On Saturday afternoon, there was good news. Ratan Lal, an associate professor at Delhi University’s Hindu College, was granted bail by a Delhi court. He had been arrested on Friday night from his residence in Delhi for a post on the social media platform Facebook.
An FIR had been filed against him under IPC Sections 153A and 295A. Section 153A pertains to a cognizable offence of “promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups on the grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language”. Section 295A concerns “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.
Ratan Lal has been trolled by hatemongers. He has received threats to his life, forcing him to write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a gun licence. Ratan Lal’s post concerned what appears to be a fountain inside Gyanvapi Masjid in Banaras, which the right-wing Hindu groups claim is a Shivling. This has been dutifully brought into the mainstream discourse by a media subservient to the State.
Ratan Lal is a Dalit from Ladaura village in the Kurhani police station area of Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He worked hard for his academic qualifications and was appointed to the Department of History, Hindu College, in 2002. His late father Rambali Prasad worked at the Income Tax Department. Ratan Lal had come to Delhi in 1991 for higher education. In 2015, he also contested the Bihar Assembly Elections from Patepur constituency in Vaishali district as an independent candidate but lost.
Around 70 per cent of Dalits, the former Untouchables, either do not own land or have a very small piece of land. They are mostly agricultural laborers and workers. Even today, they are often treated as Untouchables and become victims of caste atrocities, despite there being laws against them. Dalits are stopped while entering temples and attacked for riding horses or wearing good clothes.
A small section of Dalits are intellectuals. Ratan Lal is one of them. They have been the beneficiaries of reservation in public educational institutions and, inspired by the works and struggles of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, are now challenging the upper-caste hegemony in society.
Ratan Lal’s PhD thesis was on the historian K.P. Jaiswal (1881-1937), who wrote a very influential book Hindu Polity: A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times (1924). By drawing upon Vedic and other classical literature, Jaiswal tries to argue that “sovereign assemblies” were held in the Vedic period. He even claims the existence of “The Hindu Republic” and “Hindu Imperial System” in the ancient period.
The PhD thesis of Ratan Lal was titled ‘K.P. Jaiswal: The Making of a Nationalist Historian’ and was supervised by Marxist historian K.M Shrimali of Delhi University. He was awarded his PhD in 2014.
The work of Jaiswal was used by the nationalist leaders to counter the narratives of the British colonial rulers, who questioned Indians’ ability to self-rule. However, the limitation of Jaiswal’s work was that it built on James Mill’s communal periodization of Indian history as Hindu and Muslim. The work tends to glorify the “Hindu” period, feeding off the communal polarization since the 1920s. Ratan Lal’s work thus deals with such a critical phase of modern Indian history.
Apart from research and teaching, Ratan Lal is known for his activism and for running a very popular YouTube channel, “Ambedkar Nama”. On his channel, he holds discussions and conducts interviews on contemporary issues, particularly those affecting the lives of marginalized communities – the Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. He takes a position informed by the Dalitbahujan ideology and confronts the Hindu right-wing and all those forces who want to preserve and strengthen the caste-based social order.
As a popular teacher at a prestigious college of Delhi University, he has a large number of admirers and followers. As an active member of the Delhi University teachers’ community, he is often seen at protests favouring progressive educational policies. An Ambedkarite intellectual like Ratan Lal problematizes the communal narrative of Hindus versus Muslims and it is not surprising that he has become a thorn in the flesh of the Hindu right wing.
The arrest of Ratan Lal is not an isolated incident. Is it a mere coincidence that Ravikant Chandan, who teaches at Lucknow University, and activist and politician Jignesh Mevani are all Dalits and Ambedkarites and are facing court cases, too? In fact, Mevani was put behind bars by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Assam government.
On the pretext of hurting Hindu sentiments, there is an elaborate design to silence all those who are critical of the unequal Hindu social order. The upper castes, who dominate the institutions of the State and the media, aren’t used to critical voices from the Bahujan community.
With their meagre resources, activist-scholars like Ratan Lal are beginning to shake this monopoly through various social media platforms. As is evident here, the attack on Prof Ratan Lal has little to do with hurting Hindu sentiments and more to do with bullying an Ambedkarite. By such an act of intimidation, he is being denied his fundamental rights of personal liberty and freedom of speech.
It is heartening that the court has granted him bail. But the real challenge to continue Ambedkar’s mission to democratize society amid an authoritarian State and frenzied communal forces has perhaps only begun.
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