Far from New Delhi’s activism limelight, Richa Singh, president of Allahabad University’s student union, is raising her voice against suppression of student politics. She speaks with Pragya Singh about right wing assertion and student solidarity in the days of a restive JNU, Jadavpur and Hyderabad.
Why do college students get involved in politics? Shouldn’t they focus on studies?
India expects youth to participate in all aspects of social and economic development—so why not politics? In fact more students should be politically engaged, campuses should be more politicized. Asking youth to stay away from politics is like saying that they should ignore policy making while participating in it—this is a very, very strange expectation.
Why do you think some people want apolitical students?
A political student raises questions about the system. This obviously causes a disturbance. It forces people in authority out of their comfort zones. This is what they really fear. However, this disturbance will come either way. Last year students protested against the withdrawal of fellowships. In future such issues will arise again, and so will temperatures. The administration never wants active political participation by students, but the government also doesn’t want political students. That’s why they keep chanting ‘study, study.’
But taxpayer money is spent on universities. And doesn’t education mean studying?
This is such a weird argument. Doesn’t student politics have a role in determining what kind of education will be imparted? Those who oppose student politics want to impose a certain kind of education on the entire country. Education provides opportunity to pursue interests and desires, creative, intellectual or technical. There should be no interference in that, and it includes their right to a political voice.
Is your own politics of the right, left or centre?
I look at things from a student welfare perspective. Allahabad University (AU), located in eastern UP, is influenced by this region’s social currents. So you see a lot of money power, caste dynamics, muscle power and patriarchy in our student politics. In this vortex, what happens to the common student, one who does not subscribe to the Left/Right binary? How is his creativity expressed? He doesn’t even have a say. Yes, my politics does lean more to the Left than Right, but I do notice that right wing politics is ever more ‘emotional’ and aggressive today.
How does being independent or right and left change things for you?
The greatest threat, constantly, comes because I am a woman. I was told that since AU has never had a woman at the helm of its union in its 128 years, I couldn’t lead it. Even people on the Left told me to try for vice president, not president. Then I realized that patriarchy exists even on the Left. I am threatened all the time—to be hit, shot dead, etc. Still, I feel student politics is essential.
Have you been watching events unfold at JNU? Do AU students relate?
JNU has intellectual heft and class politics and DU has glamour. At AU, money and caste rule. Everything is done on the basis of caste here, including settling ‘equations’ of candidates. I, too, was pressured to reveal my caste around election time last September. I declined. At the final qualifying speech two days before elections, I declared my caste as “student”.
What do you think of the unrest in universities including JNU, Jadavpur?
Before we get into right or wrong of these events we need to ask why these struggles are taking place. Saffronisation is very rapidly, aggressively, spreading in universities and across the country. There’s so much Jai Shri Ram being forced down everybody’s throats that students will inevitably turn around and say to the right wingers, Go to hell—we are going to say Hindustan murdabad, Pakistan zindabad. If the central government does not stop this today, this reaction will spread across the country.
Does the centre have to step in?
The national universities are controlled by the central government and they have to sort out the problem. Even the AU union has four ABVP office bearers, and me. In other central universities, now that their government is in power, the Right is wearing its politics on its sleeve. Their aggression is bubbling over. AU students are against police action at JNU except the right wing, which is fully for it. But I can tell you this: Students, as a group, see the police arresting Kanhaiya, after a demonstration by just a handful of students at JNU, in extremely poor light.
What actions do you propose at AU itself?
We have a protest at noon tomorrow—but outside campus, because our vice chancellor (VC) [Rattan Lal Hangloo] succumbed to pressure from ABVP against this event. AU students fear show cause notices, even expulsion, if they protest. The ABVP is wearing a cloak of nationalism to frighten everybody. They want to stifle our protests.
Are you saying the environment at AU is oppressive?
You know about the Rohith Vemula incident—Hyderabad University, too, is centrally administered. Well, Allahabad University is the next Hyderabad. Here student complaints and issues are constantly ignored. I have written 5-6 letters to the HRD ministry but received no response. Meanwhile the situation is turning even more turbulent here.
What has happened?
Last November ABVP invited Yogi Adityanath after bypassing me. I opposed that because Yogi Adityanath makes divisive statements—AU is a diverse campus, not a hostage to the views of five Union office-bearers. The university belongs to its 26,000 students from every caste, creed and community.
So you opposed the right wing’s invitation to a man they revere?
My opposition was because of the inflammatory statements Yogi Adityanath makes. On the 19th when I was on hunger strike, right wing goons roughed me up. They broke my wrist. They said ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and in the same breath injured me and passed extremely sexualized comments against all women present.
What did you do?
I filed an FIR about the broken wrist and wrote to the MHRD and VC. But the VC issued a show-cause notice to me. He took no action against the miscreants, not even a reprimand.
But you later hosted a person of your choice?
On 20th January [journalist] Siddhartha Varadarajan was invited, but a day ahead the ABVP put pressure on the administration. The right has defined nationalism so narrowly that anybody who questions them is branded “anti-national”. Anyhow, that evening, the VC called me and said the function could not be held. One hundred ABVP boys were present. While the VC and Proctor looked on silently, the boys told me ‘Aap karkey dekhiye Varadarajan ka function’ (Just you try and host Varadarajan). Again, I approached the police and told them that should anything happen to me, the responsibility rests with them.
You finally held the event?
AU restricted the event to a venue outside AU. Not just that. ABVP invited Sudhanshu Maharaj for a ‘pravachan’ within campus on the same day. My question is Mr Proctor and VC, what are you going to do? The university administration is simply biased and looking on mutely. Academic discourse is stifled while students are being made to attend Ram Kathas on campus. Just the other day, ABVP organized a ‘Sundar Kaand’ reading—and the VC didn't stop it.
You’re disappointed with the VC…
We had high hopes of the new VC but he has appointed as his officer on special duty (OSD) a student with criminal charges under scheduled caste atrocities act, two-three cases of using unfair means and thrashing teachers as well as a sexual harassment case. A Dalit female student [since passed out] accused him of assault and sexual harassment. We emailed the VC about this, faxed him, but got no answer. There is so much talk of Dalit uplift and women’s empowerment but when things go wrong the centre ignores it.
Are you powerless to do anything?
Why doesn’t the central government interfere to help that complainant? If it doesn’t, there will be a reaction—maybe not from Richa, but certainly from others.
You think student unrest is bubbling over?
Yes, we are in touch with other universities where similar issues have been cropping up. We are aware of what’s happening. We saw the [Prof Sandeep] Pandeyji episode in BHU closely. We are watching universities in Delhi, Hyderabad, Varanasi...
What, according to you, are AU student’s problems that need redress?
Many, but the VC never responds though we keep raising them. For instance, the main gate of our women’s hostel is double-locked every night at 9 PM while the boundary wall is broken. Male students gather there with outsiders to spew sexual abuse at us every other night. Why doesn’t the VC take action despite multiple complaints, even audio recordings of the abuse? Instead, the administration prefers to lock us in. The VC, won’t even give us an appointment.
What will you do?
We are not going to leave politics because of threats, nor will we be intimidated by abuse. We know we’re abused because we raise questions. We will make the AU issue a national issue.
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