Spotlight

Hands Off Our Classrooms

A statement of support

by Atindriyo Chakraborty.

Republished with permission from Countercurrents, Nov 15, 2020

Shilpa Singh is a 31-year-old professor of Political Sciences in VM Salgaocar College of Law, Goa (VMSCL). Since June 2019, she has been teaching this discipline to students of the BA-LLB Course that this college offers. Being a progressive individual and thoroughly well-versed in her academic discipline, she introduces students to modern day progressive notions of liberty and equality, while pointing out the evils of conservative practices involving race, caste and religion that prevail today.

Screenshot of recent post by Shilpa Singh on her Facebook page

Her critiques are, by no stretch of imagination, merely her own opinions but are based on discourses grounded thoroughly in pedagogy. She bases them on the works of eminent scholars such as D.D. Kosambi, and Debiprasad Chattopadhyay. She has lectured on the divergent political thinking of M.K. Gandhi and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on the caste question, on the notions of casteism, patriarchy and misogyny deeply entrenched therein and on how the dogmatic religious practices that ensue from such notions have generated deep fault-lines in our society. She speaks of Rohit Vemula, Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar at the hands of the dominant Brahminical forces that uphold and celebrate patriarchy and the caste system to divide and rule.

It goes without saying that these have touched raw nerves among a segment of her students, who have been exposed to relentless saffron-Fascist, pro-Hindutva propaganda. Some of them have recorded her lectures without her knowledge or consent,  edited the content to take her statements out of their political context and used them to establish a case of being ‘anti-religious’ against her, in a pattern typical of divisive elements, xenophobes and supremacists of the world, who rely heavily on their religions to uphold racism, casteism and patriarchy.

On October 19, 2020, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) sent a two-page letter, signed by Prabha Naike, the ABVP Joint Secretary for Konkan, to the Principal of VMSCL, seeking Professor Shilpa Singh’s “instant termination” of , alleging that she creates a “socially disturbing environment for students”, “creating disrupts (sic) among the students and promoting a socially hateful thoughts (sic)”, further alleging her teachings to be “anti-religious”. The crux of allegations against her was that of “creating disharmony by hurting religious sentiments”. Through this letter, the ABVP gave an ultimatum to the college administration to have her sacked within 24 hours, threatening ‘severe agitation’ otherwise.

The allegations put forth in the letter by the ABVP are all vague and indeterminate. It does not point towards any specific incident. Neither does it refer to any speech given by her outside the classroom or any post uploaded by her on any social media platform. One particular phrase that stands out is that “apparently she has been recorded while giving hateful speeches”.

This indicates that one or more persons present in her classroom recorded her lectures in secret. That clearly does not bother the ABVP, because for the right wing Hindutva power-lobby that rules the roost and runs riot in the dominant discourses of polity and the society of India today, committing crimes – be it secretly recording classroom proceedings of a lecturer from VMSCL, Goa (whose political ideology is antagonistic to theirs), or, say, effectuating the disappearance of a student in JNU, Delhi (whose religion and political standpoint had been offensive to the Fascists in  power) are considered  laudable patriotic acts.

The reply by Prof. Singh to this letter, submitted to the college administration on 26th October 2020 identify these issues, and also points out the well-established due process of internal grievance redressal of the college as the appropriate forum to take such issues up.

The VMSCL authorities have refused to give in to these demands of the ABVP, and Prof Singh has received support from many young progressive scholars from her institution and beyond. Academics from different institutions in Goa have written to the VMSCL in her support.

The formal response of the college, prepared through a three-member inquiry committee formed subsequent to the letter by ABVP, signed by the Principal of the VMSCL and dated 30th October 2020, seeks to uphold due process and rule of law against the undemocratic demand made by the ABVP. The authorities have made it clear that the ABVP has no locus standi in this matter. They have asked the ABVP to give evidence in support of their claims and have also to identify the students who have unethically recorded her lectures without her permission. The college administration itself has identified such acts of recording classroom lectures of a teacher without her consent as a breach of code of conduct for students and is conducting an inquiry on how and by whom such secret clips were recorded. This presents a silver lining amidst all the gloom unleashed by saffron terror in India.

However, this letter by ABVP was ‘leaked’ on Facebook by representatives of the saffron right-wing. A certain Rajiv Jha, whose Facebook profile says he is the Goa General Secretary of a far-right Hindutva outfit called the Rashtriya Yuva Hindu Vahini (RYHV), wrote to the Panjim Police, Cyber Crime Cell Ribandar and Vasco police station to register an FIR against Prof. Singh, identifying a Facebook post by her dated April 21, 2020 – where she had criticized the patriarchy and misogyny embedded in the Hindu wedding custom of the Mangalsutra – a thread worn by the wife around her neck signifying eternal servitude to the husband – to be allegedly incriminatory. In that post she had written: “I don’t know since childhood I see chained dog when I see women in mangalsutra and I see covered electronics in Indian middle class households when I see woman in Hijab/Burkha.”

Many Facebook profiles with out and out pro Hindutva propaganda latched on to the issue. Video clips of her lectures, taken in secret, snipped and edited to strip the same of context were circulated widely and the Facebook post made by her on April 21, 2020 was also shared and attacked on Facebook. Facebook/social media posts clamouring for mob-justice against her were put up and they were consequently greeted with abusive, vile, patriarchal responses from right-wing supporters, demanding that Prof. Singh be assaulted, tarred with black paint etc along with other unmentionable, threatening insults aimed at her womanhood.

Professor Singh subsequently came to know from media reports and from her friends and colleagues that a police complaint was registered based on her Facebook post. The complainant, Rajiv Jha himself, had shared her Facebook post, unleashing a vitriolic tirade against her and tagging around 70 profiles belonging to Hindutva fundamentalists. These are events unfolding a good six months after she had made the allegedly incriminatory post.

Rajiv Jha has uploaded his police complaint, dated October 29, 2020 and addressed to the Cyber Crime Cell of the Panaji Police Station, through his Facebook profile. Based on this complaint, an FIR was lodged against Prof. Singh under Section 295A of the IPC, that penalises hurting religious sentiments.  It appears there is a gestation period for religious sentiments of Hindutva Fascists to get hurt – after the modus operandi of targeting and harassing the victim, the demonised Other, the entity or individual that poses a challenge to their hegemony has been chalked out in detail.

These actions by Rajiv Jha, as he claims in an interview given to the Indian Expresses, have received support from other far right Hindutva outfits such as Parshuram Gomantak Sena and Brahmin Parishad.

In that interview, Mr. Jha identifies himself as a practicing Hindu Brahmin, states that Prof. Singh should have kept her views to herself, calls her Hindu-phobic and accuses her of insulting Hindu gods and goddesses through her social media posts.

Those among us who use Facebook are well aware of the presence of such profiles and their close connection with the IT Cell of the BJP. As for this Rashtriya Yuva Hindu Vahini, a quick online search reveals their mission. Such factions – inevitably operative in close connection with more prominent members of the Sangha Parivar such as the RSS – have mushroomed in our country through the past decades. A little raking up of public memory is bound to remind us of one such group, Abhinav Bharat and their direct role in the Malegaon blasts.

Coming back to RYHV, a simple online search reveals that this organisation has, much to the dismay of the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, ripped off even the name of the organisation from that of Ajay Singh Bisht alias Yogi Adityanath’s Hindu Yuva Vahini.  As for the activities of its members, it has been put on record that when the UP President of the RHYV was arrested on charges of molestation and attempted murder, he had sloganeered – ‘Jai Shree Ram!’. As the ongoing hero-worship of Shambhulal Regar as well as of the Hathras rapists reveal, such miscreants not only receive support from the Hindutva-Fascist powers that be, but they are lauded by the same.  It is no wonder that groups with office-bearers of such disrepute would be up in arms against women who resist casteism, patriarchy and misogyny, as Prof Singh had done through her writing and teaching.

According to an interview of Prof. Singh published by Rediff News on November 04, 2020, ever since this planned and targeted harassment has been unleashed, she has faced serious social ostracization.  She has been in agony and the ordeal has cost her her peace of mind. However, many students, colleagues and friends have expressed support and solidarity. Prof. Singh has said that the ABVP (or any other organisation) has no locus standi to dictate what may be taught in the classroom, likened the modus operandi taken by the right wing outfits on this issue to kangaroo courts and Khap Panchayats, and has pointed out how this ‘irrational regressive political vendetta’  and ‘witch hunt’, the purpose of which is to undermine her dignity as a teacher by making such scurrilous allegations, and has further identified these actions as amounting to the ‘muzzling of academic freedom’.

Worried about her safety and security, Prof Singh had placed a complaint before the Superintendent of Police, North Goa, seeking personal protection. In her complaint, she has accused Rajiv Jha of intimidation, threats – what the colonial framers of Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code had identified as ‘outraging the modesty of women’, and inciting lynch mob against her by sharing screenshots and ‘liking’ hateful comments on his Facebook post.  According to anonymous police officials, as has been published by the Dainik Bhaskar group on October 31, 2020, both the complaints – the one by Rajiv Jha and the one by Professor Singh are under preliminary investigation. Based on her counter-complaint, an FIR has been lodged against Rajiv Jha under Sections 504 (insult), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 509 (outraging modesty) of the IPC. That both the FIR-s have been lodged has been confirmed by the SP, North Goa, as media reports establish.

Such planned actions by Hindutva outfits against individuals whose views differ from theirs is not a new phenomenon. We are all well aware of their methods in this regard. Right wing Hindutva, being the political ideology that provides backing to and receives support from the BJP and its allies that hold political sway over the law and governance in India, has wreaked havoc in the realm of free thinking. People from many walks of life – from professors and lawyers to journalists, poets,  cartoonists, students, activists, doctors and common people – have fallen prey to their vile methods – many languishing in jail without any prospect of free or fair trial, their bail applications, even those on severe health grounds, being summarily denied by the judiciary – lower and higher alike – in its mad rush to curry political favour. False and distorted complaints have been filed against many more – like Professor Singh. Some, like Rohit Vemula, Narendra Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh, Santanu Bhowmik, Govind Pansare, Nazeeb Ahmed – have paid the price for free thinking with their lives.

Reading books, thinking, speaking out against injustice meted out by the powers that be, speaking truth to power, dissenting, criticising the government or Hindutva factions – have all been dealt with in the same criminal manner by the Brahminical elements that hold power. Today it is Professor Singh. Tomorrow, it might very well be you. And me.

In conclusion, here is a blog-post by Prof Singh – aptly titled “In Defence of History” – that speaks of her ideological standpoint and analytical approach. She discusses the transformation of feudalism to capitalism in context of the impact of coal mining on the Adivasi people of India – pointing out the violent displacement that they face as a result of the same. As recent history indicates, right-wing Hindutva forces thrive under state support and consider such thinking dangerous, and terrorize and victimize individuals like Prof. Singh.

Our task is to stand in full support and solidarity with Prof. Shilpa Singh and those who, despite all threats, reaffirm our faith that, in these dark times, “there will also be singing, about the dark times”.

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Atindriyo Chakrabarty is a poet and political commentator

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