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Published : Sep 27, 2019 07:00 IST

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Prof. Hany Babu.

Prof. Hany Babu.

An early morning police raid at a Delhi University professor’s house is indicative of the government’s attempts to stifle criticism.

Hany Babu M.T., an associate professor in the Department of English at Delhi University (D.U.), had his life turned upside down on September 10 when a posse of policemen knocked on his door at 6 a.m. Without producing a warrant, they raided his Noida apartment for the next several hours. Hany Babu’s wife, who teaches at Miranda House, and his daughter, who was forced to miss school that day, were detained for more than six hours. The family was not allowed to contact a friend or lawyer.

The search party went through each and every book and document in the apartment, reading the titles and blurbs carefully. “Sometimes they even flipped the pages to read more inside,” said Hany Babu.

In a scene reminiscent of the dystopian world created in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, the team, which identified itself as Pune Police, treated the books as illegal commodities and confiscated four of them: Understanding Maoists: Notes of a Participant Observer from Andhra Pradesh by N. Venugopal, From Varna to Jati: Political Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation by Yalavarthi Naveen Babu, and two booklets on the Defence Committee for G.N. Saibaba, of which Hany Babu is the general secretary.

None of these books is banned and they are freely available in the public domain. The policemen also seized Hany Babu’s phone, two laptops, hard drives and other electronic devices found in the house. They made him change his passwords and forfeit access to his email account and other personal online media. They said the raid was in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case, in which 11 people have been named, of whom nine have been behind bars for more than a year. Hany Babu’s name does not feature in the charge sheet or first information report (FIR).

The police said that he was a suspect and as such they were not bound to reveal any more information to him at this stage.

Hundreds of students and teachers condemned the “illegal raid”. One letter in solidarity said that this had “become routine harassment for dissenting citizens” and the manner of search and seizure made way “for a possible planting of evidence, to concoct a case against an assumed ‘suspect’”.

“The raids and arrests made in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case as well as the verdict against Dr Saibaba and others—both of which are relevant in the context of Babu’s house-search—convince us of how knowledge has come to be deemed as crime against the state,” said the letter signed by close to 400 academics from across the world. They were baffled by the confiscation of books and technological gadgets—which contain a lifetime of Hany Babu’s research—as identifiable sources of his crime.

“The fact that legally obtained and publicly available documents may be imagined by the state as containing traces of one’s culpability is worse than declared attempts at censorship. It effectively means that any text may now become a pretext for the state to snoop into and invade our homes, our bookshelves, our lives and our families. Is the act of reading itself proscribed in what is numerically the world’s largest democracy?” they asked.

They said that Hany Babu was a greatly respected scholar and teacher who had been associated with democratic struggles both at the university and outside.

He was actively invested in the cause of social justice through academic writing and persistent litigation, a proof of his deep faith in constitutional law.

Activism

Growing up as a Malabar Muslim belonging to the Moplah caste, which comes under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category in Kerala, Hany Babu was not overtly political. His father insisted on all the children getting education and brought them up in a secular environment.

He joined academia in the early 2000s, becoming one of the first lecturers to join the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), which is now English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), under the OBC reservation. It made him more aware of his caste identity, with all its social history.

He became the secretary of the CIEFL Teachers Association and tackled issues of bad appointments and corruption. It was then that his interest in law was ignited. In 2007, he came to Delhi as an associate professor and obtained a law degree through evening classes. At the time there was rampant flouting of OBC reservation in admissions in D.U. Thousands of OBC seats had been converted into general category seats.

Hany Babu and some friends approached the court in 2008-09 under the banner of the Delhi University Reservation Execution Committee (DUREC). The case went on for two years, and the court conceded that it was a wrongful practice. Gradually, smaller groups of OBC teachers started approaching the DUREC, and Hany Babu became the general secretary of the Academic Forum for Social Justice.

In 2010, they took up the case of Tanvi Yadav who was seeking admission to the LLB degree and challenged the university’s decision to adhere to a cut-off regardless of government rules that specified minimum eligibility. (In September that year, in response to a writ petition filed by Apurva on the admission policy of Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Delhi High Court said that universities can only fix eligibility criteria and that relaxation for reserved seats should be on the basis of these criteria.)

The High Court did not give Tanvi Yadav any relief but, according to Hany Babu, its judgment of December 2010 made an important observation that the university was bound by the provisions of Apurva vs Union of India , which meant that it had to relax the eligibility norms and not on the basis of the last admitted general category candidate.

The university appealed against the judgment, and in an interim order passed on June 3, 2011, a division bench of the Delhi High Court stayed the December judgment of the single bench.

The judgment had an immediate impact and thousands of OBC seats were filled from the next academic session onwards. After that, the Forum assisted Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and OBC students in admissions every year and actively resolved their issues.

One of the issues related to a discriminatory practice in the online admission process. It was available only to general category students, and reserved category students had to run from pillar to post.

Once again, the Forum approached the High Court and obtained an assurance that the process would be streamlined from the next session. After that, Hany Babu participated in the FYUP (four-year undergraduate programme) struggle and fought for proper implementation of the 200-point roster system alongside other colleagues.

Bahujan activist

While the raid at his house was in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case and supposedly for Maoist links, Prof. Hany Babu says that he was never a Left activist. While he has been in solidarity with various causes and has not shied away from speaking in favour of human rights issues, he says he is essentially a Bahujan activist engaged in the democratic struggle for equality.

The only direct association he has with any Left movement is the Defence Committee that continues to provide legal aid and medical support to Dr Saibaba. Hany Babu is the third member of the committee to be made a suspect in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Bhima Koregaon case

On the eve of the bicentennial of the Bhima Koregaon battle (January 1, 2018), hundreds of Dalit and rights-based groups came together for an event known as the Elgaar Parishad. Violence broke out the next day and an FIR was lodged in the matter on January 8.

In June 2018, five rights activists were arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, for their alleged links with Maoists. They were Surendra Gadling, a human rights lawyer from Nagpur; Sudhir Dhawale, a Dalit rights leader and editor of Vidrohi ; Rona Wilson, a New Delhi-based social activist; Shoma Sen, a professor of English at Nagpur University; and Mahesh Raut, a former recipient of the Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship.

On August 23, the names of the activist Stan Swamy, the author and cartoonist Arun Ferreira, the poet-activist Varavara Rao, the activist and columnist Vernon Gonsalves, the lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj, and the activists Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde were added to the FIR.

On August 28, Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Ferreira and Gonsalves were taken into custody. They were charged with conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As evidence, the police cited an email dated April 18, 2017, which they claimed to have seized from Rona Wilson’s laptop. In the case of Gonsalves, the police listed some books seized from his house as evidence against him.

In August last year, the Pune Police conducted similar raids at the residence of Prof. K. Satyanarayana on the EFLU campus in Hyderabad. The house of the Ranchi-based activist Stan Swamy was also raided on two separate occasions.

In September last year, Romila Thapar, Devaki Jain, Prabhat Patnaik, Satish Deshpande and Maja Daruwala petitioned the Supreme Court to immediately release the five arrested human rights activists and constitute a special investigation team probe into their arrest. The Supreme Court rejected their plea.

In November, the first charge sheet, of over 5,000 pages, was filed. A supplementary charge sheet was filed early this year additionally naming the fugitive Maoist leader Ganapathy as the mastermind behind the Elgaar Parishad.

Gautam Navlakha and Anand Teltumbde have secured protection against arrest from the Bombay High Court. The police have challenged the orders. The High Court is hearing the bail pleas of Ferreira, Gonsalves and Sudha Bharadwaj after the Pune sessions court refused to grant them bail last year.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 11, 2019.)

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