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.”

Harijan narrated an incident when he “uttered the name of a particular party, and student workers of that party went and reported me.” He was referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party. These students confronted him near the library canteen, close to the proctor’s office, Harijan said, and asked him why he took the party’s name. “How can I not take the name of that party when I teach Germany and Mussolini?” he asked them. “They told me not to take the name of that party in such contexts ever again.” He said “I did not want to start a fight,” and so he backed down and agreed to refrain from referring to the BJP again. Harijan said that such incidents have become routine for him.

Another incident occurred when Harijan was part of the panel which does the preliminary vetting of doctoral research topics, he told me. “I was questioning some students for their pre-submission,” he said, “but I did not realise that the students would not like me questioning them.” He said that during the session “one student got up and said that this was not JNU”— Jawaharlal Nehru University—“where I could ask so many questions.”

Ashwani Kumar Maurya, the joint secretary of the ABVP’s Kasi prant—province, under the organisation’s internal system of administrative units—led the complaint against Harijan. An alumnus of the university, Maurya has not studied under Harijan. Yet, he told me that the professor uses “violent rhetoric against Hindu gods in his classes.” He also questioned Harijan’s academic credentials and said that the professor had secured “a second division at JNU,” an institution “he got into only because of reservation.”

Harijan also said that silence of the university’s predominantly upper-caste administration has compounded the hostility towards him. The university’s vice chancellor, the proctor and the head of the department of medieval and modern history are all upper-caste Hindus. Harijan pointed out that the same administration which promptly issued the show-cause notice based on the ABVP complaint chose not to extend any support to him. None among the faculty came forward to express solidarity either, he told me. “Even if someone wants to stand with me, they cannot, because they are harbouring a lot of fear,” he said. “Hence, although they know that they are doing wrong, they won’t speak up because they have to put bread on the table, which they feel they will lose if they speak up.”

Harijan’s assessment seemed to be borne out in my conversation with Ram Sevak Dubey, the proctor. Dubey is a professor of Sanskrit and the president of the Allahabad University Teachers’ Union. He condemned Harijan’s video and told me that “one should not be disrespecting anyone else’s dharma.” After the ABVP complaint, Harijan said that he started receiving anonymous phone calls warning him that he would be “mob-lynched.” When Harijan reached out to Dubey expressing concerns over his safety, the proctor told him that there was nothing he could do and asked him to approach the police if he had a “security problem.”

Harijan said that he had organised a few anti-caste events at the university. This, he said, had provoked the ire of the largely upper-caste administration, as well as the leadership of the ABVP. When I asked the Allahabad University’s public relations officer Chitranjan Kumar about Harijan’s allegation of caste discrimination from a majority upper-caste administration, he got annoyed and sidestepped the question. He told me that all the appointments at the university are in adherence with the reservation policy but refused to address the allegation of caste discrimination. I contacted Yogeshwar Tiwari, the head of the department of medieval and modern history, but he, too, did not want to comment.

I also reached out to a student Ranjeet Kumar, who is a doctoral student under Harijan, and who uploaded the video on the internet. “Uploading the video would only help Vikram reach a larger audience. What’s the harm in that?” he said when I asked why he put it up. Kumar is a member of the Akhil Bhartiya Ambedkar Mahasabha, an organisation that works for social justice, but said he did not condone Harijan’s views in the video. “Hurting the religious sentiments of any group must be condemned, as per the constitution drafted by Ambedkar himself.” Kumar also thought that Harijan had exacerbated the issue unnecessarily by fleeing the city. “It is not as big an issue he thinks. But if he is going to keep escalating it, given the kind of government we have, he will get into trouble.”

On 30 August, Harijan issued an apology for the video, via some media reports. He said, “If anyone is hurt by my statement I am really sorry, but my intention was not to disrespect Hindu god or the religion. I just wanted to tell students to stay away from superstitions and believe in their own talent.” When I asked him about the apology, he said that he was not trying to denigrate any religion or religious figure but to inculcate critical thinking in his students. “Are universities made to maintain tradition? Are we supposed to maintain such traditions that close the minds of our children?” he asked.

The apology failed to placate the irate ABVP activists though. Rajneesh, the organisational secretary of the ABVP’s Prayagraj division, dismissed Harijan’s statement and said that the professor had “fled the city because he knows he has done something wrong.” He refused to accept Harijan’s rationale. “If he must talk about the shortcomings of religion, he should also talk about Islam and other faiths. He has not spoken about any other religion. He has solely targeted Hinduism.” Maurya, the joint secretary, too, said that “if the professor really means it, the appropriate thing to do would be to declare the same in another video and make it go viral, just like the original.”

Harijan told me that it was not just the ABVP or other right-wing organisations that he was afraid of. “All the Hindus, including Dalits, think that I have disgraced their religion. Because of this they have socially boycotted me,” he said. Harijan has also received numerous threats and has been the target of hate-speech on social media. “There are people, some of them students from the university, who are openly making violent threats against me on Facebook,” he said.

Harijan’s fear of violence did not seem unfounded. Rajneesh told me, “Imagine you are at home with your family, and an outsider enters that space and starts swearing at you. How would you feel?” He was of the opinion that in such a situation “not only would you would feel bad, but you would even beat them up, if you could.” Accordingly, on 1 October, Harijan filed a complaint with the superintendant of police, Prayagraj. On 9 October, a first information report regarding the threats was registered. The SSP, Satyarth Anirudhha Pankaj told me that the police were “sensitive to the issue and we are looking into it with all seriousness.” He said that the police was “meticulously doing things and necessary action was being taken.” He also told me that the police had done their due diligence on the possible threat to Harijan’s life and “whatever is the requirement, we will fulfil it.”

Harijan has now managed to garner the support of a few organisations. On 13 and 15 October, the Campus Front of India, a student’s organisation that encourages student activism; the Bhim Brigade, a social movement for justice and peace; and around seventy lawyers of the Yadav community organised protests in his favour, at Company Bagh in Prayagraj. The group also accompanied him to the SSP’s office.

The assistant professor’s first day back was mostly uneventful. He said that the atmosphere at the university remained hostile. Other professors mostly avoided him on the first day, Harijan said. He was of the opinion that they all view him as an “outlier” who is “different from them.”