The English department of Ramjas College and Wordcraft, its literary society, first conceptualised “Cultures of Protest: A Seminar Exploring Representations of Dissent” in October 2016. The organising committee for the event, a team of over 20 members of which I was a part, comprised undergraduate students and faculty members who were eager to explore and engage with the idea of dissent. During the several meetings that the organising committee held over five months, we carefully chose the names of the speakers we would invite, and zealously debated the issues we would cover. These included, but were not restricted to: resistance movements in academic spaces; the political expression of marginalised communities; and the state’s role in conflict regions. Our meetings would elbow their way into our classes and our afternoon sessions would often stretch into late evenings. The seminar, which was slated for 21 and 22 February 2017, consisted of eight panels and close to two dozen speakers. Through the event, we hoped to understand the modes of protest that were employed to articulate political resistance. We planned feverishly, determined to host a seminar that would spur critical thinking and conversations on the subjects we were highlighting. Unfortunately, the event never reached its logical conclusion. The seminar, which was meant to be a discourse on dissent, became a site at which we were forced to defend the right to dissent instead.
On 21 February, I reached campus at around 9 am, half an hour before the first session, “Bodies in Protest: At the Interstices of Gender/Sexuality” was scheduled to begin. Two police officers stood outside the campus gate. I went to the registration desk, and was standing there with a few other students, when one of the officers came inside. Addressing no one in particular, he said that he had heard that one of the speakers at the event was Umar Khalid—a PhD scholar from the Jawaharlal Nehru University who was arrested on charges of sedition in February 2016. (No charge sheet has been filed in the case till now.) We had invited Umar, who is working on a dissertation with a focus on tribal communities, along with the filmmaker Sanjay Kak and the academician A Bimol Akoijam, to be a part of the panel titled “Unveiling the State: Regions in Conflict,” which was scheduled for 1.30 pm that day. I responded to the police officer in the affirmative, adding that perhaps we would need the protection of the police to ensure that the discussion was not disrupted. “Protection chhodo, pehle permission kahaan he yeh batao”—Forget protection, first tell me where your permission is, he said. Within earshot of this exchange was Professor Mukul Mangalik, an associate professor of history at Ramjas College, and a speaker at the seminar. He walked over. Professor Mangalik attempted to reason with the police officer, arguing that the seminar’s organising committee had obtained the approval of the principal of Ramjas for its programme. He added that both Umar and Shehla Rashid—a student from JNU and the former vice-president of the JNU Students’ Union, whose name came up during the conversation, and who had also been invited to speak at the event—were citizens of India too, and that it was unfair to scrutinise their invitations. “Aise deshdrohi kaam aap karoge, toh bacche bhi yahi seekhenge”—If you commit anti-national activities such as this, then the children will learn this too, the police officer said.
Nevertheless, Professor Mangalik persisted, and the officer eventually gave in. However, he was visibly upset, and glared at us. When I expressed some discomfort with his intimidating posture, he said, “Hum dhamka nahi rahein hai, bas dekh rahein hain”—We are not threatening you, just looking at you. By this point, a small crowd had gathered around us. I realised as I scanned the group that these were students who were associated with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student affiliate.
It was evident that the seminar had begun on a hostile note. A group of agitated students representing the ABVP, had collected outside and within the campus, many of them brandishing lathis. While I recognised some of these students, many did not seem familiar, and were not from Ramjas. The number of police officers around and within the campus grew; several were stationed near the conference room, the venue for the seminar. Things came to a head at around 11.15 am. Professor Mangalik, Professor Vinita Chandra and Professor Nellickal Abraham Jacob—an associate professor and an assistant professor and in the department of English, respectively—went to meet Rajendra Prasad, the principal of Ramjas, along with a police officer, to discuss the situation. According to a person who was aware of the proceedings of the meeting, Yogit Rathi, who is a member of the ABVP and the president of the Ramjas students’ union, had presented the principal with a memorandum, demanding that Umar’s name be dropped from the event. All three faculty members, I was told, argued for the inclusion of both Umar and Shehla. However, the police officer stated that the police would be unable to provide protection either for the two speakers, or for the attendees. Professor Prasad, along with the faculty members conceded, and agreed to drop Umar from the list. Yogit was called into the office. When he came in, the person said, he had a new demand. He wanted Shehla’s invitation to be revoked as well.
News of this meeting spread rapidly within the campus. Those who sided with the ABVP were jubilant, while several among us, who were either attendees or a part of the organising committee, were left dejected. By this time, the second session, on “Mapping Subaltern Resistance from Pre-Modern to Modern Times,” had ended. Around 150-170 of us—including speakers from the event, members of the audience and students and staffers from the college—spontaneously decided to protest the decision to exclude Umar and Shehla by marching around the campus to the venue of seminar. We chanted slogans such as, “Humein Chahiye Azaadi” (We want freedom), “Inquilab Zindabaad” (Long live the revolution), “Delhi Police Hai Hai” (Down with the Delhi Police) and Gundagardi Nahi Chalegi (Hooliganism will not be tolerated). As we approached the conference room, we realised that members of the ABVP and those protesting with them had occupied it. We formed a human chain and tried to enter the venue peacefully, but they attempted to break the chain. They then began hitting those who were a part of the formation. Some of them had also gotten access to the rooftop of the college canteen, from where they threw what seemed to be steel pipes and fragments of wood, injuring a few people. One of the men who was with the ABVP members approached me. He tried to grab me by the collar, and when I ducked, he bent down and slapped me across the face. A faculty member who was standing on my left helped me get up. While the human chain was pushing forward, the man disappeared.