Interview | Why Is Adityanath Afraid of This 23-Year-Old Student?

Arfa Khanum Sherwani: 11 Aug 2018

Hello and welcome to The Wire. I am Arfa Khanam Sherwani. In the last 4.5 years, all educationists, or people with an interest in the future of India, are concerned and worried about the manner in which the Narendra Modi government has changed higher education institutions.

But worse, the Yogi Adityanath government too has conducted an attack on students, tried to threaten them and in fact attempted to criminalise students’ fundamental right to and their culture of demonstrations. If you attempt to protest, which is your constitutional right, then you are taken straight to prison. And if this was not enough, after returning from jail, your future will be hanging in uncertainty.

Today, we are joined by Pooja Shukla – yes, the same girl who around a year ago showed black flags to Yogi Adityanath, and since then, it seems as though the war between her and the police is never-ending.

We will be speaking to her in the studio today. Pooja, welcome to the show.

Pooja Shukla is 23 years old and the mighty government, the strong administration of Yogi Adityanath and his ministers, fears her.

Why does Yogi Adityanath fear you?

Pooja Shukla: See, basically I think that not just Yogi Adityanath, but the entire Bharatiya Janata Party has two big weaknesses. The first is farmers, and the second, the youth. They are very scared of these people. They feel that way because we have seen and understood their terrible history, we saw the way in which the JP movement, if you remember it, began from a mess.

And it grew into a corruption movement against Indira Gandhi. In the same way, they feel that on one hand we have a farmers’ protest going on, if on the other hand a youth protest rises from universities, if the voices of the opposition rise from universities, they fear that this movement might take a stand against this government, against this administration’s corruption, against this administration’s shortcomings, or perhaps against the manner in which repression is carried out by this administration, or against some undeclared emergencies. This is why they are afraid.

AKS: Pooja, our Wire viewers would like to know, we know that the last time you were taken to jail ten charges were slapped upon you and you had to remain in prison for around a month, a student who was simply exercising her constitutional right. From then to now, about a year has passed, what are the things you had to endure and what are you studying now?

PS: Look, I will tell you this: when we had shown Yogi Adityanath a black flag, there were basically two reasons for it. The first was a fee hike of over 60% at the campus, preventing the entrance of poor students. Our second reason was corruption: on one hand you are saying you do not have sufficient funds for academics, while on the other you are organising RSS programmes on campus using money meant for academics, and we opposed this. We showed the black flag and for this, we were beaten ruthlessly.

For 26 days, we had to remain in jail. Now think: simply for showing a black flag, the punishment you must endure is being thrown in jail for a month. There was no consideration of the implications, given that we’re in a male-dominated society, plus the societal perception of jail, when they lifted a female student and put her in jail. Moreover, her bail was stopped later merely for the reason that Narendra Modi was set to visit on June 21. The situation that transpired after that as well has been very scary.

AKS: You were also not given admission, so you are unable to study in Lucknow University.

PS: Yes, this is what I would like to tell you, the situation that has come – we are constantly trolled, people give us filthy insults on the streets; the situation is such that people are giving you rape threats, on campus their ABVP goons disturb you so much that you cannot even go to campus to study. Just recently, what happened is that I applied for an MA in Women’s Studies at Lucknow University.

I gave the entrance, and after that, I qualified in the exam, but the university put my result on hold. So I went to inquire about the reason, and was not given any. However, the reason was given time after time verbally, “You have shown Yogi Adityanath a black flag, you will not be given admission.”

AKS: But it was not given in written form?

PS: It was not given in a written form. Thereafter, I kept asking for a written reason. I then came to the decision that from July 2, we would be going on hunger strike. We began our hunger strike on July 2 – protests have been going on on campus since June 28. After we began our hunger strike on July 2, neither the police administrators came, nor the university administrators and we simply sat there.

However, on campus, washrooms were shut, water was shut, and the lights were cut. We sat there the whole night. After that, suddenly on July 4, we saw in the Dainik Jagran paper – which is the favourite paper of our VC, he gives statements only to Dainik Jagran – that the proctor had given a statement saying, “Pooja Shukla showed black flags last year, for which reason we have dismissed her.”

This is all in the July 4 paper. I immediately spoke to the proctor, saying, “This statement of yours is being published in the paper, that my protest against Adityanath is the reason why you are not giving me admission, but you are not giving me that reason. So, if this statement is incorrect, you should file an FIR against it. Otherwise it means you have given this statement yourself.” He confirmed that yes, he had indeed stated this himself.

AKS: So clearly, the punishment for waving black flags and protesting is that you had to pay with your future; you have lost your Lucknow University admission. Pooja, here the question that is born is what transpires with one student in Lucknow University, in fact every student can relate to it. He can see himself in these shoes. We are thus thoroughly convinced that a national politics is at play here, in capturing you or putting you in jail.

This is not the matter of one student, this is the matter of India. What I would like to ask you is, whether you think you are being punished for your protest against saffronisation in politics, or is it that the Yogi administration is undemocratic and this is why you are being punished?

PS: Forcefully imposing any agenda on students, that is what is undemocratic. And the manner in which the saffron flag is in many places being imposed on students, their politics is thus distinctly clear. Till now, you see that campus politics and the politics of politicians themselves was very different.

But since this administration has come to power, since 2014, we have seen the Rohith Vemula incident where a student had to lose his life – why? Simply because Smriti Irani was writing a letter. Since then, constantly, whether at JNU, Hyderabad, Ambedkar University, or Lucknow University – there is no university where the government’s saffronisation agenda is not visible. And whichever vice-chancellors were appointed – you can see the norms, they do not fulfil a single one of the norms.

It is the same in Lucknow University, S.P. Singh does not fulfil the norms of being a vice-chancellor. A degree college principal was simply lifted and made a vice-chancellor. After that, you see that the same vice-chancellor, instead of talking about students, is speaking like a spokesperson of the Sangh.

“You are showing black flags,” – truly, I have not been involved in any activity which is unconstitutional. If a person performs some action which is against the constitution, you can take action against them. But if there is no such unconstitutional activity? I am expressing opposition in a democratic manner within the scope of the constitution, but my admission is still being stopped.

AKS: Pooja, do you feel that the process which is currently going on in India, wherein they are not saying anything special, simply that despite it being the constitutional duty of a citizen, you are in fact an adult and an Indian citizen – student protest should be criminalised – that if you avail of your rights, you will have to go to jail. Do you feel that this has been generalised, that it is being presented as the new normal?

PS: Actually, this is a government made up of criminals. Yogi Adityanath is a goon, Narendra Modi is blamed for the Gujarat riots. When it is an administration of rioters, of course their primary focus will be how to criminalise these students, these reading and writing youths, these questioning youths. So that in public, the value of their voices is lost.

Now in this, we have seen two incidents, in fact we have seen three. In BHU, when students were protesting against harassment they faced, they themselves were slapped with charges of section 307. The very same with Allahabad University.

AKS: In Allahabad, girls were held by their hair and dragged. It is very important that we remind our viewers of this.

PS: Rama and Neha were dragged. At the same time, Avnish Yadav, who was president of the students’ union, was sent to jail under serious charges for 35 days when he was part of a display. Why was he sent? Because he protested against the hostels being snatched away from students for whitewash, NET exams were approaching and he protested that till the NET exam, the hostels should allow students to remain – poor students who have nowhere else to go. He was sent to jail with serious charges, like 307 and all sorts of others.

It was just the same in Lucknow University, peaceful demonstrations will be going on when an accident occurs, sponsored by the VC. After that, students will be targeted, whichever students ask questions or protest, they are caught in a targeted manner, and after they are caught, they are beaten. Even I have been arrested, beaten after being lifted from my hunger strike. I was taken 25 kilometres from Lucknow to a station, and those students were litigated against on the grounds of 307, without any medical or any wounds, they were charged under section 307 and sent to jail.

AKS: Pooja, you are so vocal, you have been fighting for a year, are you not afraid?

PS: No, I am not afraid. There is no question of feeling afraid, when I have accepted that I am [against] this government’s – not this government alone, but any government that may come and do undemocratic things, declare unnecessary emergency, represses students on campus and does not let us fight against injustice.

AKS: How do you see the fury of students playing out in 2019? Do you see it manifesting into some sort of result or do you feel that students who share your opinions are fewer in number?

PS: It is straightforward: The manner in which I was illegally detained upon the prime minister’s visit. In fact, it was as though I was abducted. I was waiting for an auto on the road, and policemen arrived in two or three jeeps and took me forcibly. My mobile was snatched, my purse was snatched and I was made to sit in the car. And for three hours when my family phoned there, they were sent in circles. Someone pretended to be my mother when someone called. I was taken on the highway, and they were speaking in the manner of conducting an encounter. At the same time, my father was scared with threats back at home.

So all these things show the manner in which there is an opposition of students across the nation, that wherever Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Yogi Adityanath or any of their leaders go, they are forced to face the opposition of students. Opposition parties – you will see that the students have become the primary opposition of the administration.

The way in which this administration fears students, it is evident that if anyone can shake our administration or remove us from power, it is these students.

AKS: So, this fearless and vocal Pooja Shukla, does she have any interest in politics? Politicians like you must come.

PS: I admit that this is a very important time, women have indeed taken control. BHU, Allahabad, Delhi, Lucknow – you can see everywhere, students are the vocal opposition to them. The women they wish to treat according to the Manusmriti, the women they treat with double standards, the women they think should remain at home and cook food, it is those women students that are teaching them what politics should be.

AKS: So will you stand for election?

PS: That will be decided by the people.

AKS: You have answered very diplomatically.

PS: No, if the people want it, I will fight elections. Right now, I think the people want me to protest.

AKS: Thank you. So Pooja Shukla, a 23-year-old, young student who even chief minister Yogi Adityanath is scared of, but Pooja Shukla is scared of no one. Perhaps it is these vocal and fearless students who are the future of India. Namaskar. ( The Wire )