Published: 14th July 2020
Was scared they’d come back to take my books: DU professor Hany Babu on being summoned by NIA
Ten months ago, the professor’s house was searched by the Maharashtra police and he lost a lot of his academic work, books and research material. It's trauma that he is simply not past yet
Two days ago, Delhi University professor Hany Babu was visited at his house by two men who said they were from the local office of the National Investigation Agency. They served him a notice and asked him to appear on July 15 at the NIA’s Mumbai office. About ten months ago, the Maharashtra police had searched Babu’s home and took away his documents, books and other materials. After a six-hour raid, the professor and his wife were informed that the search had been conducted in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident, during this time they were also questioned on their connection with imprisoned activist Rona Wilson. The professor and his wife, Jenny Rowena, also a professor at DU are both anti-caste activists and part of the Alliance for Social Justice, a body involving students, teachers, administration staff from marginalised sections
In the last ten months, Babu, an associate professor at the English department, in the North Campus, hasn’t had any interaction with the police and so this summons was out of the blue for the professor. In fact, what the professor tells us he was expecting was for his name to be cleared and for all his materials to be returned to him. “They had taken pretty much everything — all my academic work. They locked me out of my Google account and I lost all my data and work. I’m left with virtually nothing. I was expecting to get it all back, instead now they’ve summoned me for another investigation,” he says.
Like the devastation an artist feels after losing their artwork, Babu has felt an immense loss after losing all his work and it has affected his career as well as taken a toll on him mentally. “They’ve sat on it for ten months now, they should have been done with it by now. Although I understand that the team has changed, even taking that into consideration, the team has been sitting on this for six months,” he added.
“This has taken a big toll on me, in terms of teaching too because I had so many worksheets and other material I usually hand out, even course write-ups, reference lists. Some of the stuff, my old students were able to send me but obviously they’ve not kept everything. So this and published material I could retrieve, but I’ve lost so many drafts. I have the habit of writing short drafts because I would have been busy at that point and hoped to pursue it in the future. So that’s irretrievable, which is a big loss to me,” he explained.
The professor says in the initial weeks after the raid he was made to feel ‘stupid’ as he would find himself sitting in the staff room and the others would be discussing their work, “And I would just be sitting there and if somebody asked me anything, I would have to tell them - no, I’ve lost everything. That was not just embarrassing but I also felt like a complete zero. Now slowly, I was just beginning to get a hold of things and now this happened. But the first thought that came to my head was - Oh no, are they going to take away my material again,” the professor tells us.
This time, however, it was not a search team - they were only there to deliver the notice. The professor’s only way to approach the officials to get back his stuff was through the court in Pune, “A lot of other people who were in a similar position had approached the court to get their stuff back and weren’t able to succeed much. Some of them were given a hard drive or pen drive but they could not even open it, it was all encrypted. So I didn’t see how it would help me, the people I speak about are based in Pune and weren’t able to do anything. And now, I’m not even based there and would be difficult for me, so I dropped the idea. But I continued to keep track of what was happening there through reports in the newspapers.”
As soon as Babu’s summons was made public, several student groups and campuses have issued statements in solidarity and called for protests. Immediately after his home was raided too, the student community came out in large numbers to support him, “That was quite overwhelming, I didn’t expect that kind of support. I didn’t expect students to come out into the streets. It reassured me of my profession and to do what I was doing and believe in the things I believed. If there’s anything positive that has happened in the last one year, it is that. And it was surprising because I wasn’t ever a student leader or anything and these were not any student groups, just ordinary students who came out to support me and they were from other campuses too.”
With the protests in support of poet Varavara Rao, who the police under pressure were forced to shift to a hospital and the frequent arrests of student leaders during the pandemic, we asked Babu if he felt any kind of similarity between their situations? “Well, yeah, I do but I feel I’m in a much better position, I do have my freedom. I’m not incarcerated. It is shocking though because what is happening in Delhi would once happen only in the hinterlands. Now people are getting arrested for just holding meetings, while people who are baying for blood are still roaming around free. That way, I think I’m safe, At least for now. Tomorrow, I don’t know what will happen,” he said.
Calling the wide-scale arrests a method to ‘intimidate, harass’ those who have an opinion that doesn’t side with the ruling party, Babu said that he does feel people are willing to condone any kind of violence at this point. “But thankfully, I’m not in the firing zone yet,” he feels.
Now with the summons impending, Babu is not sure what to expect. He says he can only second guess what might happen, “Most sensible advice I’ve got is that I’ve got to be careful and be ready for anything. It could just be a routine investigation too because the agency should show that they are conducting an enquiry and have to keep calling people. But one never knows, one has to be prepared. All kinds of things happen, some people just walk in thinking they’re going to give a statement and then they realise they’ve walked into a lion’s den. They can slap anything on you and you spend the next couple of years trying to prove them wrong. And looking at how things are happening around us, it’s good to be prepared.”
Travelling during a pandemic is an added burden for the professor, he says he finds it funny that the investigation agency is flouting the government’s quarantine rules, “Someone even asked me, if I have to be in quarantine since I’m moving from one state to another. I’ll be risking myself, which is okay but I’ll also be risking my family by travelling at this time. I’m also surrounded by containment zones and so for them to call me at such short notice shows their callous attitude. I can only see this as a deliberate attempt to intimidate and further harass me and my family. Like my mother was asking, how anybody would ask someone to travel at a time like this. They should have an alternate way to connect with me or interrogate me, instead of putting the onus on me to go there at this time.”
The lockdown has been hard on him, “I’ve been confined to Noida over the last four months except for once. I do what the government is saying, if they say stay home then I stay home, if they say wear a mask, I wear a mask, if they say don’t go out, I don’t go out, maybe I don’t come out and bang the plate but other things I’ve been asked to do, I do. Now, I find it ironic the government agency itself is not caring about these things,” the professor jokes.
He pointed out that the government itself is encouraging video conferencing and other such methods, “They didn’t bother to do anything, instead they’re just asking me to come over. Now actually more than the case, it worries me that I have to travel without much precaution to a place like Mumbai where there seems to be community spread. And then I have to come back here and live with my family. This is not expected during a pandemic. The pandemic is being used as a device to further aggravate us.”