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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Lessons from the Oxford and SOAS sagas

The recent  racist cyber bullying  and cyber lynching of Rashmi Samant  at Oxford University and the  furore in SOAS university, London, over the inadvertent use of the N-word by its director has made it imperative for us to locate issues in a context.

The contrast between the two incidents and the furore it has created or not created raises several interesting questions about  how imperative for followers of Hindu dharma to articulate with  clarity and purpose when they have been adversely impacted and reclaim  their narrative.

The hallowed portals of the Oxford University has recently been in the news for the wrong reasons. Caught in the  eye of the proverbial storm over the recent cyber bullying, harassment and intimidation of Rashmi Samant, over her alleged  string of  insensitive, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, xenophobic and transphobic posts by Dr. Abhijit Sarkar, a post doctorial researcher and faculty of the Department of History in the college, that led to Rashmi’s forced dramatic exit from the college and resignation from her newly elected post  has raised several problematic issues about the incident that can be viewed here and here. The final salvo fired by Dr. Sarkar was a tweet that asserted that “Oxford was not yet ready for a sanatani president.”

Interestingly, Dr. Sarkar, notorious for his Hindu odium, and Hinduphobia that he regularly unleashes on social media, has  been called out  in an online campaign led by British Hindus and supported by David Frawley. The campaign, a letter to Oxford University, by Hindu Dharma flowers in UK and Bharat, strongly condemns Dr. Sarkar’s vitriolic “racist, abusive and offensive attacks by the pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-woke Abhijit Sarkar on our community and the completely unhinged and disturbing social media outbursts of this extremist and misogynistic member of the University of Oxford staff.”

The brilliant text of the campaign can be viewed here.

Rashmi Samant 22, an engineer, had enrolled for  her Master’s in Mechanical Engineering at Oxford. Not so incidentally, she  was the first Indian woman to be elected president of the Oxford Students’ Council that she won  by a margin  of two-thirds majority. Following her resounding victory, however, Dr. Abhijit Sarkar highlighted a series of  social media posts made by Rashmi  Samant that he deemed insensitive and objectionable because of their  anti-Semitic, xenophobic and transphobic content and unleashed a  storm of  vitriolic cyber bullying (that was amplified) that attacked her for her Hindu identity and her origins from a coastal town in Karnataka that was allegedly notorious for its Islamophobia.

However, there’s more to the Rashmi Samant issue than what meets the eye. The Hindu odium or the contempt and hatred for Hindu dharma  and its followers and the institutional hatred towards Hindu students that has proliferated unchecked thanks to  the Left Liberal eco system and apathy and  the legacy of non assertiveness and lack of unity  among the Hindu community.

However, it is heartening to  note the proactive lead taken by British Hindus in the UK, championed by the eloquent and elegant Pandit Satish K Sharma, eminent scholar, Dharmic theologian, Hindu philosopher and Yogacharya. The lackadaisical response by the university authorities and the knee jerk responses have been termed by British Hindus as “too little, too late.”

Pandit Satish K. Sharma  meticulously unravels  the several layers of complexities in what he describes  as blatant instance of “bullying, harassment, intimidation shaming and  a malicious and vitriolic hate campaign” and abuse of power—ironically at a time when she should have been celebrated for creating history in the campus. Pt. Sharma, who had circulated the seemingly offensive posts among members of  racial and religious  communities such as the Jews, Chinese  and  Muslims remarked that they were “unanimous” that the posts were not “offensive, “although they could be perceived “insensitive.”

“Insensitivity is not against the law. All of us is [insensitive] in one way or the other. The freedom to inadvertently cause offence is a fundamental part  of learning and the allegations were rebutted and rejected outright by members of the respective communities. Living as we do in a  global community, the nuances of context and location, play a huge part. The diverse traditions, use of language and customs is a fundamental part of the delight from which we learn from each other. If we take  offence at everyone else’s alleged misrepresentation or use of words in ways we would not use them, then there  is no point in having  conversations with people we don’t know. And that is a worrying trend,” said Pt. Satish Sharma, in an interview with Pgurus. 

There are three worrisome aspects in the Rashmi Samant incident. First, the obvious apathy and indifference of the authorities concerned to  exercise damage control measures. The university, in fact, has  seriously compromised Rashmi’s safety and  security by its lackadaisical attitude that forced her to return to  her come country in the aftermath of the incident.

“Oxford University is a premier centre for education and learning. As in most foreign universities, a significant potion of its revenue comes from  overseas students, who pay three times the fee to get admission into courses of their choice. Their culpability in the incident  and the blasé  approach  annuls the very purpose of education—to create human beings who are enlightened change makers and influencers capable of contributing to society,” says Pandit Satish Sharma.

Pandit Satish Sharma reiterates that “the biggest disappointment is the lack of engagement [of  Oxford University] with the issue. “Had a similar incident happened to a person from the African American, Jewish, Islamic or Sikh communities, the response would have been entirely different. That is a fundamental cause for concern for all Hindus everywhere. Hindus have never articulated with clarity and purpose when something affects them badly. We need to understand the importance of being able to do that and start to reinforce the boundaries we need to have in place.”

Interestingly, the Rashmi Samant incident was followed by another storm that erupted in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, just close by.  In a recent incident at the SOAS campus, its newly appointed director Adam Habib, in an online classroom, was asked by a student about the authenticity of SOAS’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter, as some academics continue to use the N-word in the classroom.

Habib replied that if this were some he would personally address the issue. However, his cardinal crime was that he ‘verbalised’ the word in question. His considered response stirred the hornet’s nest at SOAS, with selectively edited versions adding fuel to the fire. The fall out of the student protest is that Habib has been forced to step down from his post while the matter is under investigation.

The SOAS and Oxford incidents raises several problematic issues. That issues need to be framed and located within contexts. Decontextualising issues can have disastrous consequences that created more problems than it solves.  Identarian politics that privileges one group to have exclusive rights over a word and giving them a sense of entitlement to subvert and decontextualise the word  are perhaps dangerous instances of the phenomenon of cancel culture at large—a  modern form of ostracism in which someone is thrust out of social or professional circles—whether it be online, on social media, or in person—as is evident in the Rashmi Samant episode.

The contrast between the two incidents and the furore it has created or not created raises several interesting questions about the need to be aware and responsible in contextualising issues. Activism is walking a tightrope across troubled waters. Self-awareness, restraint and responsibility are core values that are non-negotiable for the greater common good.

As are the need to  take responsibility to reclaim one’s narrative by collectivising and speaking up against injustice even if it means taking on the powers that be and risk being branded “rightist,” “jingoistic” and “Hindutva.”  Because Hindu lives also matter; Hindus matter.

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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