When Roop Rekha Verma arrived at Lucknow University on July 3 to join a protest by students, she saw a massive poster of Hindu deity Hanuman draped over the familiar gates.
Verma, who had taught philosophy at the university for 39 years before she retired in 2005, was aghast but not entirely surprised. The 75-year-old former Vice Chancellor of the university has been a vocal critic of Hindu religious activities — like Saraswati Puja to begin the semester — that have been woven into university life.
Days after she sat in protest with students who were being denied admission by the university, five lawyers familiar with the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court informed her associates that the court had directed the police to file a criminal case against her for instigating students to attack teachers of the university.
A report on the court proceedings on The New Indian Express stated:
"Efforts were on to arrest others also, said the SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police], mentioning the name of ex-Vice Chancellor Roop Rekha Verma claiming that she was supporting the cause of expelled students."
SP Singh, the Vice-Chancellor of the university was present at the hearing.
Verma's name was not mentioned in the final court order, but several Hindi news outlets reported that the university had also set up an inquiry committee to investigate the day's events and that Verma's role in the violence would be probed.
"I have heard that the court has asked the police to investigate her," NK Pandey, spokesperson for Lucknow University, told HuffPost India. "We have not started any inquiry against her."
Verma said that a 'charitable' guess on why she may have been targeted for a while is the fact that the police had to take a name to cover-up for its inaction.
"Since I am a familiar name in protests, they may have just taken my name as an excuse," she said.
"The right approach groups like RSS or Jamat-e-Islami would not appreciate me. Rather, they are in an inimical relationship with me."
Another reason could be that she has been a vocal critic of communal forces and the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) all her life.
"I have been, since a very young age, against dictatorial values and I have been campaigning for democratic rights. Politically, I am against the right-side ideology," she said. "I am not a communist, but I want to see an egalitarian society with maximum freedom of individuals with respect for all religions.'
Her work as an activist, she said, has also put her in a permanent relationship of conflict with various ideological groups. "The right approach groups like RSS or Jamat-e-Islami would not appreciate me. Rather, they are in an inimical relationship with me," she added.
PAST STRUGGLE WITH RSS
In the 1980s, when Roop Rekha Verma was heading Lucknow University's philosophy department, she waged a long, lone battle against colleagues who she said were affiliated to the RSS and wanted to use the department to propagate the organisation's ideologies.
For one year, Verma said, her students were instigated to strike against her, they refused to take her classes based on rumours aired by Verma's colleagues. "These teachers said that I made sure some students got less marks than others. Since these statements were made by professors, the students took them seriously and went on a strike," she said.
The harassment did not end there. Lucknow University's sprawling campus was splashed with posters accusing Verma of several crimes, some of these posters also made their way to other busy parts of the city. Letters attacking Verma's moral character were sent to colleagues, students' parents and family.
Two cases were also filed against her during that time accusing her of manipulating marking. Verma won both the cases.
"I had never used my department for my views, and I couldn't not allow them to propagate their views through it. So they wanted to oust me and the RSS people of the city were working overtime to make sure I left, and a person who owes allegiance to the organisation can head the department," she said.
"They will ignore if the person opposing their views is not strong and important, but if he or she is, then they basically surround the person with all sorts of nuisance. They hope that the person will eventually feel tired of all this and give up his or her intellectual position."
Verma pointed out that it was not just her, over the years that she has fought a battle against RSS' ideologies, she had seen the organisation use harassment and intimidation as weapons to silence voices critical of their politics.
"They will ignore if the person opposing their views is not strong and important, but if he or she is, then they basically surround the person with all sorts of nuisance. They hope that the person will eventually feel tired of all this and give up his or her intellectual position. Ninety nine percent of the people they target will be silenced because they want to avoid this nuisance," she said, explaining what she calls RSS' 'methodology'.
Verma never married or started a family, but her aged mother was in shock when rumours of professional and sexual misconduct started doing the rounds of Lucknow. "She asked me to stop fighting them and instead stay at home. I didn't listen to her. But if there are people with families and children, it won't be surprising if they backed off," she said.
Her experience over the last four decades, Verma said, has made it very clear why there is a surge of right-wing politics in the country. The harassment that Verma faced in the 80s is uncannily similar to the strategy right-wing trolls employ to silence dissenting women, especially on social media. Operating in packs, they target a person relentlessly by spreading fake news, in the present scenario doctored tweets and photos, and often stoop to casting aspersions on a woman's sexual character.
In Verma's case, this took the form of letters signed off by someone claiming to be an 'old friend' of her deceased father. "My brother received one of those letters and he showed me. The letter accused me of various dirty things and then said, 'I cannot bear to see this condition of Rooprekha, I cannot believe how low she has become'," it said.
Verma said that much to her chagrin, her brother tried to broker peace with the RSS. "They were scared that they would physically hurt me. So he reached out to them and requested them to leave me alone. But they kept at it saying I should back off," she said.
"It may be because they wanted to see that I am 75, I may not have the same kind of resolve and may yield to them now. They are wrong."
Her most recent brush with the university administration, Verma surmised, could be an attempt to see if her resolve had mellowed with age.
"It may be because they wanted to see that I am 75, I may not have the same kind of resolve and may yield to them now. They are wrong," she said.
In Political Process in Uttar Pradesh: Identity, Economic Reforms, and Governance, edited by Sudha Pai, Verma finds mention in a chapter called "The Rise and Fall of Hindutva in Uttar Pradesh".
The book traces how, in the 90s, RSS had made a bold attempt to infiltrate the education system in Uttar Pradesh. It recounts how people affiliated to the RSS were appointed as vice-chancellors in Kashi Vidyapeeth, and universities in Lucknow, Kumaon and Purvanchal. Several RSS ideologues were also placed as chairmen of higher education bodies and several cultural organisations. During that time, Verma was targeted once more. An ABVP functionary, the book narrates, verbally attacked her during a swearing in ceremony of the student's body held in the presence of BJP's first chief minister in UP, Kalyan Singh.
"All the bigwigs of the BJP in the state are very aware of my politics," Verma told HuffPost India.
BATTLE AGAINST SAFFRONISATION OF EDUCATION
To her peers, Verma is known as a firebrand women's rights activist and someone who has been an unwavering advocate of secularism in Uttar Pradesh's turbulent political atmosphere, often vitiated with communal tension. Verma has never supported a political party.
"When Mulayam Singh made those reprehensible comments against women and rape, I was the first one to organise a protest rally against him in Lucknow," Verma said.
PK Srivastava, a former head of the department of Western History in Lucknow University, said when he was a student at the same department, Verma was perhaps the only woman who they knew who was fearlessly and relentlessly taking on communal elements.
"Everything is being saffronised in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere now. She keeps speaking and writing against it."
"She was a formidable figure, she is one now too. And most ideological groups which work on ideas of communal polarising know and loathe Verma. From the late 80s through the 90s, when Uttar Pradesh was witnessing a spate of communal flare-ups, Verma worked relentlessly writing and speaking against politics that pits religion against religion," Srivastava said. The retired professor said he gave up activism after his student days, but said he was impressed that Verma didn't give up her particular fight.
"Everything is being saffronised in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere now. She keeps speaking and writing against it," he said.
"The new VC has this idea of beginning a session with Saraswati puja. I had opposed this saying a university is a secular place, students of all religion come here. So anything that is a ritual belonging to just one religion should not be performed here," Verma said. She said that this could also have been the reason for the university's alleged 'inquiry' against her.
She pointed out that not only educational institutions, government-run departments have been painted with a broad sweep of saffron over the last couple of years.
"The tourism department's hotels all have a Ganesh at the entry. If it was just for beauty, I would have understood. But no, there's a puja done everyday. There's nothing associated with other religions present in these buildings I have noticed," she said.
She remembers seeing a mini temple inside the main hallway of a new building of the State Urban Development Authority (SUDA). She said, the hallway has a cluster of various Hindu deities and a life-size statue of Hanuman.
"Lucknow is a capital of Uttar Pradesh," she said. "It should represent the whole of UP, right?"