Vikram Harijan, the ABVP and caste discrimination at the University of Allahabad

31 October 2019

Over 51 days after he last took classes at the University of Allahabad, Vikram Harijan returned to campus on 17 October, accompanied by two armed policemen. The gunmen had been assigned to him the night before, by the Uttar Pradesh Police. Harijan is an assistant professor of medieval and modern history at the university, and is Dalit. He told me he had been “on the run” since 26 August. A few days earlier, a student had approached Harijan in the campus and warned him that his life was under threat, he was in danger of being “lynched,” and advised the professor to “be careful and alert.” That day, a group of students accosted Harijan and told him that they were under great “pressure to take action against” him. Unnerved, Harijan fled the campus, and locked himself up in his house. Two days later, he fled the city.

Harijan was in the eye of a storm over a video that was recorded in April 2017, and which resurfaced on the internet on 20 August this year. The video is of a speech Harijan delivered at a hostel in Prayagraj on 14 April, during a private event commemorating the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. The speech was centred on the importance of rationality and critical inquiry. In the course of arguing against superstitions, Harijan narrates how, as a sixth-standard student, he had defaced a Shiv lingam. He then says that the act did not cause him any misfortune—according to Hindu lore, desecration of an idol invites divine wrath.

The video went viral across the campus and was soon being discussed on WhatsApp groups and Facebook posts, in extremely strident tones. Within days, Harijan’s own students started coming up to him, expressing concerns for his safety. On 27 August, even as Harijan stayed barricaded inside his house, a delegation of student activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student arm—lodged a complaint against him with the university authorities. They claimed that their “sentiments” were hurt by Harijan’s “anti-Hindu” remarks in the video. The next day, the university administration issued a show-cause notice to Harijan, based on the ABVP complaint. In my conversations with the offended parties, the university authorities and Harijan, it became amply clear that his identity as a Dalit man is central to the complaint and opposition against him.

According to all three ABVP activists I spoke to, Harijan is the only Dalit professor on campus who regularly “attacks” their “religious and nationalist sentiments.” Virender Singh Chauhan, an ABVP member who formerly studied under Harijan, told me that, “he keeps bringing up eating meat, and deliberately hurts the sentiments of gramin”—rural—“students like myself.” He added that Harijan “also keeps bringing up the fact that he is a Chamar.” Chauhan added, “Classroom should be where you discuss positive things like the unity of India. Instead he keeps talking ill about the government with a lot of hatred.”

According to Harijan, his caste has overshadowed his academic credentials, even among students. He told me that upper-caste students treat him with contempt precisely because he is a lower-caste professor who challenges their prejudices. “The moment the students see my name, I am identified as a Dalit,” he said. “The students then assume they know what they are coming in for even before they enter my class.”

Appu Ajith is a Deputy Editorial Manager at The Caravan.

Keywords: Vikram Harijan University of Allahabad Dalits ABVP