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  • Pooja Airy & Ojaswita Chand

Freedom of political expression at risk, again? Students protest

The Social Justice Forum (SJF), an informal collective which mobilises on behalf of marginalised students on campus, organised a protest against the administrative crackdown on the freedom of student expression on 31 January 2024. 


On 22 January 2024, following the consecration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, students from the Democracy Collective screened Anand Patwardhan’s 1992 documentary Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God). The documentary follows the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s campaign to build a Ram temple in place of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the communal violence it triggered. 


On 29 January, the Democracy Collective sent an email to the Ashokan community, alleging a member of the Ashokan administration tried to prevent it, citing policy violations. 


“Before the screening, a member of the collective was called alone to meet an administrative official. Upon reaching, they were ambushed by multiple administrative officials including the Registrar, Director of Student Affairs and other senior officials,” the email read.


“The student was not previously informed about the agenda of the meeting nor were other members from the collective called alongside for support and action. Eventually, the collective was forced to take down the posters.”


The SJF organised a dharna (protest gathering) in response, near the atrium during lunch hour. It was organised to counter the administration’s attempt to censor the screening. 

 


Credits: Anil Kumar

Students attend the protest in large numbers, despite the rain


Anand Patwardhan, director of Ram ke Naam, was also present online, offering solidarity to the protesting students. 


Anil Bahariya (MLS’24), a member of the SJF, said the university’s apolitical public-facing image is a facade. Even in assuming this image, the university makes a “conscious political choice” which allows it to “sideline some discourses as ‘too political.’”



Credits: Anil Kumar



“They have abused the word ‘diversity’ in Ashoka’s social media presence, promoting a diverse nature of people who attend this institution,” Anil said. “In reality, this university had been made on the land acquired by some baniya founders, given to Bengali brahmin professors, where non-Bengali brahmin professors constitute a ‘minority’ along with some white and remaining savarna faculty.”


“[Ashoka] consciously does not allow certain communities [within its walls]... the social and caste composition of the university’s faculty, administration and student body determines the discourse and activity on campus. This leads to the standardised generation of discourse and ideas among students on campus, and therefore the same type of controversies.” 


Anand Patwardhan expressed his surprise at the university’s actions; the documentary passed the censor board with a U-certificate, won multiple national awards, and was even previously screened at Ashoka as part of the course material. In response to student questions, Patwardhan acknowledged right-wing nationalists have attacked the film’s screenings all over India since its release in 1992.  




Credits: Anil Kumar

Anand Patwardhan attends the protest online


Patwardhan said the government’s apathy towards the demolition of a national monument like the Babri Masjid sets a dangerous precedent, endangering other monuments.


Hecklers were present at the protest. An unidentified heckler interrupted Patwardhan’s comments to cry, “Ayodhya toh bas jhaanki hai, Mathura-Kashi baaki hai [Ayodhya is only a glimpse, Mathura and Kashi are still left].”

This is a popular rallying cry among right-wing nationalists and supporters of the Ram Mandir. The dharna, however, continued. Patwardhan encouraged students to discuss the matter with people of differing perspectives. 


The dharna ended with students shouting slogans, such as “Admin ki manmarzi nahi chalegi, na chalegi [The admin’s whims will not work]” and “Jai Bhim”.


Students present at the protest largely agreed with the SJF’s sentiments and Patwardhan’s comments. Kabir Singhania, UG’25, stands in solidarity with the protestors. 


“As the director of the documentary said, universities are inherently political spaces. You cannot curb the freedom of expression here, especially in the current socio-political climate,” Singhania said.


In response to the protest and the Democracy Collective’s email, Vice Chancellor Somak Raychaudhury issued a clarification to “set the record straight.” 


“To begin with, I would like to reiterate that both groups planning events on campus were spoken to, as both had delayed reaching out to the administrative team for requisite permissions.” 


“In one instance, the organisers shared their names when they wrote for permission, so administrators were able to reach them directly. In the other case, since no names were shared, attempts were made to find out who to speak to. In neither case did the administration try to dissuade the organisers from holding the event.” 

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