New Delhi: On Monday morning, the gates of Delhi University’s (DU’s) Hindu College were sealed shut with several guards posted outside. Only students and faculty members with valid identification were allowed to enter. There was tension in the air.
Just last week, a history professor at the college, Ratan Lal, was booked for an allegedly objectionable social media post that he made on a ‘Shivling’ that has purportedly been found at the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi.
On Friday night, three days after a complaint was filed against him by Supreme Court advocate Vineet Jindal, the professor was arrested by Delhi Police.
A Delhi court granted him bail Saturday, but not before the incident had created an uproar among students from several DU colleges, who protested for 24 hours straight after Lal’s arrest.
While his post on the ‘Shivling’ has generated a mixed response, with students of the college even organising a demonstration to seek an apology from him, Lal is described by peers as an authority on his subject and discussions on caste, an issue close to the heart of the Dalit professor.
Prior to his arrest, Lal had told ThePrint that his remarks on social media were “sarcastic” and not intended to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments.
“Critique of religion has been a part of discourse since the time of Gautam Buddha to Ambedkar, from Periyar to Phule. I have not written anything wrong…” he said.
22 years with Hindu College, contested Bihar polls
Lal, 50, left his home in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur at an early age in pursuit of education and soon found himself thrown into student politics in DU. His early education in the university was funded by former MLA Hardial Singh Kamboj.
Lal earned a Master’s degree from Ramjas College, and a PhD, and joined Hindu College in 2000.
In the course of his career, he has written and edited 10 books, including Kashi Prasad Jayaswal: The Making of a ‘Nationalist’ Historian. He has about 80,000 followers on Twitter and runs a social media channel called ‘AmbedkarNama’, which has several thousand followers on Facebook.
Being a Dalit professor among the upper-caste professors of DU was never easy for Lal, said Sagar Tiwari, a 40-year-old history professor at OP Jindal University, who came in touch with him in his second year of college.
“Because of his analysis of caste, Lal is often known as a man who takes up caste in every issue. On AmbedkarNama, he was once accused of pandering to minorities and bringing up minority issues in every conversation,” he added. “I even did a live show with him on his channel and spoke about how he championed the cause for every oppressed person, irrespective of their caste. Here I was, an upper-caste student greatly influenced by his thoughts.”
According to him, Lal’s classes were thought-provoking, and his reading on caste matters as well as his ability to connect history with contemporary politics “was phenomenal and left an impact on him”.
“Debates and conversations with professor Lal extended beyond the classroom. His arguments opened a window to a world that influenced my young mind and inspired me to take up history as a subject and vocation,” Tiwari said.
Professor Lal’s Twitter timeline consists of videos from AmbedkarNama, and tweets on Dalit and minority issues. Some of the tweets indicate that the channel was subject to hacking on YouTube in February this year and was restored after multiple written requests.
Most videos on AmbedkarNama focus on caste issues. For example, during the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, the videos allege that “Dalit appeasement politics has now been replaced by Brahmin appeasement”. A video on Punjab talks about what the elevation of Charanjit Singh Channi, a Dalit Sikh, as chief minister signified. There are also videos of Lal at the farmers’ protests, interacting with Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad and farmer leader Rakesh Tikait.
Professor Lal has been active in Bihar politics, and contested the 2015 assembly elections as an Independent, where he got 3 per cent of the vote.
“He contested the Bihar polls in 2015 from Patepur constituency. He was initially promised a ticket by the RJD but was finally not given one. He then decided to contest as an Independent candidate and came third in the election,” said Suraj Mandal, Lal’s friend from college and now a professor at Swami Shraddhanand College.
“In fact, he was so active with the RJD that he convinced (DU professor) Manoj Kumar Jha (now RJD MP in the Rajya Sabha) to join the party,” he added.
‘A popular student’
Mandal remembers Lal as “a popular student who was politically active”.
“I was in (RSS student wing) ABVP while Ratan was inclined towards speaking for the oppressed and backward classes. Our ideologies were, however, never the basis for any differences,” he said.
Professor Abha Dev Habib from Miranda College called Lal an opinion-maker. “He raises pertinent social issues and talks about them on his social media platform,” she said.
Another of Lal’s colleagues, assistant professor of English at Hindu College, Prem Kumar Vijayan, had similar views. “Professor Lal is an outspoken member of the faculty and he actively takes part in staff association and college matters. He is well known among students and faculty members,” he said.
On Lal’s arrest, Vijayan said: “This matter is really about freedom of speech and a person’s right to have an opinion. If a person’s social media post is offensive to you, you put up your opinions on social media opposing them. There is no need to start legal proceedings against someone who does not agree with you.”
He added that “Lal is straight-forward and blunt while expressing his opinions, which might not be something that everyone likes”.
Hindu College Principal Anju Srivastava refused to comment on the professor or his arrest, and said: “This is a very crucial time for the college. We have exams going on, we have to focus on invigilation and evaluation.”
Professor Lal’s ‘Shivling’ post and arrest have divided some in the student community.
While the majority of students agitated against his arrest, a bunch of students From Hindu College’s Sanskrit department held a protest outside the college gate Monday, demanding that the professor apologise for his social media post.
Abhishek Tripathi, 21, who was part of the protest, told ThePrint: “We are Hindus and we are unhappy with the post that professor Lal put up. We want an apology from him and the college to remove him from his post.”
Another student from the college, refusing to be identified, said Lal was a known face and the matter had been blown out of proportion.
“I have not attended his classes so I don’t know what he’s like there, but with recognition comes responsibility. He should be sensitive to people’s sentiments. Such jokes only show him in a poor light. I think he should apologise for his statement,” she said.
A member of her group of friends chimed in: “The whole issue has now been politicised by the Left- and Right-wing student parties. No one is looking at it from a sane, neutral perspective.”
A Muslim student who had joined the protest asked “what the meaning of the post” was.
“Circumcision in our religion is a practice advocated by our Prophet and we follow it. What is the point of making such a ridiculous joke on it?” added the student, not wishing to be named.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)