The ABVP leads rising attacks on Ambedkarite teachers in Uttar Pradesh

The ABVP protests against professor Ravikant Chandan in Lucknow University, on 10 May 2022. The student wing of the RSS has been leading a campaign against Ambedkarite teachers in Uttar Pradesh over the last nine months. INDIAN EXPRESS ARCHIVE
03 November, 2022

Over the past nine months, several university professors and school teachers from educational institutions in Uttar Pradesh who shared anti-caste messages have been facing targeted harassment by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi. Members of the ABVP, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, threatened teachers for talking about the Constitution, quoting historic texts and opposing superstitious practices. In most cases, Ambedkarite teachers were unable to challenge the administrative actions taken against them, and in one case the Uttar Pradesh police registered a first information report against a professor but did not register one based on a complaint he had made against ABVP members who were threatening him.

On 28 September, Mithilesh Kumar Gautam, a 35-year-old guest lecturer at the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University in Varanasi since 2021, put up a Facebook post criticising religious practices and emphasising the importance of the Constitution. The post read, “If women read the Indian Constitution and Hindu Code Bill for nine days instead of fasting for Navratri, their life would be free from slavery and fear. Jai Bhim.” The Hindu Code Bills were a set of laws that codified and reformed Hindu religious laws to ensure more equitable inheritance and gender laws, the passing of which was spearheaded by BR Ambedkar. Gautam, an alumnus of the university, told me that he did not expect a major backlash since he had always stood for the same values. He had always been vocal about his Dalit identity and the anti-caste ideology he subscribed to.

By the next day, the post had come to the attention of students affiliated with the ABVP who organised a march to Gautam’s department. They alleged that his post had hurt their religious sentiments. Gautam told me that the students in the march were abusing and threatening to kill him, while uttering loud chants of “Jai Shri Ram.” Gautam told me that the procession was led by Ganesh Rai, an office-bearer of the ABVP. “I was not present in the department when they came,” Gautam told me. “But the head of our department Suryabhan Prakash was there. These students started abusing him. After that, he reached out to the vice-chancellor to complain.” The students had demanded that Amir Kumar Tyagi, the university’s vice-chancellor, immediately sack Gautam. Gautam was fired on the same day as the march.

When I asked Tyagi how he could expel Gautam for a post motivating students to study the Constitution and the law, he said, “Mithlesh Kumar Gautam is our guest teacher here and he had shared a post talking about killing Durga. Navratri was ongoing then and his post could have spoiled the atmosphere of the university, so we removed him, keeping in view the security arrangements. He is not our employee but a guest teacher.” Gautam denies making any statement about the Hindu deity Durga. Gautam said he could not oppose the firing because he was not a permanent faculty member.

A similar incident occurred in August this year. Mahendra Kumar Singh used to teach in Composite School, a primary school in the Korwan block of Prayagraj district—previously known as Allahabad district—for the past 17 years. Singh is a member of the Kurmi community, who are categorised as an Other Backward Class in Uttar Pradesh.

 “We have a personal WhatsApp group named ‘Basic Education Family.’” Singh told me. “It is not associated with the department and we usually oppose hypocrisy here. It has members belonging only to the OBC and Dalit minorities. We had created this group as social awareness.” Singh told me that he is an Ambedkarite and that some people in the group did not like that. He added that primary school teachers’ union elections were due to be held on 27 August. Singh had supported one of the candidates.

“When the election was over and the opposing candidates lost, they got screenshots from our Whatsapp group and put them up on Facebook,” Singh told me. He said that the teachers who had put up the posts were Deepak Mishra and Ganesh Shankar Tiwari, who are from the same block as Singh. “We had opposed superstition and hypocrisy, so a conspiracy was hatched against us.” Singh said. “After putting our chats on Facebook, we also received a threat from a fake phone number. Those who lost in the elections held here are against us. Our caste Kurmi has been associated with Ambedkarism and this caste of OBC has always been against hypocrisy. I also worked against it.”

After the chat became public, Praveen Kumar Tiwari, an officer of Uttar Pradesh’s basic education department, issued a show-cause notice against Singh, on 21 September. Singh said it was based on another notice that said that anyone who puts up inflammatory posts from the department would face action. Singh said that the notice against inflammatory posts had actually been issued on 22 September, but was backdated to 20 September.

The comment in the WhatsApp group that Praveen Kumar Tiwari had taken issue with was a quote from the anti-caste crusader EV Ramasamy—commonly known as Periyar—that Singh had shared. “These Brahmins are also very strange, they blame planetary defects for their neighbour’s children’s unemployment and then blame reservations for their own children not getting jobs,” the quote read. “We were just speaking about this hypocrisy and saying that God has no agents,” Singh told me. “We did not intend to hurt anyone’s sentiment. We are people of scientific thinking and believe in Babasaheb”—as BR Ambedkar is commonly addressed. “It is the job of a teacher to spread social awareness and to rid society of superstition and hypocrisy.”

The notice against Singh withholds one year’s worth of increments on his salary and warned of “administrative proceedings” if he makes similar remarks in the future. I spoke to Praveen Kumar Tiwari over the phone on 1 October. “Mahendra Kumar Singh had made a comment on social media against a particular caste which should not have happened,” he told me. “They have been internally prosecuted for violating the rules of the IT Act.” Singh said they had not filed a criminal case against him, but he said he did not know how to challenge the show-cause notice. “This is an attack on the freedom of expression. If no one will speak, there will be no awareness in the society and this kind of hypocrisy will always continue,” Singh told me.

Four months before Singh received his show-cause notice, Ravikant Chandan, a professor of Lucknow University’s Hindi department, had faced a criminal case for participating in a news debate. On 8 May, Chandan had participated in a debate on the web portal Satya Hindi about the worship of Gora Devi—a local deity—who is painted onto the wall of the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and is worshipped once a year. During the debate he narrated a story from the book Father and Stones, written by the Gandhian activist Bhogaraju Pattabhi Sitaramayya, about the history of the mosque.

“According to Sitaramayya, Aurangzeb had gone out to visit Banaras with many Rajput kings,” Chandan said. “One evening one of the same kings said that since he was in Banaras he should bathe in the Ganges and visit the temple. When everyone returned after having darshan and bathing in the Ganges, they saw that a queen was missing. When the queen was looked for, she was found in the basement of the temple in a very messy state, as she was raped. Knowing this, Aurangzeb was furious and he ordered the destruction of the temple. A queen requested that a temple should be built there but Aurangzeb issued a decree that the temple cannot be built again, instead I will get the mosque built.” Chandan ensured that he clearly enunciated that this account was from Sitaramayya’s book.

Over the next day, an edited clip of Chandan’s speech, which removed the sections that mentioned Sitaramayya’s book, went viral. On 10 May, when Chandan finished teaching a class, he saw a large crowd outside his building shouting slogans against him. The proctoral board of the university and the police were also there. Chandan went to the proctor’s office while the mob followed, shouting slogans such as “Shoot the traitors of the country.” “I was asked to give my explanation and I came in front of the children and told them that if they watched the whole video, then this misunderstanding will dissipate,” Chand told me. “If your feelings are hurt even after that, then I do regret it. I told them that I would love it if they want to discuss this subject with me. I have never done anything that is unconstitutional. But there were some elements in the crowd gathered there who started pushing. All this was happening in front of the administration itself.”

Chandan told me that the student mob was led by members of the ABVP. Over the next few days, he said, he received several death threats from ABVP members. A complaint against him was submitted by ABVP office-bearers to the Lucknow Police, claiming that he had “hurt the sentiments of Hindus.” On 10 May, Chandan also filed a police complaint that named 12 students, in which he claims that he and his family are in life-threatening danger. The Uttar Pradesh police have registered an FIR against Chandan, charging him under several sections of the Indian Penal Code and the IT Act, which pertain to promoting enmity and provoking a breach of peace. However, they failed to register an FIR against the complaint that Chandan had filed. Atul Kumar Shrivastav—the station house officer of Hasanganj police station, which received both complaints—told me that he was new to the station and did not know about either case. He asked me to contact Aatiq Ahmed, the police officer stationed at the university. Ahmed told me that the police had investigated Chandan’s complaint and submitted their findings but that it was his superiors who would have to take further action.

These three cases show how Uttar Pradesh has a consistent pattern according to which Ambedkarite teachers who are critical of caste superstition and right-wing Hindu readings of history face administrative action and threats from the ABVP. “Such attacks are increasing in universities and colleges,” the Delhi-based senior journalist Urmilesh told me. “Anti-constitutional groups are selectively targeting intellectuals who are against the language of hate and who are engaged in saving society and constitutional democracy. These attacks are taking place to threaten and intimidate those who talk of the Constitution.”