India can never turn eyes away from racism: Jaishankar on Oxford row

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S Jaishankar

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said on Monday that India can “never turn away its eyes from racism” and will “champion the fight against it” after the issue of Oxford University student Rashmi Samant was brought up by a BJP MP in Parliament.

Twenty-two-year-old Samant, a president-elect for the students’ union at the Oxford University, was forced to quit after she faced a severe backlash for certain ‘racist’, ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘transphobic’ social media posts from the past. She was set to be the first Indian woman to be elected president of the university’s student body.

“As the land of Mahatma Gandhi, we can never ever turn our eyes away from racism, particularly so when it is in a country where we have such a large diaspora. We have strong ties with the UK. We will take up such matters with great candour when required,” Jaishankar said in the Rajya Sabha.

“We will monitor these developments very, very closely. We will raise it when required and we will always champion the fight against racism and other forms of intolerance,” the minister added.

Jaishankar made the statements in response to BJP leader Ashwini Vaishnav raising the topic in Parliament. “There appears to be a continuation of attitudes and prejudices from the colonial areas, especially in the UK. The recent case of Rashmi Samant, a student from Karnataka, is a classic case in point,” said the Rajya Sabha MP, noting that Samant had “overcome all the challenges” to become the first Indian woman president of the Oxford University students’ union.

“Her diversity should have been celebrated but instead of that she was cyberbullied to the point that she had to resign and even the Hindu religious beliefs of her parents were publicly attacked by a faculty member and that also went unpunished. If this is the kind of treatment that happens at the highest institute like Oxford what is the message that goes out to the world,” asked Vaishnav in Parliament.

The controversy surrounding Samant began when she had to step down from the student president’s post after attracting heavy criticism for some old social media posts. These included a caption on Instagram which read “Ching Chang” below a photo from Malaysia and another where she was seen outside the Berlin Holocaust Memorial captioned, “The memorial ‘casts’ a ‘hollow’ dream of the past atrocities and deeds”.

She was also criticised for a campaign post caption that separated ‘women’ and ‘transwomen’ and another instance where she compared imperialist Cecil Rhodes to Adolf Hitler during a student union debate.

After the social media posts surfaced, the Oxford Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality and Oxford LGBTQ+ Campaign called for her resignation, citing that she had not only posted racially insensitive captions on social media but also “denied the harm caused by her actions when questioned”.

The Oxford University Chinese Society (OUCS) also responded to Samant’s initial apology, saying: “Her long-overdue public apology does not seem sincere to the OUCS. In her apology letter, Rashmi seems to be avoiding addressing her mistakes directly, and it does not show her taking responsibility for her insensitivity to race or ignorance towards the trans-community. We cannot see Rashmi as the SU president we ‘rightfully deserve’ or trust.”

Meanwhile, Samant, who is pursuing an MSc in energy systems with a focus on sustainability at Oxford, has alleged racial profiling and inherent bias.

She said that some professors also “labelled her mother Islamophobic and a bigot” after they found photos of her with a plaque reading ‘Jai Shri Ram’. “It is unfair and borders on stalking and harassment. My mother has the freedom of expression, she has the right to practice her religion,” Samant told a news outlet.

Many people on Twitter have also slammed the university since the news broke, calling it “anti-Hindu” and “Hinduphobic”.

Former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal tweeted, “Giving British taste of their own medicine! Professor’s bigotry needs addressing by University authorities. Why Hinduphobia? Have Hindus brought terrorism, radicalism, beheadings to UK, resisted multiculturalism, done religious propaganda in temples, brought gender discrimination?”, after Jaishankar responded to the matter in Parliament.

Samant has also stated that she is considering taking legal action against the faculty member in question. “We Indians try to hide our religious identity in foreign countries, we suffer in silence and avoid being in the spotlight. I do not prescribe to those norms. I am considering filing a defamation suit against the professor who made the accusations,” she said.