In the heydays of the colonial era, the British were not exactly supporters of a united and strong India. Divide-and-rule was the way to rule a country as big as ours. Sadly, it seems some things have not changed, 72 years after modern India secured its independence from the British Raj. In a highly unfortunate turn of events, recently two Cambridge University students were murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist in London. But just a few weeks later some members of Cambridge were denouncing not Islamic fundamentalism but Indian voices and people who were trying to stand up against such violence, particularly keeping the purge of Kashmiri Pundits in 1989 and the subsequent radicalisation of Kashmir in mind.
When, on one hand, the husband of a Cantabrigian gets radicalised enough to end up fighting for ISIS and, on the other hand, some societies in Cambridge are problematic enough in myriad ways to warrant police cover for event, and yet some members of the Cambridge community keep obstructing even interactions with pro-India and pro-Hindu speakers who are not half as problematic, the priorities of some seems to be a bit misplaced.
Prevent duty has been enacted firmly (and often unfairly) in the University, but that still does not remove the danger that radicalisation has had on youth in the United Kingdom. This is particularly relevant after seeing that in around 200 cases in 2017/18, pro-Jihad activists, hate preachers and anti-semites had been invited as speakers on multiple occasion in varied universities, in a gross lapse of Prevent duty.
Without feeding on any communal divide, I feel that recent experiences have shown a certain bias and predilection, even prejudice, of some individuals and groups in the University to side (or not) with specific ideologies and political alignments, often in a manner that is post-truth and not reflective of where dangers truly lie!
This is the story of my experiences in realising and exposing the anti-India and anti-Hindu voices in one of the key architects of the British Enlightenment – the University of Cambridge, in the current day. Universities are meant to serve as sandboxes for acquiring and practising essential skills and knowledge for students to live as responsible citizens of our world. Free exchange of ideas and concepts, cutting across subjects and identities is of fundamental importance therein. Freedom of speech and expression is important to facilitate such freedom and flux. However, unfortunately, that is often saying a lot, even in prestigious universities across the world.
I did my masters and PhD from the University of Cambridge. One of the university’s core values is the freedom of thought and expression, and for most of my 5 years of studying and undertaking research there, I have never had an instance where I have felt otherwise with that. It was only when I was elected as a student union officer and leader, that I saw a darker side of the University space. The tragedy of this age often is that of exclusivism and polarisation, particularly around ideologies. This is an age of political binaries: You are either aligned with an ideology through and through, or by association with the organisations or parties or leaders associated with it, or are not. There is no space for anybody who does not conform to the either-or.
It is this culture that seems to pervade student politics in Cambridge as well. As a result of such polarisation and almost dogmatic alignment with some political ideologies, political bullying is something that seems to have taken root deep within various cross-sections of the Cambridge community. Some of these bullies self-identify as ‘left-liberals’, being neither truly left (with ‘champagne socialists’ galore) nor liberal in the least.
The university seems to provide a ‘safe-space’ where they can ironically express their overtly domineering side in the wake of lesser relevance elsewhere. In fact, some commentators like Daniel Hannan have gone so far as to ask whether students had to be left-wing to study at Cambridge! It almost seems like a mixture of academic influences and peer pressure make students invariably go down a certain intellectual and political path, and the few Neo’s who try to escape this Matrix are oft-bullied.
It is at the hand of such bullies that I have been a subject of repeated attacks, as an elected officer of the students’ unions of Cambridge University, in the last one year. The University of Cambridge consistently ranks among the best Universities in the world. I am proud to have been a part of this university and to have learnt so much from its constituents. My current college – Trinity, itself has around 5 living Nobel Laureate members, with one of them being my current supervisor Prof. Brian Josephson! While Cambridge is a paragon of excellence, what is often missed is the dark underbelly of Cambridge.
While in no way implying that political bullying is entrenched in the system, there is a certain culture that pervades the student and activist space, which interestingly is also seen in many other Universities: that of other-ing by a certain clique, which dominates the political discourse in the University space, of those not in agreement or conformity to their ideas and beliefs.
While I never saw this as a student from 2014 to 2018, it was only when I had access to certain key groups in the University space as the Chair of Executive Committee and Vice President of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union (2018-2019), one of the two student unions of Cambridge, which represents roughly 12,000 members, that I got glimpses of this beast.
For instance, it was during this time that I got close to a member of an ultra-left student organisation in the University professionally and then as a friend, and it was from him that I got to know some truths that are never said out in the open. He said that there are organisations here that have such reach that they have ‘ears’ in every college of Cambridge. They apparently have a lot of money, and reach in national dailies! Their clout is such that if they seek to blacklist and/or character-assassinate someone and make their functioning difficult in the University space, they could, by unleashing their propaganda machine. This was the ‘beast’ he said they commanded, he quipped and impishly grinned.
How deep the rot of intolerance is was something I was yet to see in full glory and sharp contrast. But saw, I did. I had been the founder-convenor of the Indian National Students Association (INSA), a nationalistic student body, in Cambridge and a 35 under 35 UK-India Youth Leader in 2018. My politics had been one of balance, of welfare and responsibility, of Dharma. These were some of the reasons my politics and outspoken nature did not go down well with many individuals and groups at times, particularly those who were openly anti-India and anti-Hindu.
There were times when there were such falsities and misprojections spread about India that it would make any patriotic Indian squirm in his/her seat; for instance, the reportage and activism around the abrogation of article 370, while highlighting legitimate concerns of human rights and self-determination, questioned the very sovereignty of India in myriad ways, such as when Kashmir was described as a region north of India!
Notwithstanding the closure of the only Hindu temple in all of Cambridge and Cambridgeshire by the Cambridge City Council, there were also times when academics such as Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, who stated that ‘Hindu extremism is rooted in a macho 20th-century response to British colonialism which mocked Hindu effeminacy‘, would openly and brazenly display her anti-India and anti-Hindu sentiments.
Since I would often stand up against such blind criticisms and jibes at India and Hindus, there was a lot of badmouthing and open lobbying against me in university societies over the years, besides alienation by many just on premade judgements of what ‘my side’ stood for (without once caring to know what that stood for), but I trudged on. While these developments were disturbing, they were not as disturbing or hostile as what was to come ahead.
On the day I had my PhD graduation, soon after my 25th birthday, I got a private message from one of the co-presidents of an activist group. The text was a long-winded message saying that I was to keep away from the meetings of the organisation thereon since some members had apparently complained about ‘harassment’ and ‘intimidation’. What followed was judgement, even hatred, coupled with negativity directed at me, not for one day, two days, a week or a month, but for three whole months!
After a painfully long period of stress, constant back-talk and gossip, I was completely absolved of the charges. It was a thumping victory and yet a pyrrhic one: the reputational damage had been subtle but all-too-evident. My reputation, ability to do justice to my mandate and my wellbeing was all affected by the smear and the hate for months!
As an Indian, I have always stood up for the interests of my country. Around the time there was the Pulwama terrorist attack on 44 jawans (military personnel), India undertook a surgical strike in Balakot in Pakistan, where it targeted a terrorist camp. With the already simmering potion of negativity at Cambridge around my politics, what put fuel to fire was my Facebook status update the Balakot surgical strike by the Indian government. In the past, I had been one of the few Indians who had gone out of the way for establishing peace and goodwill with Pakistanis by being on the Cambridge University Pakistan Society committee, but this one status made people, who had known me personally, to go from being on good terms to calling me everything from ‘war mongerer’ to seeking ‘nuclear war’.
One should have seen the intensity of hatred from various corners of the University. For them, the 44 jawans and thousands of innocent lives did not matter as much as how this had led to damage to Pakistani lives (while in the same breath saying that India ‘had just hit trees’)! In my Facebook status, I had spoken up against the issue of non-state actors and terrorism, not against the sovereignty of Pakistan. And yet there was a wide-scale mobilisation under the surface, and I heard from some sources that they had wanted to institute a vote of no confidence in me, and with their foot soldiers and workers, it may have succeeded, but it was apparently stopped by some of my supporters and friends.
Understandably, I went from having a number of Pakistani friends to a lot fewer, based only on this misprojection around the status. The next big hit was on India’s Independence Day – 15 August 2019, when I was invited to deliver a speech in the celebrations near the Indian High Commission. Children, women, elders, all for the event which was a cultural celebration of India’s Independence Day. However, before we could even get halfway through the event, we faced one of the fiercest and most aggressive crowds of protesters in central London! The issue? Abrogation of Article 370. We were a handful of Indians, surrounded by around 5000 protestors, as per London Police reports. The Indians were hit with eggs, tomatoes, bottles and other projectiles, for about three hours!
The best part was that everyone on the Indian side stood true to the Indian way of not retaliating in the same petty way as the aggressors, who left no stone unturned or abuse unused to harass the Indians. We Indians stood our ground with calm and with occasional sloganeering while the other side kept abusing and hurling the aforementioned projectiles. As much as I have always stood for the self-determination of Kashmiris, this blatant display of hooliganism and hatred was unnecessary and uncalled for.
The High Commissioner lauded the courage of every single attendee, once we were safely taken inside. On the same day, I led the historic initiative to unfurl the tricolour in the historic Parker’s Pieces ground (where modern football is said to have been born). It was not as much a statement as a quiet acknowledgement of the importance of India to humanity. This measure and my participation in the IHC incident also was faced with immense criticism from students, academics and activists. There were such hate-tweets and dirty looks on the streets of Cambridge in those days that I still find it amusing how people who do not know much about me or my views or politics could harbour so much hate for someone.
Regardless, I moved on, with self-belief and strength. The next battle was when the Gates Cambridge Scholars of a Cambridge wrote an open letter condemning the commendation by Bill Gates for Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. In the letter of support from the Graduate Union for this condemnation, I introduced the caveat that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for which Modi got the award, was a great initiative for India and had helped millions of people. There was a huge outcry by a certain group of students, as expected. Such was the political pressure that the Union finally had to retract that section.
In all of this, instead of waging a frontal battle of ideology, it was a shadow war that these detractors waged. A battle of gossip, propaganda and misprojections. This reached the level where university activities were influenced by these groups. For instance, my participation in a University-level committee (Equality and Diversity) was stalled and protested due to my beliefs and politics! The ‘No Pasaran’ policy applied here was a needless, uninformed move, which led to such pressure that the committee itself had to be postponed!
On 13 August 2019, I was invited by Parma Shakthi Peeth to meet and interact with Sadhvi Ritambhara, the firebrand Hindutva leader of India, who had come to the United Kingdom for a while. This invitation was extended to me as an Indian student leader in the UK and was not as much on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement as on the Vatsalyagram charitable activities and other nationalistic points. Regardless, I never sought to project it as a blanket endorsement of all her speeches or views, even though I admired her tej (inner fire), strong persona and belief in her ideas. However, interaction is not an outright endorsement.
I even interacted with Aatish Taseer, whom many would consider on the opposite spectrum of the political scale, and yet did not endorse many of the things he believes in. An impartial, investigative interaction is neither platforming nor facilitation. Only if some ‘tolerant’ people understood that.
Instead they said some extremely unpleasant things about me and Sadhvi Ritambhara (including calling her ‘terrorist’), and this exploded on the student community, again with blatant misprojection and lies. My courtesy smile shared with her in a picture was projected as a smile of admiration, and my folded hands as a general social gesture of respect were taken as ‘submission’ to her.
The kind of language and false projection, both online and offline, was amazing here! There was so much hate due to this that a friend of mine lost his privileges in some circles due to his association with me! More recently, when I agreed to host Vivek Agnihotri in Cambridge and tried to use my privileges for booking this, I was charged as misusing power.
I have used these privileges in the past for various other events that were never objected to. Clearly, there was an ideological and political angle to this. For this, I was again placed under restricted action due to an official letter and complaint by somebody speaking ‘against fascist voices’. When they could not do anything around the disciplinary meeting due to a complaint on this, they took the most tokenistic, reprehensible and unnecessary step: of using the ruse of accusing me of ‘revealing confidential information’ of the Graduate Union in this blog, a charge that was not entirely true. After the disciplinary meeting, I was allowed to complete my term on 15 December 2019. However, details of this meeting somehow ended up in a Varsity article.
This leak was not by me, and there seemed to be a bigger nexus between the student-media, spearheaded by an ultra-left activist who remains unnamed for this article, and the student unions. How else could the newspaper Varsity know of the number and nature of charges in a private meeting shortly after the meeting had ended? While my blog post simply exposed the sustained campaign and attack I have had to face by some people who have differing political alignments over the year, their excessive knowledge simply exposed further the ‘Left Mafia’ that worked in the University space.
The very prospect of the organisation of an interview and interaction with Mr Vivek Agnihotri was faced by immense hate in the University, even without knowing the nature, tone or tenor of the event. So much for free speech! The supposed leak was used as the premise to dismiss me, 13 days before my term officially ends, even though my last working day was 15th December 2019. On the day of this tokenistic dismissal, I had completed 11 months and 18 days of the 12 months of my term. This was clearly an attempt at making a political statement, which was spread all around the University by the student media.
Most interestingly, unlike what would be expected of standard employment procedures, this ‘termination’ on 18th was given on the same day! No prior notice whatsoever! I have now appealed the decision by the GU and the appeal awaits a hearing (with the fear that due to time and financial constraints, I may not get the opportunity to completely resolve this, even though I have belief in the merit of my case). My name and reputation have been tarnished beyond repair, and yet I stand strong for what I believe in. I have not done anything wrong or with malintent.
I will always speak up for India and for Hindus, however uncomfortable may that make certain others. If I fall for this, I shall be a martyr to the cause of my country and people! All of this that I have shared is not symptomatic of a truly liberated space and community. This is not expected of those who profess the freedom of speech and liberalism. But this is what it is. A world mired in hypocrisy, cowardice and vindictiveness. I feel happy to have crossed and triumphed in all the ‘Battle of Cantabrigia’ that I fought with the political bullies, Left Mafia, anti-India and anti-Hindu forces in the University space at Cambridge.
As I have crossed the end of a successful term (a termination 13 days on frivolous grounds is a poor and cowardly attempt at humiliation) in office as a student leader, I look back and see many fond memories and some not so fond ones. I am happy to have made some great friends and associates, and honestly quite flattered to have made some diehard enemies! Most importantly, I am happy to have stood my ground till the very end, and pass into the proverbial sunset with my head held high.