Expelled Wardha college students accuse university of targeting Bahujans, dissenters

On 9 October, around one hundred fifty students of a college in Wardha assembled to write postcards to the prime minister Narendra Modi. Five students and, oddly, one alumnus, all from Dalit and Other Backward Class communities, were expelled for the act of dissent. Courtesy Rajneesh Ambedkar
12 October, 2019

In the late hours of 9 October, the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, in Maharashtra’s Wardha district, issued an order rusticating six individuals—five students and, oddly, one alumnus, all from Dalit and Other Backward Class communities. The central university expelled the students after they held a demonstration earlier that day to commemorate the death anniversary of the Bahujan ideologue Kanshi Ram despite being denied permission for the same. The students said that the MGAHV administration’s vehement opposition was on account of an act of dissent during the event—around one hundred and fifty students came together to write postcards to the prime minister Narendra Modi about various issues plaguing the country. “When they could not stop us from raising our voices, they removed us,” Chandan Saroj, one of the expelled students, told me.

According to Saroj, who is Dalit and pursuing his MPhil in the university, students have organised tributes to Kanshi Ram in previous years as well, and never needed to seek prior permission for such events. “We wanted to organise this programme on his death anniversary as all the lynching incidents are targeted against Dalits and Bahujans,” Saroj said. “Those who tried to stop our event did so because they are under pressure from the Sangh and the government to control the students.” The current head of the university administration is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The circumstances of the students’ expulsion invoke grave questions about the motivation to deny permission for the demonstration, as well as the functioning of the university.

The five students—Saroj, Neeraj Kumar, Rajneesh Ambedkar, Pankaj Vela and Vaibhav Pimpalkar—had organised the protest after the Bihar Police booked 49 celebrities for sedition, in early October, because they wrote to Modi about the growing incidents of mob lynching in India. The students decided to write similar letters en masse in protest. “When the administration heard about this, they told us that they will not give us permission to hold the event,” Saroj said. “We said that it is our fundamental right to write a letter to our prime minister. They responded that we will have to formally request for permission.”

On 7 October, the students sought permission to hold the demonstration. They were promptly denied. The registrar’s office issued a notice stating that demonstrations were prohibited in the university, but did not provide any reasons for this decision. Two days later, on the morning of Kanshi Ram’s death anniversary, the students formally requested permission again, but received another notice restating that demonstrations are not permitted. Later that day, around one hundred and fifty students gathered at a public space within the university, known locally as “Gandhi Hill,” to go ahead with the protest. They attempted to enter a gated park—the spot at which they had sought permission to hold the demonstration—but were denied entry by security guards. The students then decided to stage their demonstration outside the gate, on Gandhi Hill, and sat down to write their postcards to Modi.

Among other issues, the postcards highlighted the lynchings of Dalits and Muslims, the ongoing lockdown in Kashmir, and the arbitrariness that has marred the process to update the National Register of Citizens. Rajesh Sarthi, an alumnus who graduated as a media-management student in 2018 and was present in the university at the time to collect his migration certificate, joined the demonstration in solidarity with the students. Later that night, the administration issued the notice expelling Sarthi and the five students, citing a violation of the model code of conduct, which had been in force in Maharashtra since 21 September, ahead of the assembly elections scheduled for late October.

According to Saroj, the protest had no affiliation to any political organisation, though he is personally associated with the All India Students Federation, the student wing of the Communist Party of India. Vela, another of the expelled students, pointed to the fact that the two notices issued by the administration made no reference to the model code of conduct. “If they had informed us through the notice that demonstrations are not allowed owing to the enforcement of the model code of conduct, we would have refrained from organising the programme,” Vela told me. “It was only at the time when we were dismissed that they offered the reason of the violation of the model code of conduct.”

When asked why the five students were specifically singled out for expulsion despite the participation of 150 students, Saroj responded, “They hold an old grudge against us because we routinely speak up on issues which affect the students.” Sarthi, too, believed that he had named in the expulsion notice because he had a history of participation in student movements—particularly, he said, because he was outspoken against the RSS. “Till yesterday, I was just a boy quietly exiting the university and now they have defamed me,” Sarthi said. “And the reason is that when I was in campus, I regularly spoke against the ideology of the RSS.”

While the expelled students denied any political motivations behind their demonstration, they spoke at lengths about attempts to saffronise the university campus since the induction of the presiding vice chancellor, Rajneesh Kumar Shukla, in April this year. Shukla is affiliated to both the RSS and its student’s wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. “Ever since Professor Rajneesh Kumar Shukla has taken over as the VC, he has brought in new rules here,” Vela told me. “For around two months now, the RSS has been holding shakhas in the university premises on Saturdays and Sundays with complete liberty. They have captured the university in a sense.”

Ten days before Shukla’s appointment, one Lucknow resident, Chandra Pal Singh, had written to the president of India, Ram Nath Kovind, accusing Shukla of plagiarism and submitting somebody else’s thesis. However, the central government had reportedly issued a clean chit to Shukla and granted the necessary vigilance clearance for his appointment.

According to Vela, after Shukla took over, the administration also installed surveillance cameras across the university. “At present, there is no space in the university where we can debate and discuss an issue,” he continued. “There is a seminar room where we have not been able to host a single programme. But ever since the new VC has come, there have some ten–fifteen events in the room organised by shakha members despite opposition.”

Sarthi recounted how the postcard-writing demonstration was followed by an argument with KK Singh, the university’s acting registrar, during which the students questioned why the administration allotted the university hall and classrooms for the RSS to organise their events. According to Sarthi, Singh questioned the students’ academic capabilities in response. “The students who are leading the protests are PhD scholars or are pursuing fellowships,” Sarthi told me. “None of them are weak in studies. This is our external activity. We are talking about Bahujan society.”

Neeraj Kumar, a student from the OBC community who was among those expelled, said that the university administration had been targeting Dalit and OBC students. “Ever since Shukla has taken charge, there have been a number of programmes affiliated to the RSS,” Kumar said. “Students who raise questions from Dalit and OBC communities are being deliberately targeted and kept out of MPhil and PhD courses. There is little presence of the communities in MPhil and PhD courses which are supposed to offer a wealth of knowledge.”

Sarthi, too, spoke of facing similar experiences of an administrative bias as an OBC student in the university. “I spent seven years here pursuing bachelor’s and master’s in media management,” he said. “I was not allowed to take admission in the MPhil course this year. One of the two seats is reserved for an OBC student. In the mass-communication department, students who do not follow the RSS and the ABVP’s ideology are denied admission.”

According to Rajneesh Ambedkar, another of the expelled students and who is Dalit, opinionated students have been stifled in the university ever since the Modi government came to power—even before Shukla became the VC. “Those who believe in the constitution, those who believe in social justice, those who speak logically and scientifically are being muzzled,” he said. “This is not just a matter confined to Wardha. Students of Bahujan communities across campuses in the country are a target,” he told me. Indeed, across the stories of dissent that have arisen in the campuses of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Hyderabad Central University and the Central University of Kerala, there is a recurring narrative that emerges: one of an administration that perceives academics as a strictly non-political pursuit, and in which any activity that questions the government of the day is dismissed as a worthless distraction.

Ambedkar questioned the university’s reasoning that the commemoration of Kanshi Ram’s death anniversary could violate the model code of conduct. “On what basis were there programmes to observe Gandhi Jayanti and Shastri Jayanti?” Ambedkar asked, referring to the celebration of Mohandas Gandhi’s and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s birth anniversaries, both on 2 October. “We are not opposed to Gandhi Jayanti or Shastri Jayanti,” he continued. “But why are they resistant to us observing the death anniversary of a Bahujan leader who changed the face of Indian politics and to the idea of us writing a letter to the prime minister?”

The attempts to saffronise the university appear not to be limited to the political exercise of dissent. In a move that appeared to reflect an imposition of Brahminical values on campus, the administration discontinued the preparation of meat in the hostel messes and canteens earlier this year. “Since one and a half months ago, no non-vegetarian food can be cooked or consumed in any canteen or mess in the university,” Vela told me. He said the university had even threatened to rusticate students who were caught cooking non-vegetarian food in their hostels. Vela is the only student among the five who was residing in a hostel.

The students’ entry into the university is at presently the discretion of the administration. “We cannot visit any department in the university. Our library membership, internet connection has been stopped,” Vela told me. They said they have repeatedly made attempts to reach out to Shukla on the phone, but the vice chancellor has been on leave since 9 October. They now intend to wait till 14 October, when he will resume charge in the university.

The expelled students and Sarthi said they intend to challenge the expulsion order and were confident of support from their fellow classmates. “We will file another application today asking the administration to reconsider the undemocratic expulsion notice,” Sarthi told me on 11 October. “If they don’t give us a written statement agreeing to reconsider this decision, we will gather support from the students to organise a sit-in protest till the rustications are revoked.” Kumar sought to understand how the university could justify the expulsion. “If such programmes cannot be organised in the university, what kind of programmes can be organised then? The VC should answer,” he said.

Singh did not respond to an email seeking his comments. The registrar’s office told me that he would only be available on 14 October. Shukla was on leave and also unavailable until the same date. However, on 11 October, the university posted a statement on its official Facebook page:

It has come to our notice that some uncivilised and antisocial people have used unconstitutional means to malign the image and the reputation of the university by citing false and fake reports in order to create misconceptions. Under the pretext of observing the death anniversary of a great man of the country, they are engaging in spurious activities. This university follows the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. This is a request from the university administration to all of you to not be deluded by this fake news. Please contribute to maintaining a peaceful and humble atmosphere in the university. This post has been published on the instruction of the superintendent of police, Wardha. Hoping for cooperation.”

“Universities are spaces where your knowledge helps in building the society and also moulds your political views,” Kumar said. “If universities are reduced to this state, what will happen to the society? The roots of freedom are being pulled away.”