ABOUT ELEVEN YEARS AGO, in November 2008, students of Delhi University organised a seminar titled “Communalism, Fascism, Democracy Rhetoric and Reality” in Room Number 22 of the Faculty of Arts building. The talk was to be headed by Syed Abdul Rehman Geelani, a Kashmiri Muslim professor who taught Arabic in the university.
There were few people in the country more suited to speak on the topic. Geelani had been sentenced to death in December 2002 by a court for his alleged role in the attack on the Indian parliament the previous year. A sordid media trial had declared him a terrorist even before the court’s verdict. But, in the course of the next three years, the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court acquitted him of all charges. At the event, Geelani was going to relate his persecution at the hands of a repressive state machinery and its communalist rhetoric.
On a raised platform, behind a large desk sat the speakers—seated next to Geelani was a 21-year-old Umar Khalid, who would later come into limelight after he was charged with sedition during the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University controversy, and the journalist Rajesh Ramachandran, currently the editor of The Tribune.
Minutes after Geelani took his place at the dais, a student walked up to the desk and leaned in, as if he was trying speak to Geelani. As Geelani too leaned in, the student, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s youth wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, spat twice on Geelani. The professor flinched, but then slowly moved back in his chair.
This was a planned disruption. ABVP members in the audience rose up and began loudly abusing Geelani and the other speakers. Undeterred by the ruckus, Geelani started his talk. The ABVP members then began vandalising the room, and some physically attacked the speakers. The then president of ABVP, Nupur Sharma, who would go on to contest an assembly election on a Bharatiya Janata Party ticket against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, walked in and declared that Geelani could not speak in the university.