If you are in a university and oppose state policy, you can be targeted: Hany Babu, DU professor

Shaheen Ahmed for The Caravan
29 November, 2019

In the early hours of 10 September 2019, a team of police officials, including personnel from the Pune Police, turned up at the doorstep of Hany Babu MT, an associate professor in the University of Delhi’s English department. They raided his apartment in Noida and seized his laptop, mobile phone and other electronic devices, as well as two books. The raid lasted six hours but according to Babu, the police said they did not have an official search warrant at the time.

The police informed Babu that the search was conducted in connection with the Elgar Parishad and Bhima Koregaon case. They were referring to the arrests of several civil-rights activists and lawyers, who had been accused of involvement in caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra, on 1 January 2018, and of organising the Elgar Parishad, a mass public meeting on the previous day. Police officials across different states have conducted similar raids in connection to this case, including at the homes of K Satyanarayana—an academic at the English and Foreign Languages University Campus in Hyderabad—and Stan Swamy, a priest and Adivasi-rights activist.

Shaheen Ahmed and Maya Palit, the multimedia and books editors at The Caravan, respectively, spoke to Babu about the raid at his house and its aftermath. They also discussed his participation in anti-caste movements and in a committee for the defence of the incarcerated professor GN Saibaba, a Delhi University professor who was arrested in May 2014 on charges of having links to Maoists, and sentenced to life three years later. Situating the raid on his house in a broader moment of attacks on academics across the country, Babu said, “I think this is not an isolated thing, because this whole building up of an atmosphere, of having a negative campaign against people who are active in sociopolitical fields, this has been going on for long.”

Shaheen Ahmed: What happened on 10 September at your house? Had you anticipated the events?
Hany Babu: On the tenth of September, this team of people came to my door early in the morning—they almost woke me up—there were local police, and said they were accompanied by people from Pune. They said they wanted to search my house in connection with this case that is registered in Pune. That is, the Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon case. They asked me whether I knew about the case—I said I do not really know about the case but I know that some people have been arrested already. They said they have to search my house. The search was conducted; they were looking for electronic devices. They seized my laptops, mobile, all pen drives, hard drives, locked my email accounts and also they were interested in books. All the bookshelves, they were checking the titles of each and every book. It was not like a search where they open each bag and check whether I am hiding things. It was very clear that they were interested in seizing some kind of books and electronic material.

Also, the books that they had kept aside, two of them were connected to the defence committee for GN Saibaba. We have brought out a couple of booklets. One [book] had the title Understanding Maoists, by N Venugopal, the other was From Varna to Jati: Political Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation by Yalavarthi Naveen Babu. I wondered why are they taking it, then I realised that Naveen Babu is a known name so it’s very clear that they were looking for books that would show me in a kind of profile. So, I was protesting and saying, “Why don’t you take a photo or an inventory of the books that I have? Why are you selecting these two books and confiscating these? They are not banned books, they are available in the open market. The booklets for the defence committee we distributed freely, so why are you taking these?” It was very clear what they wanted to project.

Maya Palit: Why do you think that you were targeted? Does it have to do with your previous work, as part of the defence committee for Saibaba?
HB: I think this is not an isolated thing because this whole building up of an atmosphere, of having a negative campaign against people who are active in sociopolitical fields and particular ideologies, this has been going on for long. So, obviously, these are clear tactics of intimidation. I was telling them, “If you are interested to know what I am doing, I’m sure you have enough surveillance.” That was before Pegasus has come out. [In late October, news broke that the NSO group, an Israeli firm that only deals with government agencies and its affiliates, had used a spyware tool called Pegasus on WhatsApp for surveilling journalists and human-rights activists in India.] But we already knew that there will be surveillance.

If you seize my laptop and mobile phone, I would say it is more of an intimidation. It is precisely because they know how you can cripple an academic, because the hardship I’m going through now for the last two–three months, without access to teaching or research material, this is actually worse than incarceration. If they had locked me up for a week, two weeks, a month, they could do this search while I am inside. That would have been much better. It’s very clear that they are hunting academics, so there is clearly a project to intimidate and silence people.

The kind of work I am doing, obviously it must have a link to that, because they do not randomly pick people. I think the bulk of my work and engagement has been in issues relating to discrimination, social justice, reservation. But that alone, I am sure, would not have attracted this kind of attention or attack from state agencies. So, there is clearly a kind of message being sent out: that you have to be careful about what kind of activities you are engaged in.

Apart from reservation, another angle which I am working on and have been engaged in is things related to education and education-policy changes. When there was an attempt to launch the four-year undergraduate programme in Delhi University, some of us had very actively opposed it. And we were successful in that. So a lot of my friends also feel the same: given that there is an attempt to overhaul the education policy—maybe not obliterate, but the state universities are being sidelined and there is a watering down of education and maybe scuttling of reservation—all these things are going to come. A lot of changes are going to come, so maybe this is also a kind of signal sent to academics now—I am not saying that it’s attacking me alone—if you are in a university and if you oppose state policy in any way, then you can be targeted.

I can see this now when anything is happening, many of my colleagues and friends in the university are actually thinking twice—earlier they would speak freely against state policy, if there is some change, they would openly attack it. Now they think, “After all, we are government employees.” This concept of being government employees was not there for university teachers, whereas now teachers [think], “Can we criticise the government?” There is this attempt to bring in the civil service—CCS—rules, which govern civil servants. Actually, university teachers are not bound by that. It will basically mean that you cannot oppose the state.

If the raid was about the Elgar Parishad or Bhima Koregaon, I am sure the officers who came know pretty well that I was nowhere in the picture when the meeting was conducted, in preparation for the meeting or after the meeting. I have not even participated in any meetings or corresponded with anyone. Nothing. I am sure they know this. The only connection I kind of see, with some of the people who have also been arrested, is because of my activities with the defence committee. That is what they asked me—very meaningfully they asked, “Do you know Surendra Gadling?” Now Surendra Gadling is a person who has been arrested and he is also the lawyer who was in charge of Saibaba’s case in Nagpur. Obviously I know him because we were part of the defence committee. I have talked to him, called him maybe once or twice. I have also met him once or twice, in Nagpur. I said yes. “Do you know Rona Wilson?” Rona, I also know as a friend. I said, “Yeah, I know him. And so?” After that they do not say anything. Knowing them is enough. By knowing them, with your association with them, you become a suspect for us. They also said that they have some material and I kept asking them, “At least tell me what kind of material, how am I linked to this?” They refused, they kept saying, “We have some material, but we will now look at your records and documents and all and see whether it corroborates. If there is corroboration, we may need to arrest you. Right now we are not arresting you, you are only a suspect, you are not an accused.” So it’s more guilt by association.

The position of law is very clear, there is nothing like guilt by association in our jurisprudence, whereas for the investigating agencies, they work with this. Because if they do not want to punish me, they can very well give me a copy at least, or allow me to take a copy of the material. Let them confiscate my laptop, why can’t they make at least a copy of my material available so that I can work? But very clearly they do not want to do that. They kept on saying that you can get the material in two months. Two months are already over. I am sure if I get it in two years, I would count myself lucky.

MP: Is there a danger that when you get your material back, they will have planted some evidence on it? Is that a concern?
HB: Yeah, obviously, this is one of the things that from day one was there. All our friends also say that we know that investigating agencies do this, it’s not that this is unheard of. Then the burden is on you to prove that it is not your material and the process itself becomes your punishment because it may take years for you to prove that. When they seized the material, they just took it, of course it was sealed and all that but later I realised that they did not give me the hash value. [Hash value is a numeric value that uniquely identifies data. Any change to the data would correspondingly reflect in its hash value.] At that time I did not know, it’s not like I was waiting for them to come and take it. So they seized it, but later when I was talking to friends and lawyers, they asked whether they gave me the hash value. I was told that the hash value will show whether it has been tampered with in any way. What if they have already planted something in it and then say this was there on your device? I cannot rule out that possibility. That will be the worst case scenario. In a half-joking manner, I used to tell my friends that you should not be very surprised if the next assassination letter comes from my computer, maybe they will now say that I am procuring arms or something like that.

SA: You were speaking about the struggle of working without your material. In the aftermath of this incident, has there been solidarity from students or a backlash? What was the variation of responses you faced?
HB: Immediately from students, the department and colleagues; they have been very supportive. The moment this happened, I told my colleagues I have lost my material, the worksheets are not there. Then some of them, on their own, contacted people from previous batches, got whatever copies they had. The support has been overwhelming. I never expected it, because when this was happening, the next day I was just sitting, I was talking to whoever came here. But suddenly people said students are coming forward in support. I never anticipated that kind of thing.

There has not been any negative thing from the department, my colleagues or friends. But I was told that certain kinds of teachers belonging to certain ideologies, especially right-wing groups, have given press statements. I did not see this, but some friends told me that some Hindi newspapers carried reports saying that this DU teacher group had said that the English department’s syllabus is left-wing, radical, because we had a paper on caste.

Interestingly, that paper on caste had to be changed also. They forced us to do that. It was actually proposed as a core paper. It was passed in the English teacher’s general body, it was passed by the committee of courses, it was even passed by the academic council. But after it was passed, ABVP students gheraoed our head, they made the head stop and got assurance from him that they will change it. It was like physical intimidation, he would have been attacked, so finally, even after it was passed—the AC, the VC, everyone said, yeah okay, you can have this—but they said no. They made it an elective paper; some readings had to be changed. A lot of changes were forced. So what’s happening is very clear: it’s not the statutory bodies that decide anymore, it’s muscle power or goons who decide what will be taught. This happened in the English department and the History department. Two department syllabuses which were passed had to be changed. There is a clear nexus between these kinds of academic groups, state agencies [to ensure that] any kind of thinking which will question the so-called Brahminical thought has to be suppressed.

After this [raid], I made it a point to read everything about the Bhima Koregoan case. I even made it a point to get hold of the chargesheet. One interesting thing in the chargesheet is—I do not know the way the police actually word it—this whole thing, how they portrayed this is actually a convergence of the Dalit groups and the Left groups. The chargesheet actually says this, that the Left groups and the Dalit groups together are challenging the Brahminical agenda of the RSS. In court, the public prosecutor said other things, like, “They are building an anti-fascist front.” If there is an anti-fascist front, those people should be commended, it’s a good thing that such a front is coming in a democratic country, but the state sees that as a threat.

After this whole episode, I think two things were successful. One is that academics feel threatened, but more than that, now if there was any kind of synchronisation between different groups, like the Left groups, the Dalit groups, Muslim groups—each one is now scared. As I said, I work with groups that do Dalit politics, reservation issues, political prisoners, so now many of my friends who are in the social-justice forum said that if you associate with the other kinds of activities, this is the danger. So maybe you should not do that. If you attend a meeting on Kashmir, then that becomes like you are immediately labelled and marked. You can come under attack any time. This kind of threat has really crept in.

Ultimately, most people, I think, are happy to work in the peaceful, calm atmosphere of their study rooms rather than coming out on the street. But one of my friends said that when Emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi was surprised that the intelligentsia gave up. She never expected that, she herself had said this, it seems. Similarly, academics generally do not come out and stand up. Of late, we were seeing more and more academics voicing, because the kind of injustices that you see around, it was too much. But now, suddenly there is a clear thing where people say, “Okay, let’s not get into all that, let’s go back to academic work.” But there is no academic work without free thinking. The moment you curb your thought, what kind of academic work are you doing? This is the sad state that we may go into now.

SA: Despite some criticism or condemnation, there has not been a movement in which people have protested the arrests of civil-rights activists. Is that a symptom of the intimidation that has taken place or something else?
HB: There have been two or three meetings which I know have been held in Parliament Street, Jantar Mantar, places like that. But yes, it’s not like there was a mass movement or sustained kind of activity. Even after the raid that happened in my house, there have been meetings within the arts faculty about this and there have been various others with all the student groups also. There are still people. But there was a point when we would ask, who is next? When some of our friends got arrested, we obviously had that kind of feeling. When my house was raided and things were confiscated, many friends from all over said, “Next, it could be us.” That kind of feeling is there but it does not mean that people caved in and gave up. There are voices still, there is that consciousness about resisting, but the fear is increasing.

SA: Various terms have been used against civil-rights activists, even in the Parliament: “anti-national,” “urban naxal,” “tukde tukde gang,” et cetera. What do you think about these terms that have been consistently used to demonise civil-rights activists?
HB: I think name-calling is one of the easiest ways to discredit someone. Even sometimes in court judgments, you find terms like anti-national, although there is no such crime in being “anti-national.” There is no IPC section [Indian Penal Code] or any other that talks about anti-nationals. If you do not stand up when the national anthem is played, you are termed anti-national. Obviously it has a kind of effect, especially when people voice opinions—they know, “If I say this, will I be called anti-national?” The people who do this, in the first place, they have no clear logical argument about why something is anti-national, or what that phrase means.

People who say this say it without understanding what this is. When you term someone anti-national, what is the definition of it? Is it that if you question certain things, you will become anti-national? Who defines the nation? These are things that should be debated. But the people who do this do not want to open this issue. So they have these easy slots, where you can be fixed. They think this is one of the easiest ways to curb different kinds of thinking. One needs to ask this, because it is not that one is bound to be a nationalist, one can be within the nation and not agree with the one particular definition of the nation. This is the spirit which I think they want to check: if you want to promote a nation which is built on Brahminical hegemony, obviously this is not the suitable thing. This is what we are seeing around us.

The Constitution never asks us to become a slave of it. The Constitution is a document that promotes free thinking. It’s not that free thinking means you get to absolute anarchy. By respecting the Constitution, it allows you to go beyond it.

MP: You raised a point about a fear of solidarity between Left and anti-caste movements. Do you think the events that followed Bhima Koregaon served to simultaneously sideline anti-caste movements while also demonising civil-rights activists?
HB: I am a person who is looking for larger solidarities, although it’s not an easy thing. One particular instance where there was a kind of convergence of the Left and Dalit-Bahujan, even minority Muslim movements, was within the Rohith Vemula incident. Even without state interference, there were problems with how it played out. But there was a clear threat felt by the state when this kind of larger solidarity was building. Because if you look at the chargesheet or the so-called letters which they are flashing, other than the ABVP and BJP, everyone is hand-in-glove with each other and everyone is trying to break the state. That’s the kind of picture they are projecting.

The state has obviously felt a threat in this. At the same time, I do not say that solidarity is an easy thing. Because what happens when these forces come together is that the fundamental issues they deal with are of a different nature. For instance, for the anti-caste groups, the struggle for equality is still an unfinished project, that means getting equal opportunities for employment, education, not being discriminated against. This is the biggest struggle for the minority and Dalit-Bahujan groups. For the Left groups, which are by and large driven by upper-caste forces, issues like freedom of expression is a bigger issue.

That’s where I think the Rohith Vemula incident was slightly different because here, the Dalit-Bahujan student group was actually standing for freedom of expression and things like that. In spite of that, it did not develop into a nationwide student movement. It did grow to a certain extent, but immediately the fissures between these groups became evident.

I look for solidarity but I would really doubt whether it can happen unless there is a major change in thinking. This is where I find myself different from many of my friends. Often, I used to go to pro-reservation meetings and struggles related to political prisoners or Kashmir. There are different kinds of friends I have in these different groups. Sometimes I used to wonder, where should I place myself? The first time I saw the people coming together was during meetings after the Rohith Vemula incident. Again, I see with the Elgar Parishad, anti-caste groups are getting wary of other groups: “If we go there, we will also be termed as anti-nationals or Naxals or things like that.” This is a bigger problem.

But it’s obviously not just due to state intervention. The state has obviously acted as a catalyst but even before that there were fissures and differences. We can always struggle for solidarity. Without larger solidarity, I think it’s not possible to have wider movements. Otherwise each group will be struggling in their own pockets. So, one has to build larger solidarities. I think that’s an important exercise that has to be done nevertheless.

This interview has been edited and condensed.