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.