On February 12, 2023, two members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student group affiliated with the Hindu-nationalist ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, allegedly used violence to shut down a seminar at Utkal University titled “Indian Constitution and Education.”
The event was organized by Citizens Forum, a collective focused on secularism and democracy, and Vaan Muhil Trust, an organization working to empower vulnerable communities in India, and was held in the university’s Post Graduate Council Hall. It focused on the state of Indian democracy, the creation of the Constitution, and the National Education Policy. Among those slated to speak were Surajit Mazumdar, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
During Mazumdar’s remarks, two ABVP members reportedly approached the stage and began to argue against the content of his speech. Organizers asked the two individuals to wait until the end of the event for questions, however they continued, stating that the event should be shut down.
According to The Hindu, as the dispute escalated, a scuffle broke out. In the midst of the scuffle, the two ABVP members injured Pradipta Nayak, the convenor of Citizens Forum, and Surendra Jena, a teacher who was also scheduled to speak, by the ABVP members. They also reportedly verbally abused organizers and tore down a banner. The event was canceled due to the violence.
Following the incident, both the event organizers and the ABVP filed complaints with the local police. On February 13, police arrested the two individuals for assaulting Nayak and Jena. The police stated that those arrested are not students at Utkal University.
In a press release published on February 13, ABVP accused the event of promoting caste violence and stated that the group’s members did not participate in the scuffle. According to The Wire, Mazumdar stated that he did not make upper caste or anti-nationalist statements in his remarks.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of violence to shut down an on-campus event. While student groups have the right to freedom of expression including the right to protest events with which they disagree, they must exercise those rights responsibly and with respect for the free expression rights and academic freedom of other members of the higher education community and society at large. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, the use of violence to disrupt on-campus events and discourse undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.