It has been almost a year since I joined IIT Gandhinagar, and about six months since Indian farmers have been protesting against the three controversial farm laws.
Around the time the protests began, a new hobby group with a focus on society and politics emerged at IIT Gandhinagar. The group, called ‘Awaam‘, laid down its objectives and stated that it would actively work towards creating a safe space for discussions and debate. I was fascinated by the initiative and immediately joined the WhatsApp group.
Within a few days, I saw people circulating Panchjanya – a weekly magazine published by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The cover story portrayed farmers as villains.
I thought that I should raise my voice against such allegations and the best possible way I could think of was to release a statement to extend support and solidarity to the farmers in their ongoing struggle against the farm laws.
The statement said that the members of IIT Gandhinagar stand in solidarity with the protesting farmers and in favour of their democratic rights to protest against the farm laws. It condemned the atrocities committed by the State; the arrests of peacefully protesting farmers and activists, and asked for their immediate release. It condemned police violence, internet shutdowns, and other violations of the constitutional right to free speech and expression. The statement concluded with the demand for the repeal of the concerned farm laws.
I had hoped that people at the institution would band together on the issues in a unified way to support the cause of farmers and strongly condemn the atrocities committed against them during this struggle. I created a Google form which read as “The undersigned students of IIT Gandhinagar stand in solidarity with farmers” and asked some members of Awaam to join in as signatories.
However, after I started to circulate the statement, I started receiving threats and abuse.
One student wrote: “Please be responsible for any action you take. You are representing or using the institute’s name.”
Another student said, “Honestly, I didn’t think that this group would be used for such purposes.”
By then, it had become clear that the police had created a ruckus at the farmers’ protest and had used tear gas, lathis and other violent means to disperse protestors. Despite this, some students continued bashing me: “If we gain solidarity for farmers, then we should also get solidarity for policemen injured on January 26 event in the name of the institution.”
Many people called the Google form “unethical”. Another student said, “Please don’t become Indian Greta Thunberg.”
It was baffling to see that there were no reactions from the members of Awaam when articles from Panchjanya were being circulated and that when it came to extending solidarity to farmers , the barrage of hateful messages just wouldn’t stop.
Some called the statement useless, others called it controversial. Caught in the middle, I realised that I didn’t quite have access to a political space – a space to raise my concerns, opinions and voice against injustices – as I had thought.
That space had already been captured by those holding majoritarian political views.
This incident affected my mental health, as it was not easy to surpass the harassment that I went through without much support. While the messages kept flowing in the group, I saw many people joining the WhatsApp group at the same time to add to the hatred and to silence my stand.
I had initially planned to circulate the statement in the media after getting enough signatures. However, I was taken aback by the reactions and was afraid of what would happen if I continued to try and find signatories.
Through this experience, I learnt how easy it is for a group of students to crush dissent only through the use of WhatsApp. I also witnessed how so many so-called liberals, who you would find waxing eloquent on constitutional patriotism and liberal democracy on a good day, took the side of abusers, trolls and intolerance.
The incident made me fearful to to talk about it, and it has taken me nearly four months to write about it. And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that this article will be the cause of another round of abuse.
Priya Jain is a student at Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty