Oxford Presidential Coup: An Essentially Indian Hit-Job Against Rashmi Samant

Oxford Presidential Coup: An Essentially Indian Hit-Job Against Rashmi Samant

by Rajdeep Sarkar - Friday, March 19, 2021 05:20 PM IST
Oxford Presidential Coup: An Essentially Indian Hit-Job Against Rashmi SamantRashmi Samant.
  • Anyone interested in getting to the bottom of the matter must investigate the role of Indians and South Asians in planning and executing the hit-job against Samant.

    She is a victim of moral policing by those who regard themselves as custodians of progress and inclusivity.

On 11 February, Rashmi Samant was elected as the president of Oxford Students’ Union. She was the first Indian to be elected to this post. By the next day, social media was overflowing with old posts she had made in the years past.

She was accused of being racist, anti-Semitic, trans phobic etc, and declared unfit to represent students of Oxford. After prolonged pressure, Samant resigned, her tenure lasting five days. Much has happened since then, including a session in the Rajya Sabha where External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar took note of the issue.

This article is not going to look at the reactions to Samant’s resignation. It will only examine the accusations raised against her.

Three accusations were principally made against her:

  1. She captioned a photo of herself in Malaysia with the words ‘Ching Chang’, indicating a derogatory reference to the facial features of East Asians.
  2. She captioned a photo taken at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin with the words "The memorial *CASTS* a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds".
  3. She indulged in transphobia when she wrote "women, transwomen and men" in one of her posts, thereby separating women from transwomen.

Let’s investigate these charges.

(1) Racism: Ching Chang is a poor imitation of the languages spoken by Chinese-origin people by non-Chinese. It is not unique to Samant. Having a comic take on languages one does not know is common enough, as I can attest from my experience of being a Bengali.

Yet, it rarely provokes charges of racism or any kind of discrimination. No doubt the same words can be spoken with racist or discriminatory intentions, but the words themselves do not inherently indicate racism or discrimination. It depends on the spirit in which the words are used.

The accusation against Samant was in connection with a photo of herself in Malaysia. Rashmi’s explanation was anything but racist, but cut no ice with Oxford’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, Oxford’s Chinese Society and other representative bodies.

Samant accepted her post was in bad taste and said she should have known better than to have unwittingly upset feelings of East and South-East Asians, but apologies are of little value, especially when the objective is to depose the one elected, as in this case.

Her presidential manifesto and recent statements leave no room for doubt about her egalitarian, non-discriminatory attitude, but she was made to pay a disproportionate price for it.

(2) Anti-Semitism: The first charge at least carries some substance. The second charge by contrast carries none. How does the caption “The memorial *CASTS* a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds.

Reflecting on it gives us the power to live with the past vouching for a better future. #holocaustMemorial #uniqueArchitecture” deny the Holocaust or disrespect its victims? Isn’t the monument erected precisely so that a watcher reflects on that dreadful past to make a better future? It seems her accusers think the word ‘hollow’ downgraded the magnitude of crimes against Jews. Therefore, she was accused of anti-Semitism.

But it is clear from the caption itself that she neither denied the Holocaust nor in any way disrespected its victims. In fact, the very words "casts a hollow dream" are an indication that she was moved by the sombre atmosphere a monument like the Holocaust Memorial is likely to evoke.

It is a natural reaction for most people to be filled with heaviness when they are reminded of the victims of Nazi atrocities which the monument commemorates. The word ‘hollow’, by her own admission, was a pun on ‘Holo’ of Holocaust.

A harmless pun was turned by her accusers into one of the gravest crimes one can commit in Germany and Europe generally, in spite of her explanation that she as a non-native English speaker only intended to crack a pun. As I see it, those who accused her of anti-Semitism have not only been licentious in their interpretation of the caption, they have more importantly invented a lie to malign the person they accused. The question is why?

(3) Trans phobia: Oxford Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) said “the President-Elect made a distinction between trans women and women, thereby implying that trans women are not women and perpetuating trans-exclusionary ideology”. Let’s clarify.

The Wikipedia article on trans women defines a trans woman as “a woman who was assigned male at birth”. They undergo a process in later life at the completion of which they identify as women and adopt that identity. This is not the experience of women, or non-trans women to be exact, who do not undergo the same struggle arising out of the tension between sex and gender identity.

So, there is a difference between women and transwomen, and it is of a factual nature. That is the reason why there is a category called ‘trans women’ in the first place. CRAE itself acknowledges the difference when it says Samant’s words perpetuate trans-exclusion.

Someone has to exist to be excluded. It may be someone’s wish to erase the difference in language so that trans women are identified as women, but it does not accord with facts. At best, it is well-meaning ignorance; at worst, it is deliberate obfuscation, anti-scientific and anti-factual; perhaps plain stupidity.

As to the intention of the accused, her post was in an egalitarian spirit that did not distinguish between trans women and women. It only mentioned them separately because, well, they are not the same. It is like saying one should not mention men and women differently because it is exclusion of women, or men. The logic of the accusers on this one is stretched so far that its thread has come undone from reason.

Moral Policing

In a statement made on Facebook, the Oxford Students Union Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality said “Although we cannot assume the intentions of Ms Samant, we believe that it is ultimately the impact of her actions that are important here: she has hurt the East-Asian, Jewish, and trans communities.” Yet in none of the concerned countries was there even a murmur.

China, Malaysia, other South East Asian countries, Israel, Jewish groups and the greater trans community had nothing to say. Why? Because the issue simply did not merit the kind of attention as it did in the hyper-sensitive corridors of Oxford student politics. Only by spinning a web of falsehood could Samant be implicated. India is the only foreign country where the issue gathered steam, and that is because many Indians correctly identified the problem to be one of intolerance towards Hindus.

CRAE’s statement goes on: “Not only did she post racially insensitive captions on social media, but she has also proceeded to deny the harm caused by her actions when questioned. The excuses she has provided are at the absolute best an indicator of complete ignorance, and therefore a demonstration of the candidate’s inadequacy to represent the Oxford student body, or are at worst a complete fabrication in an attempt to redirect responsibility.”

Observe her ‘crimes’: causing hurt to sentiments, racial insensitivity, denial of harms caused by her actions are crimes of the first order; ignorance and redirecting responsibility are second order crimes, an ‘at best’ scenario.

It is a perfect example of moral policing, which can be defined as individuals or groups out to enforce a code of morality at any cost. Samant is a victim of moral policing by those who regard themselves as custodians of progress and inclusivity.

But, in her case, the charges are false, concocted with ulterior objectives. If the prosecution and jury were different as democratic norm requires, the case would have been decided in her favour because culpability is judged on the basis of intention. CRAE’s statement dismisses the question of intention. The shoddy nature of the trial is barely concealed.

Being Politically Correct Is Not Enough For A Hindu

Samant wrote an article in which she set forth her political views. Elaborating on decolonisation, one of the programmes on her presidential manifesto, she wrote “In a university where Cecil Rhodes still stands tall looking over all of us, I took a stand that Rhodes was no better than Hitler himself. My intention was not to hurt my Jewish friends by mitigating Hitler’s crimes, but rather to bring to notice that both Rhodes and Hitler’s intentions were borne of the same virus of bigotry and hatred that bred targeted violence.”

But apparently this clear statement totally in tune with the prevailing political correctness on European campuses was not enough to communicate her innocence or, at least, atonement. Why?

The answer lies in the post shared by a fellow Indian, a history lecturer in Oxford, Dr Abhijit Sarkar. Apart from racism, anti-Semitism and trans phobia, two more accusations were added by him against Samant: xenophobia and association with Indian right wing. It is not difficult to reconstruct the sequence of events after this revelation.

Samant conducted a strong presidential campaign on the primary programmes of decolonisation and inclusivity, Covid assistance for all, access to mental health resources and de-carbonising the Oxford campus, winning comfortably with 1,966 out of 3,708 votes.

But even these apparently politically correct goals were not enough to salvage her from her Hindu roots that automatically made her xenophobic and Islamophobic in the eyes of a Hindu-born anti-Hindu who could not stomach a Hindu winning a prestigious student union election.

So, hysteria was whipped up against her by bringing to light old posts. Framing the criticism against her in terms of racism, anti-Semitism and trans phobia was strategic, because ‘Jai Shri Ram’ would not be enough to tilt a largely western audience.

It was essentially an Indian Hindu-hating campaign framed according to European sentiments because the location happened to be Britain. Canvassing only Samant’s Hindu roots and pro-Modi parents would not have succeeded in Britain. So, ridiculous charges were brought against her to depose her.

To Indian Hindu haters, whether Hindu-born or otherwise, it is not enough for a Hindu to be politically correct. A Hindu has to hate his/her root and origin, and the hatred has to be overtly expressed. Not wearing it on the sleeve is a sign of complicity in the crime. The only good Hindu is the one who is anti-Hindu.

The good professor Dr Sarkar paid his dues by smashing Saraswati idols, and he thinks it is only fair that every Hindu does something of that nature to be deemed fit. Otherwise, no amount of apology or clarification of intent will do, as amply evidenced in Samant’s case. The more earnest her apologies and pleas for understanding grew, louder the calls grew for her resignation. Finally, in despair, she resigned.

The CRAE and other student bodies, including the Oxford University Hindu Society (that called for her resignation along with the resignation of the Indian history faculty who said Oxford is not ready for a Sanatani president, though without effect), became front organisations to stage a coup of essentially Indian origin.

Anyone interested in getting to the bottom of the matter must investigate the role of Indians and South Asians in planning and executing the hit-job against Samant. I live in India, hence am not in a position to investigate. Anyone reading this living in Britain or having relevant connections should, in my opinion, investigate the matter.

What does the incident tell us? An unelected body invents problems with the elected president and hounds her out of office despite clarifications and earnest apologies for wrongs she is not guilty of on two counts and partially guilty without intention on one count.

It shows political correctness is not just an innocuous, well-meaning movement to bring out hidden discriminations in everyday life and language. Intelligently used, it can be a stick with which you can beat whoever you do not like and over-ride established process by maligning them.

We have heard a lot about extra-parliamentary methods recently. Events at Oxford University have given us a living example of how this method can be implemented with success.

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