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  • Fatema Tambawalla

Open Meeting for Free Expression: Discussing Free Speech at Ashoka

On 5 February 2024, the Student Government held an open meeting to discuss free expression at Ashoka University. After the events of January 22, 2024, the Student Government sent an email stating there were multiple concerns regarding the “Ashokan environment for discussion of political ideas, thought and expression.” The open meeting served as a platform where people, regardless of political ideology, could express their opinions and listen to differing perspectives. 

Discussion initially revolved around clarification regarding the exact events of January 22 on campus. Students attending the screening of the Ram Mandir inauguration said the administration also contacted the organisers of this event regarding appropriate permissions for the screening and accompanying prayer service. 

The Residence Life Policy states, “...festival events must not entail any religious content or rituals, but solely their spirit, essence and cultural aspect.” In their email to the student body on 29 January, the Democracy Collective alleged those conducting the aarti violated this clause

Parth Mahajan (UG’25), who was present at the aarti, however, said, “The two formal official university policies were violated by both events, because neither event, as far as I know and I can be corrected, sent their proposals 14 days before. And so […] the university wanted to reach out to [both] of them because not enough time was given to ratify whether the event should be allowed”

Several students noted a correlation between admin consent for the screening and other incidents that took place on the following day, namely,  a Jai Shri Ram flag placed on a university shuttle. 

However, Prakhar Singhania (UG’24) said, “Saying that [a] Jai Shri Ram flag on the shuttle is an indication of the public authorities publicly celebrating the event is not right in my opinion. Correlation is not causation.” 

“Why is 22nd January being imposed on the entire student body as a day against Muslims? Why is this narrative actually coming through?” asked Prakhar. 

Other students pointed out the context of the Babri Masjid’s demolition relevant to the events of 22 January. Samhitha Sankar (UG’24) said, There is a need for political awareness that tends to contextualise what this religious expression actually is. That involves history. That involves politics. That involves discussion.” 

The Babri Masjid was built in the 16th century under Mughal emperor Babur’s rule.  Several Hindu nationalist groups, however, claim the mosque was built on the site of a temple, the land of which is claimed to be the birthplace of the religious figure Ram. The dispute led to civil suits filed in The Supreme Court by both Hindu and Muslim groups and the eventual tearing down of the mosque by Hindu nationalists in 1992. 

A court-directed survey determined there is evidence of a temple beneath the mosque; however, several archaeologists and Muslim groups have disputed this. More information regarding the history of the Babri Masjid can be found here

Debate surrounding this event and its history highlighted the difference in perspective held by the speakers at the open meeting. While some brought up the violence that followed the demolition of the mosque, others turned to discussing the violence alleged during Babur’s rule in India and the original building of the Babri Masjid. 

It seems extraordinary to me that the ones who are most insistent about facts and research are not talking about the death toll that took place during the building of the mosque. If we want to build a great nation forward, every memory of Babur must be erased from this country.” said one student. 

Students continued to bring up opposing viewpoints regarding the demolition of the mosque as retribution against Babur and the deaths of over 2000 people in the riots that followed. 

In response, Maanas Kauntia (UG '24) said,  “When we're talking about politics, we're talking about resolving things. It seems appropriate to start by looking at the question carefully. The question is, how is the celebration of the Ram Mandir not a celebration of 4000 deaths? The reply cannot be - because Babri Masjid was built on violence. That does nothing to answer the question at hand.” 

Students interrogated the line drawn between expressing faith and a political position. Many maintained that given the historical and political context of the Ram Mandir, religious celebration becomes a political expression.  The Masjid’s demolition saw largely Hindu nationalist groups violently target Muslims living in India and call for the building of the Ram Mandir. Many students saw the inauguration of the Mandir as the legitimization of violence against Muslims. 

This has been turned into a national celebration of systemic violence that was carried out at such a large level. And your celebration cannot co-exist with so many people losing their lives and dignity,” said Kabir Singhania (UG’25)

Is the Ashokan environment open to all religious and political expression and activism? Parth Mahajan said, “It's a fact that students have to reconcile with, that only certain kinds of questions are allowed on campus and not all kinds of questions are allowed even if they're honest questions. And I think that is where we should start any discussion from — that there is no equality of even asking questions.” 

“There is no equality of opportunity for students to represent their ideas on campus,” said Parth. 

This is coupled with a general discouragement of Ashokan students from participating in political activity for fear that they may be termed as radicals by recruiters and people outside Ashoka.  “Where is this image coming from?” asked Prakhar Singhania. 

However, Harsh Gupta (ASP '24) countered saying, “This is something which I’ve been hearing from my first year again and again, that Ashokan’s should not indulge in political activity. Please, this narrative of Ashokan’s having to form this well-sembling image of responsible students who are not radicals, that’s just a way of saying don't be political; don’t do your politics here, because that will get us in trouble.”

The recurring question, as Sankalp Dasmohapatra (UG '24), President of the Student Government, puts it, remains, “How can we ensure that the university space doesn’t die out as just one where we do our degrees, we stick to our classrooms and nothing else?”

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