BHU, the Land of Fatwas, Where Debate & Dissent Are a Strict NO-NO
Gurmehar and Umar Khalid echo in a usual discourse at BHU but students live in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty
Once upon a time, just over a hundred years ago in 1916, noted physicist and Nobel laureate CV Raman delivered the foundation lecture of the Banaras Hindu University founded by freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya.
By 1920, Rabindranath Tagore had become the first chair of its noted arts and archaeological museum, the Bharat Kala Bhavan. Malaviya himself argued that the university was essential to inculcate in its students the spirit of national awakening.
Today, BHU is no longer in the eye of the storm. In fact, the storm of progressive thought, debate and idealism seems to have passed over it completely.
Instead, as Varanasi grapples with the excitement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself leading two roadshows and visits to several temples and ashrams – note that he didn’t deign to go to a mosque or church or gurudwara – BHU has found itself in the role of a cheerleader, enjoying 15 seconds or so of temporary fame.
Welcome to BHU, the ‘Fatwa Land’
Some of this fame could actually be categorised as infamy. TV journalists have recently had a field day rediscovering BHU vice-chancellor and RSS ideologue Girish Chandra Tripathi’s diktat that female students must be dressed modestly, must be back in their hostels by 8 pm, cannot use their cellphones after 10 pm, while the consumption of meat is absolutely forbidden in female hostel canteens.
It’s an eerily familiar version of fatwas issued by Islamic fundamentalists – which the RSS otherwise so violently opposes. In fact, the RSS social code has increasingly become a mirror image of what Islamic extremists stand for.
Backed by the ruling BJP in power at the Centre, BHU has become a new laboratory to experiment with these ideas.
It’s clear to see that the wide open space in between these extremes that Varanasi has embodied for centuries, the attitude of ‘live and let live’ in all its plurality, is becoming increasingly restricted. BHU is very much part of this changing idea of India.
ABVP Calls the Shots Inside Campus
So even when cricketer Virender Sehwag apologised last week for hurting Gurmehar Kaur’s feelings on the “Pakistan didn’t kill my father, war did” debate, the RSS’ student wing on campus, the ABVP, declared a show of strength by organising a “tiranga yatra” from the campus gate to Assi Ghat. Nothing wrong with that, of course.
Students belonging to the ABVP shouting slogans inside BHU campus on 24 February 2017. (Video courtesy: Facebook/ABVP BHU)
What is problematic is that students who don’t subscribe to the ABVP school of thought are simply not allowed to hold demonstrations, marches, or even seminar discussions on issues exercising students elsewhere in the country. The Bhagat Singh Chhatra Morcha or the CPI-linked All India Students Federation (AISA), for example, have been banned from carrying out any protests or marches in the campus.
Of course, BHU students know what’s going on. They have heard about the recent violence at Ramjas college in Delhi University and the consequent marches by ABVP and other student bodies; of Gurmehar Kaur’s silent anti-war protestation; of the agitation at Jawaharlal Nehru University last year around Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid’s calls for freedom of speech and thought and action; of the Rohith Vemula suicide and consequent galvanising of students at the University of Hyderabad.
Self-Censorship Ails Free Speech
Incredibly, though, BHU students have remained silent and still through it all. It’s as if the debates on patriotism and nationalism are taking place on another planet. Lined with mango and peepul trees, BHU’s beautiful 1,300-acre campus has remained an oasis of calm.
But scratch the surface a little and the facade fractures. Students who don’t belong to the ABVP are simply afraid that if they speak up they will either be expelled, censured or sent into social isolation.
After nine male students were expelled for protesting the reduction of library hours from 24 hours to 15 hours last year, BHU’s student fraternity largely believes that it’s better not to raise your voice – doesn’t matter if what is happening is right or wrong.
It’s not my problem, they say, shrugging their shoulders. Yes, what Gurmehar Kaur did wasn’t wrong, but perhaps there was some politics behind it, and anyway, what can we do. Let us focus on our studies, they add, we are not interested in politics.
Most refused to speak to The Quint on camera. At the Maitree Jalpan Griha, a student canteen on campus, Surabhi Jiwrajka, a student pursuing her PhD in English, says she wanted to organise a seminar around the Gurmehar Kaur debate, but was persuaded against doing so. She and her friends will now get together to talk about gender and inequality under some vague rubric.
Surabhi realises she is self-censoring, but says she doesn’t have much of an alternative.
Every debate in BHU is latent, beneath the surface. Nothing is obvious. This is a dead place.Surabhi Jiwrajka, PhD Scholar, BHU
‘Atmosphere is Far More Pro-Hindutva’
At the weekly seminar at the Centre for Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, students say, saffron-clad gurus and saints have been addressing them these past few weeks. “Ek mahashay toh gaay pe baat kar rahe the (one gentleman was speaking on the cow),” they add, laughingly.
On Gurmehar Kaur’s anti-war poster campaign on Facebook, Surabhi adds, “That poster protest was in itself liberating, whatever the outcome. Here at BHU, we have the freedom to say or do things, but within a self-limiting enclosure. The atmosphere in this university is far more pro-nationalistic, far more pro-Hindutva than elsewhere.”
“BHU is not like DU or JNU that we can say what we think, even on a social media site. I wish I had the guts to do what Gurmehar did,” she adds wistfully.
Pragya Pathak is the only student who agrees to come on camera and openly talk about the atmosphere in BHU.
Idhar ek khas tarah ke vichaar ko thopne ki koshish ho rahi hai. (Attempts are being made to enforce a special kind of thought process.) You could call it Hindutva.Pragya Pathak, BHU student
On Valentine’s Day, for example, boys and girls are prevented from sitting together or chatting. If they do, they’re immediately summoned to the university authorities and given a lecture on “culture”, Pragya adds.
Adarsh, another English Literature PhD student who was actively associated with the BJP during the 2014 elections, says laconically, “Section 144 yahan par lagi hui hai,” referring to the section in the Criminal Procedure Code which prevents the gathering of more than 4-5 people.
He adds, “Things are happening in the BJP in a very strategic way.”
Gurmehar and Umar Khalid Also Echo Here
Certainly, a majority of BHU’s 30,000-strong student community hails from the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar hinterland. Jobs and economic freedom are top-of-the-mind, especially if you belong to poor families. Empty stomachs are hardly conducive to protests and dissent.
There is a definite unease, however, around speech that deliberately charges the atmosphere. For example, the “bharat ke tukre, tukre honge/inshallah, inshallah,” speech, allegedly delivered by Umar Khalid in JNU last year – which Umar Khalid denies delivering – evokes uncomfortable reactions.
Shubham, Roshan, Amit and Sanjay, all undergraduate students from Banaras, Pratapgarh, Lucknow and Gorakhpur, respectively, veer on the side of the ABVP. One of them has a brother in the army and says, how can anyone criticise those who are fighting for the country on its borders?
Another believes that Gurmehar Kaur must definitely have been primed by a political party, otherwise how could she say things like she did? But a third disagrees with his own friend, adding, “There’s nothing wrong with the anti-war sentiments that Gurmehar expressed, she has a right to do so.”
Criticism Strictly Not Allowed
The problem with BHU is not that its students don’t have the capacity to think but that they have been so stifled over the years that they hardly know anymore if what they’re thinking is right, wrong or unacceptable. They are confused even about the limits of their freedom, leave alone testing them.
It reminds you that nothing is absolute, not even freedom of speech and expression. Worse, that campus debate is limited and Ramjas and JNU may even be anomalies.
ABVP students, of course, have no such dilemmas. Mahesh, a BHU student who participated in the PM’s roadshow which began at the BHU main gate, said, “We have to make a distinction between “azaadi” and independence,” adding that he didn’t believe that Gurmehar Kaur could say the things she did. “Obviously, that’s all a rumour.”
One of the reasons for the lack of debate is not only the absence of a students’ union – which is simply not allowed – but also that teachers are forced to sign a statement saying they will not criticise the university.
Hindi poet and BHU professor Ramagya Shashidhar admits that the “lack of diversity of thought at BHU is not encouraging.”
Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, professor of electronics engineering at BHU and head priest of Varanasi’s famous Sankat Mochan temple, sums up the patriotism predicament beautifully.
Nobody has the right to do a litmus test of your patriotism. Whoever is born in India has the same rights or national feelings that other individuals have. You cannot doubt anyone’s credentials until there is some proof that he or she is anti-national. There has always been an environment of trust in this country, please let it remain.Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, Professor of Electronics Engineering, BHU
(The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi and writes on the overlap between domestic politics and foreign affairs. She can be reached @jomalhotra.)
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