Even as the controversy over the Gyanvapi mosque rages, Ravi Kant, associate professor in Lucknow University’s Hindi Department, became one of its unintended victims. His citing of a story in a debate on the Satya Hindi YouTube channel regarding why Mughal emperor Aurangzeb demolished the Kashi Vishwanath temple angered the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates, which are not accustomed to people countering their narrative on India’s past.
Prof Ravi Kant says he has been targeted because of his Dalit identity, for he was merely repeating what India’s top historians have written. The Sangh was enraged because, he claims, it does not expect Dalits to challenge their bogus theories. In this interview with NewsClick, Ravi Kant talks about what he said during the YouTube channel debate—and the perils of attempting to right the historical wrongs. Excerpts:
What was the comment you made on the Satya Hindi YouTube channel that has created such a storm?
On the night of 7 May, the channel held a panel discussion on whether the Bharatiya Janata Party would gain from the controversy over Varanasi’s district court ordering a survey of the Gyanvapi mosque. During the discussion, I cited a story from Pattabhi Sitaramayya’s book, Feathers and Stones.
Sitaramayya was one of the stalwarts of the national movement.
He was not only a stalwart but was also the author of The History of the Congress [published in 1935.] This story is also cited in Kamleshwar’s Kitne Pakistan, which not only won the Sahitya Akademi award but is, even today, in the Hindi literature syllabus of the Union Public Service Commission civil services examination.
What precisely did Sitaramayya say in the book?
He says Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was, in the 1760s, passing through Banaras (Varanasi). With him were several Hindu rajas and ranis. They requested the emperor that they would want to bathe in the Ganga and worship in the Kashi Vishwanath temple. Aurangzeb agreed. The royal camp was pitched there.
It was later discovered that one of the queens, described in the story as the Rani of Kutch, was missing. A search was organised. She was found in the underground cell of the sanctum sanctorum of the Kashi Vishwanath temple.
Is it implied that the Rani was abducted and raped?
Sitaramayya does not say that explicitly. But Kamleshwar does in his novel. Enraged, Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of the temple. Later, the Rani of Kutch appealed to Aurangzeb to restore the temple. Through what is called the Banaras firman, Aurangzeb said it was not possible to rebuild the temple and, therefore, ordered the Gyanvapi mosque to be constructed at the site.
What was your purpose in citing this story?
The district court ordered the survey on a petition filed by five Delhi-based women. I wanted to point out that perhaps the five ladies very likely did not know the story about the Rani of Kutch.
How did your intervention become a raging controversy at Lucknow University?
The debate was held on the night of 7 May. On 10 May, around 10.30 pm, I was told that a vilification campaign had been launched against me on social media. I was abused. Threats were issued that I would be beaten. Someone had uploaded a video of the debate on Twitter. That video was 1.20-minutes-long. It was said that I had described the sadhus and sants as rapists. When I saw the video, I realised it had been selectively edited. My reference to Sitaramayya’s book had been taken out.
I uploaded on Twitter the entire video of my intervention in the Satya Hindi debate, with a request that social media users should acquaint themselves with what I had spoken.
Yet the matter blew up the next day, on 11 May.
When I was taking my class on 11 May, a message was posted on the Lucknow University Teachers’ Association WhatsApp group. A professor in the Geology department had posted the same edited video with a comment that I should be beaten with shoes. He had posted this message around 10.30 am.
At 11.45 am, as I was going towards the Hindi department, around 100 students came running towards me and raised slogans, such as “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko” and “Desh ke gaddaron ko, joote maaro saalon ko.”
Did the mob consist only of students from Lucknow University?
No, the mob comprised outsiders as well. By the way, at 8.30 am, I had already informed the university proctor about the threats issued against me. He had called in the police. Yet the mob was allowed to assemble inside the university, even though Section 144 is in operation on the campus. It can very well be argued that students have the right to protest. Such a protest would have been legitimate if I had, for instance, been guilty of not holding classes. But students cannot protest against what I say in a TV debate or what I do at home.
Did the police intervene?
I was asked to go inside the proctor’s office. But the students reached there as well. They took to banging on the door that was locked. They were abusing me. Inside the office, some members of the proctorial board mounted pressure on me to explain my statement and apologise to students. I told them that under no circumstance I was going to apologise.
Did you meet the students?
Yes, I came out of the office and told them that the university is regarded as the site of discussion and debate. I invited them to debate with me—over what I had spoken in the Satya Hindi discussion. I told them that if they defeated me with their arguments, nothing could bring greater joy to me as a teacher than their victory. All fathers consider it their good fate when they are outclassed by their children. However, I told them that if your sentiments have been hurt, I express my regret.
For a while, the situation seemed under control. But some among them were insistent that I should apologise. I had returned to the proctor’s office. They returned, again took to banging on the door. I must confess I was scared. I posted on my Facebook page that ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) activists want to lynch me.
Nevertheless, I came out. I again told them that under no circumstances would I apologise to them.
You said that to the mob?
Yes, I said, ‘It is my right to put forth my arguments, to say what I want.’ The mob dispersed. But then a fresh question arose over my Facebook post. I told the proctor that I was scared when I posted that message. I said I was willing to delete the post. The proctor said the matter had been resolved and I should return home.
The matter ended there?
No, in the evening, I was told that an FIR, citing four sections of the Indian Penal Code, had been filed at the Hassan Ganj police station against me. I went there and lodged my complaint. But my complaint has not yet been turned into an FIR.
Do you think you are being deliberately targetted—and discriminated against?
This is the first big attempt to terrorise me. But I am often subjected to abuses on social media.
The principal reason is that I belong to the Dalit community. Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts have inspired me to write against blind faith, against the oppression of Dalits. I also participate in political discussions on TV channels. Whether it is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the Bajrang Dal, I have been openly opposing their wrong policies and actions.
In other words, the ABVP, an RSS affiliate, wanted to teach you a lesson?
Yes. If Muslims demolished temples, it is also true that many temples were built after destroying Buddhist monasteries. This has been said by historians such as DN Jha and DD Kosambi. They were Brahmin. But if I say the same thing, I am attacked. And that is because I am a Dalit.
Jha, in Rethinking Hindu Identity, shows that the Hindu identity, as it is known today, emerged in the 18th-19th century. The identity was earlier constructed around sects—Vaishnavite, Shaivite sects, etc. People did not call themselves Hindu. They identified themselves by their sect.
Historians have speculated on the many ways in which the Hindu identity was constructed?
Can those who claim Hindus were converted to Islam deny that conversion used to take place even before Muslim rule? A Vaishnavite would become a Shaivite, and so on.
RS Sharma points out that areas predominantly Muslim were also those where Buddhism had flourished—for instance, Kashmir, extreme Northwest (Pakistan) and extreme East (Bangladesh) of undivided India. Is it not true that long before Islam came to India, rulers subscribing to what is identified today as Brahmanical Hinduism killed Buddhists, destroyed stupas and monasteries and expelled Buddhism from India? Did not Pushyamitra Shunga (185-149 BCE) announce that a gold coin would be given to a person who brought him a Buddhist’s head?
Do you think the theory that Brahmanical Hinduism defeated Buddhism through religious debates is just a myth? Conversely, do you believe the Buddhists were persecuted, converted, slaughtered and driven out of India?
Yes, absolutely. And therefore, why do those Hindus who want to reclaim for themselves mosques, allegedly built by destroying temples, stop with Mahmud of Ghazni or Muhammad Ghori? They should go all the way back in time. Jyotiba Phule has written that the Aryans (or the upper castes) were foreigners who vanquished the indigenous people, slaughtered them and turned them into slaves. Quite obviously, the places of worship of indigenous people (including the Dalits) were turned into temples.
How do we right the historical wrong of untouchability perpetrated against Dalits? In fact, untouchability still continues in large parts of India.
Look at the injustice: The women of the Channar or Shanar caste (also known as Nadar) in Travancore were proscribed from covering their breasts. You were polluted by the touch of Dalits in north India, by their sight in South India. All these social practices began long before Islam came to India. How come the same people who want to convert mosques into temples do not ponder over what their forefathers did to Dalits?
In other words, the endeavour to right historical wrongs would logically also involve imposing the same invidious limitations on those whose ancestors foisted them on others, particularly Dalits?
Absolutely, if you can disregard the Places of Worship Act, 1991, in order to turn the Gyanvapi mosque into a temple, you have to then also right the historical wrongs committed against Dalits. Look at it in another way: Dalits and Shudras are indigenous people. Aryans are foreigners. Does it mean Dalits and Shudras can tell those who claim to be Aryans that they do not have the right to stay in India? The existence of multiple traditions in India is why it was decided that India was to be a secular country, with the state maintaining an equal distance from all religions. History is for taking lessons, not to take revenge.
What do you think is the end goal of the Sangh Parivar—to maintain the dominance of the upper castes?
All RSS chiefs, barring one exception, were Brahmin. How come there has been no Dalit chief of the RSS, given that they claim Dalits are Hindu?
That the Lucknow University Teachers’ Association (LUTA) pushed back against the Sangh shows it has not become as dominant as is believed.
Yes, LUTA’s pushback is evidence of that. But it is also true that attempts to oppress Dalits have become brazen. After the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, a pradhan in Muzaffarnagar announced that any Jatav (he, in fact, used a derogatory caste term) who dared to enter his village would be administered 50 blows by a shoe. A Thakur beat an OBC boy in Rae Bareilly and made him lick his shoes. They want to turn Dalits into slaves all over again.
Are you saying the Sangh Parivar’s ultimate goal is counter-revolution, given that it is widely accepted that India’s independence and our Constitution marked a democratic revolution?
Yes, that is what I am saying. In an interview with the BBC in 1940, Ambedkar said the emergence of a Hindu Rashtra would be the greatest tragedy for India—and it needs to be opposed by all means.