A Hindu in Oxford
Rashmi Samant, a Hindu girl from Udupi, overcomes racism and discrimination as the President of Oxford University Students Union, sharing her gripping story of resilience and decolonization.
In March 2020, a young girl living in Udupi on the western coast of India is thrilled that she’s achieved a dream – she receives a mail of acceptance from the much- Oxford for Master of Science in Energy Systems.
Stars in her eyes, she travels to Oxford, in the uncertain time of COVID-19, and begins her course, well-prepared for the academic rigour and the campus challenges. Standing for the position of the President of the Oxford University Students Union, she wins a thumping mandate on her platform of decolonisation and inclusivity. Before the euphoria of being the ‘first Hindu President of the Oxford Students’ Union can die down, her life is turned topsy turvy by accusations of racism, Semitism and transphobia. She becomes the target of ceaseless hate mail and death threats. A History faculty declares that “Oxford Students are not ready for a Hindu President”.
How does the girl brave the course against these odds?
Read the story of Rashmi Samant in Oxford, in her own words.Gripping and well-narrated, this story is a must-read for everyone, to understand first-hand what real discrimination is all about.
1. Is Oxford Ready For a Hindu President?
2. Hello, World.
3. Rashmi in Oxford.
5. Madam President-Elect.
6. Judge, Jury & Executioner.
8. Making My Own Justice.
9. Hindu Human Rights.
10. New Beginnings.
Is Oxford Ready For a Hindu President?
11 February 2021
‘Rashmi Samant wins Oxford SU president in the Highest Ever Turnout’, The Oxford Student News1
‘Rashmi Samant First Indian Woman To Head Oxford Students’ Union’, NDTV News2
record 36,405 votes were cast on the occasion, in a dramatically historic election that got me elected to the office of the President of the Oxford University Student Union. The victory margin was 54%, despite the presence of three other candidates and four other voting alternatives3. I was figuratively over the moon with joy. But as they say, ‘life always has other plans’. One of the happiest days of my life turned into an endless nightmare in no time at all.
The first incident was within mere hours of the announcement. What followed came with the force of water gushing through a broken dam wall. Every part of my identity was being shredded mercilessly by a mob whose intentions were unknown to me at the time. Everything, from my ancestry to the Hindu Dharma or faith that I practiced, my race, the words I spoke, my statements, colour, ethnicity, gender, hometown, origins and alma mater, were furiously taken out of context and fitted into existing stereotypes in a bid to vilify my character and morality.
Even my parents were not spared. I was baselessly touted as being transphobic, racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and a bigoted supremacist who believed in the tenets of patriarchy. The irony of accusing the first Indian female President of the Oxford University Student Union of patriarchy, was lost on me at that point.
Jews 2.0: Propaganda-Based Persecution
Historically, Nazi propaganda played a primary role in the persecution of Jews, and ultimately, the inhuman genocide that followed. The rumours that were spread sought to prey on people’s insecurities, and the perceived differences with the entire Jewish community was highlighted4 5. The rumours that were spread were so strong, that millions of Germans simply looked the other way during the Holocaust. For years now, rumours to a similar effect have been spread by popular media houses about Hindus. Many episodes of Hindu displacement, persecution and genocide over centuries, have been completely erased from mainstream records. Hindus continue to be addressed as everything but not limited to, ‘snake-charmers, cow-piss drinkers, kaffirs, heathens, infidels and dotheads6.’
Rumours about me began to spread faster than wildfire owing to multiple factors, including prevailing stereotypes about my Hindu identity. Before I knew it, the baseless accusations had snowballed into a full-blown international controversy. Within no time, the campus rumour mills and confession pages were reproduced by national and international publications. Due to the stature of the University of Oxford among the world rankings for universities, the issue received immense media coverage. It was appalling to experience first-hand, how stereotypes are quickly reinforced by ‘credible’ media houses and news mills without proof or consultation7.
I had neither the means nor the resources at that time, to go after the forces that seemed to take deep pleasure in portraying my Hindu identity in a stereotypically problematic and biased manner, fitting the typical first-world narrative of the global south. When I look back now, I feel like I simply did not understand the magnitude of the problem I was up against. As someone who was thrown into the deep end with absolutely no counsel, my spirit was absolutely crushed from the humiliation and the incessant bullying.
Two countries in two separate continents, and even those further afield, were heavily invested in the ‘story’. Nobody seemed to care that in the eye of the storm, was a very young girl, a real person, who was in a foreign country and away from family. At that time, it had only been five months since I had first stepped on British soil. My friends and acquaintances in the United Kingdom too, were just as new. Most of those five months were spent in intermittent spells of isolation and cancelled social events owing to COVID-19. We had none of the freshers’ events, mixers or dinners. The only people I knew were my housemates and my course-mates. I do not have any family in the United Kingdom, and hence my circles were limited to the very few people I managed to befriend at Oxford in the short span of time I was there.
Locked-In During Lockdown
During the entire course of the fallout of the presidential elections, Britain was under full-lockdown. The country was reeling from a rather deadly variant of COVID-19 that was taking far too many lives. People were living in government-mandated, restricted bubbles, and my own bubble consisted of the five other people from my own household. Bubbles at that time meant that we were only allowed to interact with those people8. It was illegal to meet people outside the bubble for a meal, coffee or just a heartfelt conversation. Restaurants and cafes had long since shut down, and the best I could do during those times was to take a lonely walk outside or loiter in the long aisles of the supermarkets.
It was also the middle of winter. Coming from the tropical coastal belt of India, it was my first ever experience of a real winter outside the movies and television series that I had watched. The heating in the ancient dwelling that was my college accommodation was croaky, and the windows were not well insulated either. Personal heating fans were considered a fire hazard and banned by the college. The cold was a real challenge. Sunlight was extremely scarce and the winter blues coupled with the COVID-19 isolation had pushed the entire student community to the edge.
Despite such circumstances, my well-being and state of mind had become absolutely immaterial to the people who were trying to get to me by all means. As the mob descended, my head was swimming with questions as to why I was being vilified so viciously, and bullied so excessively. It was hard not to internalise the false accusations despite them making no sense. I have never had any reason to hate any community, least of all for their personal identity, choice or appearance. At most, I was a young and naïve engineer who was unaware of the vicious world of mob justice driven by propaganda. My side of the story, my perspective, opinion, well-being and state of mind had become absolutely inconsequential at that point. I, who could never bring myself to hurt an ant all my life, would I wish something bad upon an entire community?
Death to the Infidel
During those times, I tried extremely hard to keep myself together. It took enormous effort to carry on with even the most basic of activities like waking up each day, attending classes, studying, submitting assignments and facing the people on campus. The rumours had been successful in creating a discriminatory and hostile environment for me. The worst I have received is a death threat, which I reported to the authorities but did not put out publicly, until I decided to write this book. I was portrayed as a villain. Even the threats and the worst of online slurs, did not convince anyone that I was the newest victim of stereotype profiling.
Despite such a rough environment, I tried to keep my life together and carry on with my routine as much as possible. However, my resistance only strengthened the resolve of the mob to attack me further. A member of the Oxford teaching staff declared, ‘Oxford students are not ready for a Hindu President.’ Yes, even members of the faculty became involved in the mudslinging9.
The human mind and body can only handle so much under extreme duress. I was attacked, threatened, alone, and under lockdown, in a pandemic-stricken country. Despite my reporting of the situation, I was turned away from any kind of practical assistance that would help me cope. That was the tipping point, and I started sinking. Mentally, physically and spiritually. My social media accounts were filled to the brim with hateful and distasteful messages. My phone would vibrate every few seconds, and a new hate mail would pop up. I was at the receiving end of Hinduphobic, racist, xenophobic, vile and sexist attacks, yet I was being publicly accused of racism, patriarchy, etc. I was being threatened with physical violence and elimination; yet in the twisted world of propaganda and biased narrative, I was the villain.
The situation was beyond my comprehension. The attacks originated from a place of deep-seated hatred and bigotry. They were sentiments I was not acquainted with at that time, making the situation one of absolute personal confusion. I was being endlessly harassed for reasons that I did not understand at that time. The bullies had put up a public charade of justifying their attacks on me, by using statements that were lies wrapped in stereotypes about my identity. Their narrative, so heavy on propaganda, managed to miraculously stay afloat for quite some time.
The bullies came to my LinkedIn inbox when I deactivated my other social media handles. When I went off LinkedIn, the bullies found their way into my university email inbox. The mailbox was the key official communication method used by the university, professors and students to coordinate classes, assignments and tasks. It was imperative that I check it at least twice every day. It was sacred ground for a student, but the bullies made their way there as well. They began to turn up at my door. I was compromised. No space was safe anymore. There was a point when I was afraid to go to the supermarket for essentials. It was as if they would not ease off until they completely erased me from society.
At this point, I could not even do my homework, attend online classes and meetings, without first looking at the hate mail. The university address book, including my email address, was accessible to all university members—staff and students. This made it quite clear that these bullies mostly belonged to that pool. Things were not so good back home in India either. My family was going through a rough patch. My sinkhole was becoming deeper and darker each passing day.
Guilty by Association
I was being cornered. Some of the closest people in my life were being sucked into the situation. My parents, friends and acquaintances were now being bullied for ‘being friends’ with me. Guilty by association is how the harassers justified their misbehaviour. I vividly remember one of my closest friends being called a ‘Nazi’ for publicly defending my position and trying to ward off the bullies from me. The bullies were stalking my social media profiles, and were sifting through all my posts in great detail, identifying my parents and insulting them publicly as well.
I vividly remember a few off-hand remarks that were made about my father’s education and his profession in India. It was insulting to the core, and a gross violation of my privacy. It was almost as if the attacks would not cease until I was absolutely destroyed. The mob was ready to go to any extent, including blackmailing me with threats, to defame everything I held dear in life. I even tried apologising for the imaginary offence as claimed by the mob, but to no avail. Everything I said, did, or represented, was immediately attacked and ripped to shreds.
I received almost no institutional support from the university or the Union, except for shallow words of sympathy. I was left to fend for myself. It was an impossible situation. I did not know what to do. I was on the very edge, and losing grip very quickly. Nobody had any advice for me at that time, and my brain was barely functional due to the extreme stress I was under. I was so disturbed by the incessant bullying and threats that I had almost stopped eating and functioning normally.
There was one particular day when I could not bring myself to do anything. I simply lay in bed all day. I neither ate nor drank. I simply did not have the motivation to do the most basic of things. It was truly one of the darkest and lowest points of my entire life. It felt like a million little needles were pricking me at the same time. I was in excruciating pain, and there was nothing I could think of to numb it, even a little. My helplessness in those moments is perhaps something I would not wish upon the worst of my adversaries. I still get goosebumps when I recall those times. I had worked incredibly hard to get to the presidency, and had faced impossible hardships to be at that stage so early in my life. It felt horrible to have something so precious and hard-earned snatched away so unfairly. I could live with losing the election fairly, but not with having it snatched away from me the way it was.
Resigned to Bullying and Harassment
Ending the spectacle by resigning seemed like the best thing to do at that moment; to relieve my family, friends and myself from the unending harassment and threats that were only intensifying each passing day. I was made to believe that it was the best way forward for everyone. I resigned, packed up and left for home, despite how unfair the situation felt. Little did I know then that it was only going to get worse. No matter how much I tried to duck, shield, avoid and run away, they came for me. I was desperate to make it stop. They wanted to break me to the point of no return. That could be the only possible explanation for the sadism displayed by the bullies.
It took me ten full days from the day of my resignation, to even realise what was really going on. Why I was being attacked, and that too, with such intensity. Why did it not stop even after I had given in and resigned? It was around the same time that I came across the word ‘Hinduphobia’, for the very first time in my life. As the fog lifted, I glimpsed the deeper motives behind the harassment I faced. I penned my first open letter to address all the false accusations, and tell my side of the story.
A story of humble beginnings, of aspirations, of ambitions, of decolonisation, of Hinduphobia, of bullying, of mob injustice, of champagne socialism, of cancel culture and of fighting back to make my own justice.
At the time I was going through my worst phase, I wrote an open letter and published it on my personal Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This letter, was picked up by News18, and other media houses also published excerpts. It is reproduced below:
‘I was born and raised in Udupi which is a small coastal town in the South-Western Part of India. Neither of my parents hold a university degree. Getting into Oxford with this background as a first generation was huge for my family and their only daughter. I moved to the UK almost five months ago to start my degree looking at transforming energy systems to combat climate change.
Advocating for student rights is close to my heart and something I pursued as an Under-Graduate in India. After combating months of self-doubt, I decided to take my interests in advocacy forward at Oxford and hence ran for the post of President on the basis of some heart-felt student issues. I did not expect to win owing to the long list of accomplishments of each of my opponents. From there to becoming the first Indian-Woman to ever win the office of the President of the Oxford SU in a historic election, has been truly one of the greatest honours of my life. I truly mean it since the odds were pretty much never in my favour.
In the chain of events since, what hurts me the most is that my parents were dragged in the most insensitive manner: their religious sentiments were insulted in the public domain; I was deemed unfit for taking office stereotyping my background.
My upbringing is middle-class, English is not my native-tongue, my exposure to the cultural intricacies of the world is limited, I am a Hindu, but that in no way makes me intolerant or unfit to be the President of the Oxford SU.
Then why did I step down after becoming the first Indian woman to win the Oxford SU Presidency? Was it because these allegations of insensitivity made me realise that I was not fit enough to be the Oxford SU President?
Answer is “NO”.
I stepped down because my values reinforce being genuinely ‘sensitive’: sensitive to the feelings of the people who reposed faith in me, sensitive to my convictions that above all we need to respect fellow human beings, and sensitive to the welfare of the student community that deserves a working SU, and at the personal level, sensitive to the effects of cyber bullying that is targeted against me in name of ‘sensitivity’!
In the light of the developments that surrounded my election win and subsequent resignation, I am outlining my views for the knowledge of the entire student community that supported me.
When I was called to the podium for the presidential debate for the Oxford Student Union elections, I was repeatedly asked a question.
‘Why do you seek a policy of decolonisation when it played such an integral role in bringing about a global world without which billions more would be still living a life of absolute poverty?’
Ironically, the question contained the answer within it. It is my firm belief that one cannot fathom the impact of colonisation wearing the lens of the coloniser. I refused to hold the view that colonization was a positive experience for the indigenous people of the colonies. I ran the campaign on decolonisation to highlight that the perspectives of people from the Global South derived from the historical experience of others was conveniently gaslit to deflect any kind of introspection about those this University considers ‘heroes.’ The idea was to make the students of Oxford campus truly reflective on taken for granted notions of colonisation.
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. As someone from the erstwhile colonised India, I can only begin to fathom what Rhodes meant when he said, ‘the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism, such as works in India, in our relations with the barbarism of South Africa.’
Was this my crime? Was this my insensitivity to the Jewish community? By no means was I attempting to demean the experience of Holocaust. 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 born of the same virus of bigotry and hatred that bred targeted violence. It was an attempt to kindle the sensitivity of those who are far removed geographically and historically from the realities of the colonial enterprise. 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!
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 and was trying to understand the world. I again reiterate my apology to those genuinely hurt but not to those with malicious intent against the timing of the election.
The depth of diversity within our society is so challenging that it requires constant learning within a healthy discourse. Unfortunately, the vile reaction to my apology closed off any space for any kind of learning or growth, for myself or others. It was painful to note that in the guise of being ‘sensitive’ certain groups have propagated intolerance: intolerance against freshness of thought and initiatives for reflection. I was discredited and bullied (often through anonymous messages with comments on my race, colour of skin and upbringing) in various ways in the social media. The incessant bullying drove me to catch the first flight home to India.
I only hope that you would not let someone’s religious identity, family background, sham claims of sensitivity and social media trials blind you in bringing any change in future at least!