On Monday, the Indian government waded into the Oxford Student Union controversy after Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar said that the government will monitor the developments closely and take it up with the British government when required.
Jaishankar was responding to a query raised by BJP MP Ashwini Vaishnav on Rashmi Samant, a student who became the first Indian woman to be elected as the President of the Oxford Student Union.
How did a intra-university matter in the United Kingdom become a diplomatic affair between India and the UK?
Rashmi Samant Elected As President
On February 11, Samant, an MSc student at Oxford's Linacre College, was elected as the first Indian woman president of the Oxford Student Union in a landslide victory. She won 1966 of 3708 votes polled, more than all her opponents combined.
In her campaign, Samant promised to lobby for decolonising the University and the syllabi, tackling homophobia and transphobia, increase funding for mental health programs for students and get the University to waive residency requirements for students until the WHO declared the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Happened Post Her Win?
By February 12, social media posts from 2017 and 2019 where Samant made racist comments were discovered. According to the Cherwell, Samant attempted to make a pun on the Holocaust in a 2017 Instagram post. Posing in the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Samant used 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".
Samant had captioned another post from 2019 where she was in Malaysia with "Ching Chang".
A video of Samant from February 2021 where she compared British Imperialist Cecil Rhodes with the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was also held against her.
Students also took umbrage with the fact that despite running on a platform of LGBTQ and trans inclusion, Samant had used "women" and "transwomen" separately in another Instagram post.
BOOM was unable to independently verify the posts as they have been deleted from her Instagram account.
Were Her Posts Racist?
By attempting to pun on the Holocaust, Samant trivialised the horrifying history of the genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis.
Similarly, using a term which has been used for centuries to racially abuse people of East Asian heritage also has no defence. Moreover, similar terms have been used to abuse Indians from the North Eastern states by their compatriots.
What About The Rhodes-Hitler Comparison?
Though Cecil Rhodes is lauded in the United Kingdom, he is a widely hated figure in African nations.
Rhodes was instrumental in consolidating the British Colonial empire in Africa by exploiting African miners, reneging on treaties signed with tribal leaders and paving the way for the apartheid in South Africa.
For many of African origin, Rhodes has become a symbol of slavery and European imperialism which exploited the continent.
Samant is not the first person to call for Rhodes' statue to be removed from the Oriel College in Oxford. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanded for the removal of Rhodes' statues from universities in South Africa and Britain.
Just as Hitler is a reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust for Jewish people, Rhodes has become a reminder of the legacy of colonialism.How Did The Oxford Community React?
When a student confronted her on her posts, Samant responded saying that she was not being insensitive and that the caption was upto the interpreter. When the student told her that the posts were insensitive, Samant said, "I don't agree with you there. I'm sorry I cannot change your opinion."
When asked to explain her "Ching Chang" post, Samant said that a South East Asian friend had made a joke about her vegetarianism claiming that "Ching Chang" translates to "eat that plant" in Mandarin. That coupled with her need to have perfect rhyming captions led her to use the term.
The Oxford SU Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) came down heavily on Samant. In its statement, CRAE noted that "the repetitive and sustained nature of Ms. Samant's actions suggest considerable ignorance at best, but active discrimination at worst."
"The President-Elect has demonstrated unwillingness to take accountability for her actions, which we believe to be a crucial aspect of self-education and making amends," it added.
The Oxford SU LGBTQ campaign also called for Samant to apologise stating that "her remarks on the trans community may have come from a place of ignorance, we find her repeated insensitivity to race and her unwillingness to apologise when called out for this far more concerning."
The student who confronted Samant told Cherwell that Samant "made no effort to recognise her mistakes" in contrast with her election campaign which focused on inclusitivity. "Nobody at Oxford wants to be told how to be more accepting and inclusive by a person who won't make the effort to do that herself," he said.
A student of Chinese origin told Cherwell, "For the Chinese community in Oxford to have an SU president that is so set on refusing to listen to the students she represents and refusing to apologise for her racism is really disappointing, especially as institutional racism was an issue she highlighted in her manifesto".
Numerous college councils called for a Motion of No Confidence in Samant. However, Samant announced her resignation on Facebook on February 16 before the motion could be called.
She apologised for her actions in a statement to the Cherwell stating that "I fully accept my error in not appropriately researching topics before posting about them".
"In the almost five years since this post, I have changed as a person, scholar, and activist; I am sure many other people have experienced drastic change in themselves and their personal lives in a five-year period. I reaffirm my commitment outlined in my campaign manifesto to continually learning, changing, and bettering myself to serve in this position as well as possible," she added.
Was Samant Targetted On Account Of Her Race And Religion?
Weeks after resigning, Samant claimed that she had been a target of racism and anti-Hindu sentiment. In an open letter, Samant wrote, "The fact that I am a Hindu in no way makes me intolerant or unfit to be the President of the Oxford SU".
A photo of Samant's parents with a Facebook frame saying Jai Shri Ram was shared on social media by Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a Postdoctoral Researcher at New College, Oxford. This was picked up by right-wing websites and influencers as proof of anti-Hindu sentiment against Samant.
BOOM was unable to verify if the photo was shared by other professors and academics at Oxford.
While addressing the Rhodes-Hitler comparison, Samant wrote, "Far from being insensitive, the analogy stemmed from the deeply shared sensitivity to the disturbing experience of exclusion. I championed the cause of decolonisation because I deeply felt that much of the syllabus selectively ignores and often appropriates oppression in the guise of development and philanthropy. I did run for inclusivity and still stand for it!"
She claimed that she had been unfairly targetted by 'certain groups' under the guise of being sensitive. "I was discredited and bullied (often through anonymous messages with comments on my race, the colour of skin and upbringing) in various ways in social media. The incessant bullying drove me to catch the first flight home to India," Samath wrote.
In the backdrop of Samant's claims, it is to be noted that her predecessor was a woman of Asian heritage. The posts of the Student Union vice presidents were all won by BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) women.
In an interview with India Ahead News, Samant defended her posts stating that she was a teenager when she made them and that there was no malicious intent behind them. (Note: Samant's intent defence is something which has often been used by people who have been called out for being racist or insensitive.)
She claimed that the posts were only dug up after she won the election and never while she was campaigning. She also claimed that while some people genuinely wanted her to learn and apologise, it snowballed into people criticising her religion, background and even about her parents being Hindus.
However, when asked if she regrets her actions in hindsight, Samant deflected the question stating that everyone deserves a second chance.
"I believe my posts were not malicious or racist. To take offense you have to perceive it in certain manner. Perhaps, people assume the worst in fellow human beings these days," Samant told The Indian Express.
"Had I looked a certain way, then I am sure I would have been given the benefit of doubt … in my case they immediately rushed to conclusions. Racism now does not exist overtly but in covert behaviour like this," she told ThePrint.
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