.
Demanding that the suspensions be rescinded, PUCL said the action taken by the university authorities is “an egregious abuse of power”. “The authorities should be protecting and defending the freedom of speech and expression of the students as a part of the right to education and critical thinking,” its statement read.