On 21st September 2016, students and teachers of English and Foreign Languages department at Central University of Haryana (CUH), Mahendergarh, performed a play based on Mahasweta Devi’s short story Draupadi. While the actors and organizers were receiving applause from the audience consisting of faculty and students, they were oblivious to the dark designs of Fascist forces that were unfurling behind the stage. RSS and its student wing ABVP mobilized a group of ex-servicemen, Sangh activists and locals to stage a protest against the play. A campaign, selectively utilizing the video recording of the play, was carried out in the Mahendergarh town and nearby villages. The play, which is based on custodial rape and torture of a tribal woman, was portrayed as anti-army and hence as anti-national. The authorities at CUH constituted an enquiry committee immediately against Dr Ms Snehsata and Dr Mr Manoj Kumar of the department of English, and the report is awaited.
A fact-finding team comprising teachers, students and activists from Delhi visited the Central University of Haryana (CUH), Mahendergarh campus on 20th October. The team met students and teachers who took part in the play. The team also met the Head of the Department of English and Foreign Languages and some faculty members from other departments. Attempts to meet the Vice Chancellor and the protestors could not materialise for different reasons.
To understand the 21st September incident and also the developments after the 21st September programme, we must first take a detour. We shall discuss (i) the academic-administrative atmosphere of the University as emerged from our discussion with students and teachers and (ii) some incidents in the last two years that are precursors of the recent attack.
Academic-administrative atmosphere of the University
The 21st September incident has a national and a local character. While the national character is similar to the Sangh design that we saw in Hyderabad Central University and in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the local character is specific to the academic-administrative environment of CUH.
CUH is one of the 15 new central universities that was established during the previous UPA regime. It is situated at Jant-Pali, about 10 km from Mahendergarh town. Barren common land of two panchayats was acquired for the campus. About 25 departments have started their academic programmes in which about 1500 students are enrolled. Most of the students are from Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi; yet the student-body is quite diverse, with sizeable representations from Kashmir, Kerala and Bihar. There are two hostels – one for boys and one for girls. The University shifted to the current campus in 2013 after functioning from a temporary structure in Narnaul.
Universities are space for learning, discussions and debates where new ideas and ideologies are formed and popular narratives are challenged and reshaped. A democratic polity, both academic and non-academic, is a pre-condition for germination of ideas and transmission of knowledge. Although current education policy pays lip service to research and knowledge development as the key objective (this pretention is shed in the proposed education policy which considers skill formation as the main objective), it is suspicious of a democratic space and try to limit it in every possible way. While old universities, particularly the elite ones were fortunate to have the luxury of some democratic space and are still resisting curbs thanks to students and teachers collective action, the new universities have become the laboratory for neo-liberal education policies. All of these new central universities adopted contractual, temporary employment of teachers and staff for many years.
In CUH, every event, both academic and non-academic, require sanction from the authority. Teachers coordinating a programme are expected to show scripts to the Head of the Department. For University authorized programme, attendance is mandatory for students and teachers, irrespective of their interest and need. Teachers are even served with show-cause notices, if they fail to show up. Examination paper setting and grading are done by external evaluators, which is unheard of in any post-graduate institute in any part of the world. In CUH, students are treated like juveniles at best and prison inmates at worst. Hostels have a curfew time of 10 pm and girls’ students have to make entries in the register every time they step outside the hostel – even when they are going to attend lectures. We heard anecdotes like that of a student missing her competitive examination because the University authority was unwilling to give her permission to leave the campus at 6 am. When students protested a fee-hike in 2015, they were not only threatened with strict disciplinary actions, parents were also called and were told that their sons and daughters are involved in ‘illegal activities’. Teachers were also instructed to ‘control’ their PhD student, so that any deviant or her supervisor can be penalized for challenging the authority. Students and teachers are denied access to Facebook through the University wi-fi. The authority even filed police complaint against a Facebook page, which was posting comments sympathetic to students. It is needless to say that neither students, nor academic and non-academic staff has a union, very much in the pattern of the new Central Universities. It is also reported that the VC has terminated the contract of twelve teachers on the Independence Day i.e. 15th August 2016, a gazetted holiday.
Sangh control over CUH
However, a lack of union does not imply absence of political control over the university. In March this year, the University organized a programme where a local Sangh functionary delivered a speech on ‘nationalism’; praised the University authority for disrupting a candle-lit march for Rohit Vemula and was felicitated by the Vice-Chancellor by presenting a sword. As usual, attendance was compulsory for all teachers and students. One month before this event, a group of CUH students held a silent, candle-lit march to protest Rohit Vemula’s death. ABVP members armed with sticks and rods threatened the students with violence and subsequently filed a police complaint about ‘anti- national activities’ on campus.
To stir up jingoism and to settle petty scores, ABVP affiliated students spread rumours about Kashmiri students chanting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogan during the 2015 cricket World Cup. In 2014, ABVP activists disrupted the screening of ‘Ram ke naam’, a documentary on Babri Masjid destruction and subsequent riot perpetrated by Sangh organizations, by cutting the electric line of the auditorium. All these could not have been possible without tacit and explicit collusion of the university administration. We were told that the last couple of Vice-Chancellors have gone overboard to please the current political masters and Sangh functionaries. It has been alleged that regular RSS Shakhas are organized inside the university campus. Even when there are no student organisations officially, some erstwhile students allegedly belonging to ABVP have maintained their presence on campus by running the canteen in the University.
SPECIFICS OF THE EVENT AND LATER DEVELOPMENTS
Approval of the programme
The programme “Shradhanjali : A Tribute to Mahasweta Devi” was initiated by Head of the Department and duly sanctioned and approved by the higher authorities, i.e. the Registrar and the Vice-Chancellor. Dr. Sanjiv Kumar, the HoD, assigned the duty of coordination of the programme to Dr. Manoj Kumar and Dr. Snehsata. The whole programme was organized, rehearsed and performed under the supervision and guidance of the Head of the Department. Moreover, the date of the programme was also finalized by the HoD in consultation with the VC. The programme was scheduled much prior to 21st September by the department coordinators, but it was postponed on multiple occasions to suit the convenience of higher authorities including the VC
English Department of CUH conducted a program in which they performed a drama followed by a screening. This was done under the guidance of Dr Snehsata and Dr Manoj. The program was divided into two sessions.
In the first part there was welcome address by Prof Sanjiv Kumar, a monoact by a student, speech by Prof Bir Singh Yadav, presentation on Draupadi by a student and the play. The drama was adapted from the text of Mahasweta Devi (a short story about Dopdi Mejhen, translated under the title ‘Draupadi’) as a tribute to her public life and writings, that included a prologue and an epilogue written by Dr Snehsata which tried to compare the text with the present scenario. First part went well. Everybody congratulated the teachers and the students. The Registrar and the HoD (English) who gave permission for this program were also very much present there.
In the second half they screened the movie, “Hazaar chaurasi ki maa”. By then ABVP activists called the media and started protesting the content of the play, saying that it is against Indian culture and portrays army people as rapists, etc. A video of a part of the play was circulated among the ABVP people and they appropriated the part of the ‘senanayak’ as Indian Army and misled the villagers. In the subsequent protests, one of the posters depicted the photo of an army man with the caption “my father is not a rapist”.
The situation remained tense and it was rumored that a police complaint was filed on that very day against the teachers and that an internal inquiry committee was also constituted by the university.
On 22nd September, the local protestors filed a police complaint against the VC, Registrar, Dr. Sanjiv Kumar HoD, Dr. Manoj Kumar and Dr. Snehsata. However, the university issued show cause letters to the coordinators Dr. Manoj Kumar and Dr. Snehsata in reaction to this protest. It seems the HoD was included in the very first inquiry committee. Later, on objection, his name was removed from the inquiry committee.
A Press Conference took place in the university, the reporting of which were only partial and biased.
Later, Dr Snehsata and Dr Manoj were called before the enquiry committee that held its meeting at the Gurgaon office of CUH on 4th October. Manoj was asked questions for around 20 minutes and Snehsata for 40 minutes.
On 17th October, a Mahadharna was being organized by the local people and ABVP/RSS functionaries. Around 300-400 people were there. They were told that the decision of the enquiry committee will be given after one week.
Local protestors also burned the effigy of the VC to put pressure on him. They were continuing their dharna outside the gate of the university.
After that, a meeting was called by VC with the teachers in which they were told to take permissions for everything. They were informed by the authorities that even for going out from the university premises they have to give the details in written form; whatever they will be going to say in a speech or a program they have to submit it in writing and must provide each and every detail of the program. After all this, it was told that if anything happens it will be one’s own responsibility. There are proposals to have each class room and even the residential area under CCTV camera surveillance.
Later, we were alerted by certain other developments that happened in CUH after our visit. They are crucial for the true record of events. Dr Snehsata and Dr Manoj were summoned by the enquiry committee on two days without prior notice and questioned. The chairmanship of the committee was in new hands (as Prof B S Dahiya was replaced ostensibly for health reasons by Prof Sukhbir Singh from Osmania University). These two meetings also happened without the only woman member of the enquiry committee, Prof Malashri Lal. The conduct of the enquiry committee was extremely disconcerting and aggressive, and both the teachers under enquiry felt that they were insulted and berated during the questioning. The teachers were told that they were wrong in making a connection between fiction in the text and reality outside the text, and the very fact that they added and performed a prologue and epilogue proved their political intention and culpability.
INPUTS GIVEN BY THE STUDENTS AND TEACHERS
Our team went to Haryana and tried talking to the students and teachers of Central University of Haryana(CUH). After the incident of 21st September there is a strange silence surrounding the University. Everyone is mum about the issue. There are many questions rising in the minds of students and teachers. The dilemma on their faces is quite clear. They are not able to decide what their response should be towards the play which they had appreciated once. Should the stand in support or opposition? Should they stand with the accused teachers and students or desert them to save themselves? In spite of this challenging situation, we managed to talk to few teachers and students and gather a true picture of the entire scenario. Majority of the people we spoke to were who either directly participated in the play or stood in solidarity with it.
The first person we spoke to was a teacher from the Law Department. She was disappointed at the silence of other teachers and behavior of the V.C. According to her, “The University is being run like a school. Teachers are sent notice to explain their behavior at the slightest provocation. We are forced to live in an environment of fear and oppressive restrictions. In such a scenario, teachers refrain from speaking against the administration to escape being targeted. Everyone agrees at the wrong handling of the incident by the administration but no one wants to raise voice. It is difficult for anyone to wage a lone fight.”
Another faculty from the Law department joined in and spoke elaborately on the issue. He pointed out that in the garb of Nationalism and Army, these people want to fulfill their greed. He said, “Many activists of ABVP who personally think it is wrong to oppose the play are publicly doing it to gain political mileage in their parties. Most of the people participating in the protests are not just from RSS but from parties like congress as well. Immediately after the incident, a leader of NSUI contacted us to know about the incident and extended solidarity. But the next day, an ex-MLA of congress, staged a protest against us. NSUI wanted to support us for their political benefits but when they realized opposing us is more beneficial than supporting us, they immediately changed their stance. No one wants to clear the air of jingoism spread by RSS. Everybody has readily accepted their rhetoric of jingoism without any fight”. This teacher also pointed out the false rumours being spread by RSS. He said, “Members of RSS are spreading false rumours that beef was also served during the programme. It is being propagated in the villages through Mike that the play insulted the army and “ surgical strikes”. Truth of the matter is that the play was staged on 21st September whereas surgical strike took place on 28th September! How can the play insult an incident which took place a week later ? Lies are being spread about students and teachers as well. One of the co-ordinators of the play who has taught in Chhattisgarh for 6 years is being maligned as a Naxalite.”
Teachers pointed out that they are not only targeted but some have had to face the brunt of character assassination, where personal, private matters of individuals (caste, inter caste marriage, etc) are made part of the vilification campaigns.
Dr Manoj Kumar, who is facing the enquiry pointed out that a few villagers were also called during the enquiry. None of them were present when the play was being staged. “The performance of the play was just an attempt to pay tributes to Mahasweta Devi and to make a better understanding of the short story ‘Draupadi’. It inculcates the idea of students’ involvement in extracurricular activities which catalyse their holistic development. This was one of the creative and innovative practices adopted by the coordinators of the programme”. He also added that the short story has been included in the curriculum under the title Breast Stories which was approved in the Board of Studies, Academic Council and Executive Council. Instead of traditional lecture method, enactment of text(s) is a more creative and innovative approach in teaching-learning process. If the enactment of the story is questionable then the study of this story in classroom situation is also debatable. When there is such rampant encroachment of academic autonomy, many texts of English Literature like Sons and Lovers can be considered dubious and then it will be very difficult to teach them in the class in this shrunken atmosphere of academic freedom.
Dr Snehsata, who is also facing the attacks and enquiry spoke to us about the incident and its aftermath. She shared, “I always wanted to do something for women since my college days. I wanted to raise issues faced by them. After becoming a professor, I wanted to do this through the play. Through the character of “Dopdi”, I was trying to raise the issue of women. I wanted to show the cruelty people face in Kashmir and Manipur and how women in these places invariably suffer the most. Everyone is accusing me of insulting the army while no one is talking about the central theme of the play which is “Rape” and gender violence. It is to be noted that not a single woman is part of the protests organized against us. The administration is pressurizing me to apologise but I will not step back. I have not done anything wrong. When my family came to know about the issue, my father was initially really disappointed. But after I made him read Mahasweta Devi’s short story, he has stood with me. Most of the people are not even aware about the issue properly. Even the people joining the protests on call of ABVP are being misled by lies propagated by them.”
On talking to teachers we also came to know that University space is also being used by RSS to run shakha. 10-15 boys of nearby villages participate in it. When one of the teacher raised objection, the administration just brushed the matter under the carpet. CUH administration is clearly working in collaboration with RSS. This is exposed from the fact that the video of the play being circulated by RSS among various people was taken from the camera arranged by the administration. One need not wonder from where RSS members accessed the video!
After talking to the teachers we tried talking to students. With the help of teachers, we managed to speak to 10-12 students. All of them were students of English Department. The HOD of English Department and another teacher from the department were also part of their meeting. The HOD was the first person to speak. He said, “After the incident, all the local newspapers are publishing just one side of the story. A part from a few English daily’s, almost all are speaking the language of RSS. To make public our stance on the matter, we even called a press conference but none of the newspapers reported about it the next day. If people get to know just one side of the story, how will they judge ?” The HOD proclaimed that he was in solidarity with the students and teachers and was also strangely optimistic about the possible outcome of the enquiry. But as soon as he left, people spoke otherwise. They said that ever since the matter blew up, the HOD has been toeing the line of the administration to save himself. This is the reason why some of the teachers in the meeting did not speak. They are not even sure if there is any enquiry against the HOD though he was summoned by the committee.
Despite the presence of the HOD, few students were vocal about their opinion. One such girl, who lived in Mahendergarh said, “Most of the boys protesting against us (who are also from ABVP) are from my place. I know most of them. After the incident, some of them even requested me to join the protests. But I have seen the play and I liked it a lot. I strongly refused to be a part of the protests. I asked them not be a part of the protest but they refused to listen to me. They have got an opportunity to build their political career through this incident that’s why they do not want to miss this chance. These boys never raise issues of poverty, land and unemployment prevalent in our village. For them the play is not at fault. One of them even threatened, “We might leave everyone but we will not leave the boy who played the role of an army man (They were referring to a muslim student who played the role of an army man). During the entire conversation, there was a shadow of fear on the face of this boy. After repeated questioning by the team, he finally managed to share his experience. He said, “I am especially being targeted after the incident due to my muslim identity. I have not been attacked directly but there is an environment of fear. I do not go outside the University. Some of my friends and teachers have advised me to not step out till things calm down.”
Another girl who acted a major character said, “ My father is in the Navy. We were trying to pay homage to Mahasweta Devi through this play. It was not our intention to insult army. But few people were purposely blowing the matter out of proportion. Everyone in my family is tensed. There is tremendous pressure from my family as well.” On being asked the reaction of family members regarding the incident, most of the students said that their families are pressurizing them to stay away from the entire matter. But one of the students, who played a role shared a different experience. He said, “When my father got to know about the incident, he asked me not to betray my friends”. Many students are also troubled by the apolitical environment of the campus. Due to the administration’s attitude, there is a dearth of vibrant debates and discussions and progressive consciousness among the university community. Students do not have a right to build organizations. While ABVP openly violates all these rules and the administration takes no action against them.
One of the students who did not speak out openly during the meeting shared later on that there is a stifling environment in the campus. She also said, “it is necessary to resist the forces standing against the play. We cannot go and explain things to each and every individual. They are organised. Even we have to be orgainsed to fight them. I will fight with all my will and as much as I can.” After our visit, we have received news of many students (and even the student council)coming out in public and writing to the authorities in favour of the teachers facing enquiry and also asserting their academic freedom in the light of the attempts to silence critical inquiry in the university.
PROCEDURE AND OTHER ASPECTS OF THE ENQUIRY
From our perusal of ‘limited’ documents available, notwithstanding the extreme secrecy of the university authorities about all matters related to this enquiry, we could establish only the following.
- The terms of reference and the nature and scope of the enquiry were not given to the teachers summoned/show-caused
- There was no notice of any public sitting by the committee that could facilitate deposition of interested people in the university/public who witnessed the performance
- The summoning of the teachers on consecutive days after our visit was without due notice
- The non-presence of the only woman member of the committee in the final sittings of the enquiry committee at Mahendergarh; and this raises serious questions about rule and propriety of the whole exercise
- 5. The committee did not interact with the students who performed ‘Draupadi’ even once
- Even as we question the motive of the enquiry ordered under pressure by the authority, it is difficult not to notice the selective targeting of the two teacher-coordinators. Though summoned by the committee, the Head of the Department is curiously kepts out of the ambit of the enquiry whereas from what we know the local protestors had filed a police complaint against the VC, Registrar, HoD, Dr. Manoj Kumar and Dr. Snehsata.
CONCLUSION AND RECOMMENDATIONS
“Life is not mathematics and the human being is not made for the sake of politics. I want a change in the present social system and do not believe in mere party politics.” Mahasweta Devi
It is important to recollect what the great Mahasweta Devi stated in Agnigarbha (Womb of Fire), where the story in question was first published, in the context of the happenings at CUH. There is an organised, orchestrated campaign afoot to vilify, victimise and terrorise students and teachers of CUH who performed the adaptation. While the immediate goal (political mileage and standing at the local level) and targets (teachers and students who are critical of establishment) of the campaigners are clear, we also want to state that they have a larger objective of achieving the same paralysing effect across the universities in the country and among the general public. Of course, this campaign feeds into the paranoid fault lines of nationalism that erupted after the JNU incident. But it also reminds of many well-documented instances of fascist terror in the academia (MSU Baroda Fine Arts Faculty incident, where the Sangh Parivar protested against paintings that were part of the annual exam; removal of text books from syllabi in Delhi University and Mumbai University; to recall a few) and outside (censoring of Perumal Murugan, murders of Narendra Dhabolkar, Gobind Pansare and MM Kalburgi).
The prime movers outside the university are the ABVP/RSS/BJP camp, who incidentally also enjoys support from the local NSUI/Congress leadership as they have successfully wrested the controversy as an opportunity of majoritarianism. This campaign is remarkable for its misogyny, patriarchal values and caste and communal bias, and the unquestioning acceptance by the local public. Inside the University, a pliant authority that readily succumbs to the diktats of the ruling dispensation is brazenly violating all norms of procedure, fairness and justice. The university authorities have repeatedly compromised academic freedom of the community and can be seen bending over backwards to please the government. They have conducted a kangaroo court at the behest of a mob against two of their teachers who critically engaged with the text and context of our lives. This we fear will become a template in the coming days, and the fact that fascism in history always targeted universities and institutions of learning right in the beginning doesn’t bode well to anyone who believes in democracy.
To come to the nitty-gritty of the present enquiry, we can only hazard a guess about the findings of the enquiry committee. Dr Snehsata and Dr Manoj Kumar are likely to be implicated and found guilty, as the modus operandi indicate – they have been asked about presence/absence of inverted commas in the script; told that they are wrong to adapt a short story into a play; questioned about taking permission from the author/publisher for this in-house academic production while completely missing the point that the now-deceased celebrated author would have been the first person to applaud a retelling that connects the text to the contemporary. The committee it seems has been belaboring about the subversiveness of the epilogue (‘added’ by one of the teachers) and the senanayak being termed a pseudo-intellectual. When they found that “Inquilaab Zindabaad” is translated as “Long live revolution”, one of the members of the committee accused the teacher of hinting/acknowledging the October Revolution. With such flagrant displays of academic (mis)understanding, we can only expect a certain kind of report from this committee.
After perusing the entire script, we found the prologue also quite interesting: “Draupadi, Draupadi …is about many things. It’s about the powerful capitalistic structure which crushes the poor to such an extent that the poor has no option but to rebel against it. Draupadi is about the partiality of the State that is almost always on the side of the powerful. But apart from everything else, Draupadi is about Dopadi, Dopadi Mahejan, the indomitable spirit.”
It then exhorts people to see the play and find out what else is there, which we could do by virtue of uploaded videos on youtube. In the epilogue, a lot of statistical detailing is made about extra judicial killings, encounter deaths, AFSPA, rapes and crimes against women perpetrated and abetted by the different arms of the state with data culled out from various sources. In our reading of the script and videographed performance, this data serves as a means of correlating the ‘fiction’ of the text with the reality of our lived lives; an integral aspect of any engagement with what we call as literature.
As a fact-finding team, we believe that our job is also to tell you that it is not just the two teachers, whose indomitable spirit and courage we were witness to, or a few students who are under the scrutiny – Mahasweta Devis are under trial, Dopdi Mejhens are under trial, all democratic-minded people are under trial. Academic and political freedom, justice – all empowering values of our constitutional covenant are under trial.
Our specific recommendations include:
- Scrapping of the motivated enquiry in toto
- Exoneration of the show-caused teachers
- Democratisation of CUH that enables academic and political freedom to engage critically with all issues