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Resignation of Rashmi Samant reveals toxic 'cancel culture' pervading academic institutions in the West

Sreemoy Talukdar
·6-min read

The cancel culture raging in the West and ravaging all its academic and cultural institutions has been brought into recent focus by an incident involving an Indian student at Oxford University €" one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the UK.

Rashmi Samant from Udupi, Karnataka, a graduate student reading for an MSc at Linacre College, had recently made headlines by being elected as the first female Indian president of Oxford University Student Union. Samant, who had received 1,966 of the 3,708 votes cast for the post, had highlighted the need for greater "decolonisation and inclusivity" on campus in her manifesto for the Oxford SU leadership election held on February 11 this year.

Just a few days later, Samant, 22, was forced to resign from her post as OUSU president. She terminated her social media presence and flew back to India after students at Oxford University scanned her old social media accounts and dug up "racist" and "insensitive" posts. Her views on decolonization also came under fire for her refusal "to hold the view that colonisation was a positive experience for the indigenous people of the colonies."

The Times of India quoted Samant in an interview at the Heathrow airport last month, presumably while returning home, as saying that she was not a terrible person and it was unfair to judge her on old social media posts after she was accused of being "racist", "anti-Semitic" and "transphobic". "I do not hate any community€¦ Everyone thinks I am a terrible person and I am not. I have friends in all these communities and I love them. I was a totally different person five years ago. People don't realise until it happens to them," she reportedly said.

Samant later announced on Facebook that she was being "cyberbullied" and forced to quit after facing sustained backlash from offended students who would have none of her despite Samant's 'open apology' in student-run newspaper 'The Oxford Student'.

In a blog post, she wrote: "I wish to ask a question to all who termed me insensitive and racist citing my social media posts of the past. Are you being sensitive when you judge a person's worth based on social media captions of a non-native English speaking teenager that were posted years before the person formed convictions on issues of race? Let me reiterate this: those posts are not a reflection of my hatred towards communities. They were the posts of a teenager who just had access to the world of social media. I again reiterate my apology to those genuinely hurt for my ignorance but not to those with malicious intent targeted me on 'insensitivity'."

Samant also claims that her parents and religion were dragged into the controversy and subjected to hateful messages. "What hurts me the most is that my parents were dragged in the most insensitive manner: their religious sentiments and regional background were insulted in the public domain. The fact that I am a Hindu no way makes me intolerant or unfit to be the President of the Oxford SU."

A similar story had come to light in 2019 involving physicist Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar, who had completed his masters and PhD from Cambridge University. According to Varsity newspaper, that claims independence from Cambridge University though it is widely perceived to be authoritative, Majumdar, then a vice-president of Graduate Union, was dismissed from his post following an "incendiary blog post" and charged with "gross misconduct for disclosing confidential Union information."

In a post published in Opindia in January 2020, Majumdar came out with his side of the story. He contested the charge, claimed that he was being subjected to "othering by a clique" and victimised for his pro-India opinion and politics. He narrated a now familiar tale of persecution and bullying by ultra-Left in University space around the West.

Majumadar wrote: "One of the university's core values is the freedom of thought and expression, and for most of my 5 years of studying and undertaking research there, I have never had an instance where I have felt otherwise with that. It was only when I was elected as a student union officer and leader, that I saw a darker side of the University space. The tragedy of this age often is that of exclusivism and polarisation, particularly around ideologies. This is an age of political binaries: You are either aligned with an ideology through and through, or by association with the organisations or parties or leaders associated with it, or are not. There is no space for anybody who does not conform to the either-or."

Samant or Majumdar's experiences are nothing new. In fact, not just students, even teachers are "cancelled" and forced to step down by powerful and perennially offended student unions in prestigious universities in the West, promoting tribalism and stifling free exchange of ideas, the cornerstone of democracy.

The situation has turned so alarming in the UK (not to speak of the US) that British prime minister Boris Johnson has pushed back against this cancel culture and attempt to rewrite British history. According to a last month's report in Sunday Telegraph, "a 'Free Speech Champion' will be given powers to defend free speech and academic freedom on campuses, ministers will fine universities which stifle freedom of speech and colleges or student bodies that try to cancel, dismiss or demote people over their views will be sanctioned in a major Government escalation on the 'war on woke'."

The Left is seeing red at the pushback, but the British government's effort is not unjustified. A report by a British think tank, Civitas, has found that cancel culture is rampant in a third of UK universities and Cambridge and Oxford universities top the intolerance scale where free speech has become an impossible idea.

Daily Express reports that Civitas placed 35 percent of universities in the "most restrictive" category while 51 percent were "moderately restrictive" and just 14 percent made it into the "most friendly" group. Cambridge was joined by St Andrews, Oxford, Liverpool, Sheffield and a number of other top universities on the so-called "red" list.

In the US, another hotbed of thought-policing and deplatforming of dissent, Republicans in Congress have asked House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to host a hearing on "cancel culture."

Amid these culture wars, the travails of Samant and Majumdar tell us that Indians and Hindus remain the most vulnerable to this onslaught.

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