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ABVP guys wants to silence all who don't conform to their view: Richa Singh

Panini Anand | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:29 IST

A crucial issue that Rohith Vemula's suicide has underscored is how India's university campuses have become deeply contested, ideologically polarised spaces.

Of late, the Allahabad University has emerged as ground zero of the fight between rightist and progressive forces. The campus has witnessed violent clashes between the liberal groups, led by its Students Union president Richa Singh, and the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Sangh Parivar's student wing.

Also read - The complex issues surrounding Rohith Vemula's death. Explained

Recently, the ABVP activists heckled Siddharth Varadarajan when he visited the campus to address a seminar on free speech, forcing him to take refuge in the vice-chancellor's office. The senior journalist had been invited by Richa Singh.

Apparently, this was payback for Richa's refusal, some months ago, to allow BJP MP Yogi Adityanath on the campus.

These incidents have only deepened the conflict, with no resolution in sight. Catch spoke with Richa about the latest controversy, her brand of aggressive student politics and why the campuses have become so polarised.

Excerpts of the conversation:

What was the ABVP's objection to Siddharth Varadarajan's presence on the campus? Why was his program cancelled?

There is a surge in intolerance in this country. The ABVP leaders are not willing to listen to anyone who contradicts their ideology. They're determined to silence every journalist, intellectual or academic who does not confirm to their viewpoint.

They branded Siddharth a "Naxalite and anti-national" and held protests against him on the campus. This forced the vice-chancellor to cancel the seminar. How can you hurl such invectives against an eminent journalist? These people have been busy giving certificates to everybody since the formation of the BJP government.

But you too had opposed an invitation to BJP leader Adityanath in November. Why?

On 12 November, the general secretary of the Allahabad University Students' Union called me to say they wanted to invite Adityanath for the inauguration of the Students Union. I said today is Diwali holiday, let's discuss the matter when the university reopens. But he insisted that they had already decided 20 November as the inauguration date.

The next day too was a holiday, but I still went to the Students Union office. The general secretary came with his supporters and bluntly told me that they will organise the inauguration ceremony on 20 November. He also told me that their decision to invite Adityanath as the chief guest was final. So, they had bypassed the president in making this decision. I tried to explain that the ceremony would be invalid without my presence but they were adamant.

During Adityanath protest, ABVP men passed cheap remarks, sang vulgar songs to throw us: Richa Singh

I had other objections to this invitation as well. Adityanath has a communal and anti-Muslim image. No university should endorse such a controversial personality. The other four office-bearers of the AUSU are members of the ABVP. I guess they thought it beneath them to consult with a woman even though she was the president. But I made my opposition to Adityanath very clear. I told them he has made no contribution to the academic world. His presence would only vitiate the atmosphere on the campus.

So, you opposed their invitation to Adityanath and the ABVP retaliated by scuttling Vardarajan's visit. How can you claim to be a victim in such a situation?

The two are separate issues. They did not take my consent before inviting Adityanath to a Students Union programme. This was technically wrong. I opposed them because they wanted to inaugurate the newly-elected Students Union without the presence of its president.

On the other hand, Siddharth was here simply to address a seminar. We had booked the Senate Hall for it. The ABVP leaders pressurised the VC to cancel the booking. This university has a long tradition of organising programmes to discuss various ideas.

But why would the vice-chancellor be so helpless against pressure from the ABVP?

Our vice-chancellor, RL Hangloo, is working in collusion with the ABVP. There is a concerted effort to strengthen the ABVP in all central universities. It has been given free rein on all campuses. In fact, Rohith Vemula's suicide at the Hyderabad Central University is a direct fallout of this strategy.

All central universities are directly under the Union HRD ministry, which makes it easy for the central government to control the vice-chancellors. The situation has drastically changed in Allahabad University since the Modi government came to power.

Why didn't you hold Vardarajan's programme at the Students Union hall?

On 19 January, the vice-chancellor's office told us that this seminar can't be held in the Senate Hall. We, therefore, decided to hold it in the Students Union hall. However, the police came to my hostel at midnight and handed me a notice stating that we can't book the Students Union hall for the event. They argued that the event could lead to violence on the campus. So, we had no other option but to cancel the seminar. The vice-chancellor as well as the police administration was working under political pressure.

What's the basis of this allegation that they were working under political pressure?

The onus of maintaining law and order is on all organisations. Considering this, we cancelled Siddharth's programme on 20 January. On the other hand, the ABVP went ahead with its plans of inviting the religious guru Shantanu Maharaj to the campus. He delivered a sermon in the Students Union hall without any interference from the administration.

Why did they prohibit only our programme and raised no objections to Shantanu Maharaj's event? This clearly shows their anti-woman mindset. They cannot reconcile to the fact that the AUSU is headed by a woman.

Also read - Allahabad University Students Union gets first woman president after Independence

What makes you believe they are against women?

The ABVP representatives have not attended any meeting of the Students Union since I was elected president. They tried to bypass my authority in the Adityanath episode. The vice-chancellor had called a meeting to resolve the matter. I was there in that meeting, along with senior university officials. The ABVP leaders brazenly told the administration they would invite Adityanath at any cost. And they intimidated me in front of senior university staff when I opposed their stand.

The ABVP leaders even threatened the vice-chancellor. They told him to go on leave if he could not help them organise the inauguration ceremony. They said I was crossing my limits as a woman and they would throw me out of the city.

Did they abuse you in the presence of the vice-chancellor?

Yes. The meeting was also attended by the proctor and the registrar. The proceedings were recorded by CCTV cameras. I walked out of the meeting after registering my dissent.

Now that you are arrayed against the ABVP, are there any organisations that are supporting you?

Most of the students' organisations that are active in the Allahabad University such as the NSUI, Samajwadi Chatra Sabha, AISA, DSO and SFI came out in my support against Adityanath. Several former AUSU presidents expressed solidarity with our cause. They agreed that Adityanath should not be invited to the campus and that the ABVP had not done the right thing by bypassing me. The progressive forces and other intellectuals of the city also rallied behind me.

Still, the ABVP activists have been unrelenting in their diatribe against me. I cannot express my agony in words. They passed all kinds of remarks with sexual overtones and tried to subdue me with physical violence. No effort was spared to harass me.

Adityanath's programme was scheduled for 20 November. The invitation cards were printed a day before. They were printed in the colours of the BJP flag. There was no permission from the university for the programme. Still, the whole campus was painted in the BJP's colours.

ABVP wants to silence every journalist, intellectual who don't confirm to its viewpoint: AUSU chief

On 19 November, we senses that the ABVP was going ahead with their plan despite all the objections, and we are failing to stop them. This forced me to sit on a dharna outside the gate of the university. We started our agitation at around 6.30 pm.

The ABVP workers arrived soon after and started shouting slogans. They passed cheap remarks and sang vulgar songs to dissuade my supporters. We were sitting near Gandhi's statue as we knew they would try to provoke us. We received the district administration's order banning Adityanath's entry into the campus at around 11 pm.

Did you get that order from the district collector's office?

Yes. We asked the university's authorities for an assurance that they would abide by this order. But their response wasn't encouraging. They passed the buck to the district administration.

We doubted their intention as preparations for the inauguration ceremony were continuing unabated despite the order. This led us to believe that the university officials were not acting impartially.

It was 12.30 am and the stalemate had not been resolved. The general secretary and the vice-president of the Students Union, both of whom belong to the ABVP, arrived at the spot at around 12.40 am. They were accompanied by 40-odd supporters and 4-5 bouncers. They started raising slogans like "Jai Shri Ram" and "Bharat Mata Ki Jai" and ordered us to vacate the campus within two minutes. Soon, they started assaulting my supporters. I was injured in a direct attack by the Students Union general secretary.

Do you feel Adityanath would have been barred from the university campus if the BJP was ruling Uttar Pradesh?

Obviously not. On the contrary, they would have facilitated his visit. The ABVP's plans were foiled only because of the action taken by the Samajwadi Party government. And the government was forced into action by student power.

The ABVP argues that if leftists, socialists and Congress-affiliated intellectuals can visit the campus, why not rightist thinkers?

One needs to understand the nature of the Students Union inauguration ceremony, which led to the Adityanath controversy. No political person has inaugurated the Students Union in the past. No person of a stature less than the Union HRD minister has ever presided over the ceremony. According to the convention, the AUSU president ensures this function remains above politics.

Would you also oppose controversial non-BJP leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi from coming to the campus?

Surely. We'll oppose him with all our might. In fact, some Muslim students had put forward the same argument against the invitation to Adityanath. We repeated the same thing. Our posters read, "Aaj Adityanath, Kal Owaisi". We did not want to set this precedent.

You have expressed concern about the events following the Adityanath episode. What is the atmosphere on the campus like now?

The university administration is acting in a biased manner. I have been served a notice for disciplinary proceedings. But there is no such action against the ABVP leaders. The central government as well as several BJP leaders are pressurising the university authorities to expel me.

It seems you are in for a long battle. What is your future strategy?

I have written a letter to the prime minister. I want him to clear his stand on the issue. Does he support the tactics of the ABVP? Is he in favour of the ABVP's brand of politics? Is this the kind of women emancipation that he keeps talking about?

You are the first women president in AUSU's 128 years-old history. How has the journey been so far?

I did not contest the election on a 'men versus women' plank. I raised issues of students' welfare during my campaign. Women are a deciding factor in the AUSU elections. Yet, it took 128 years for a woman to become the union's president.

Are you suggesting that the campus isn't favourable to women?

Yes. I had not asked for votes on this plank. Yet, I have faced several difficulties because I am a woman. I was harassed only because I had challenged the male hegemony. My mother often says that getting into students politics has hampered my career.

But I take satisfaction from the fact that at least the next woman president would be able to work in a better environment. And I would have contributed something to that.

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First published: 26 January 2016, 1:09 IST
Panini Anand @paninianand

Senior Assistant Editor at Catch, Panini is a poet, singer, cook, painter, commentator, traveller and photographer who has worked as reporter, producer and editor for organizations including BBC, Outlook and Rajya Sabha TV. An IIMC-New Delhi alumni who comes from Rae Bareli of UP, Panini is fond of the Ghats of Varanasi, Hindustani classical music, Awadhi biryani, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd, political talks and heritage walks. He has closely observed the mainstream national political parties, the Hindi belt politics along with many mass movements and campaigns in last two decades. He has experimented with many mass mediums: theatre, street plays and slum-based tabloids, wallpapers to online, TV, radio, photography and print.