The Oxford University is investigating the alleged bullying of Rashmi Samant, the former Oxford University Student Union president. Photo: Getty Images
In February, 22-year-old Rashmi Samant became the first Indian woman to be elected president of the Oxford University Student Union. Among things that won her the seat was her agenda to “decolonise” her university and be inclusive to all communities.But within a week, what the Indian press had celebrated as a historical achievement took a dramatic turn when Samant was accused of being racist and insensitive over her old social media posts. She resigned amid the ensuing uproar and called the online attacks “racist cyber lynching,” a claim that is being investigated as bullying by the university.
At the core of the controversy are Samant’s now-deleted social media posts. She captioned a 2019 photo of herself in Malaysia with the words “Ching Chang” and in 2017 made a pun on the Holocaust in another caption, when she posted a photo of her at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.In another post that courted controversy, she wrote “women, transwomen and men.” Her critics said separating women and transwomen went against her own student union campaign of trans inclusion.The Oxford Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, one of several student groups that demanded Samant’s resignation, said the posts were offensive and called on her to make “a formal apology to the East-Asian, Jewish, and trans communities.” Oxford International Society said her posts were “anti-Semitic, transphobic and racist.”Samant initially defended the posts, saying, for instance, that “Ching Chang” was a reference to an inside joke. But she later apologized in an open letter to “every student who has been hurt by my actions or words” and eventually stepped down.Early this month, in another twist to the debate on online speech, Samant hit back at her critics and what she called a “cancel culture”, saying she was a victim of a “vicious social media trial” and racial intolerance.
In an opinion article published on the Indian news site News18, the first-generation Oxford student in her family said she was forced to resign because of “racist cyber lynching”.“Had I looked a certain way, then I am sure I would have been given the benefit of doubt… in my case they immediately rushed to conclusions,” she said in an interview with The Print. “Racism now does not exist overtly but in covert behaviour like this.”
Samant did not respond to multiple interview requests by VICE World News. She told the Times of India that more students are being emboldened to make “defamatory statements” about her. She also told reporters that she was hospitalised because of the stress the controversy caused her. In another interview, she said it was unfair to judge her on old social media posts and she was “a totally different person five years ago.”Samant’s treatment by her fellow Oxford students has fueled outrage back home in India, where Twitter and YouTube users have rallied behind online campaigns with the hashtags “JusticeForRashmiSamant” and “AntiHinduOxfordUniversity”.Her supporters include Hindu nationalists. Swarajya Magazine, a Hindu right-wing publication, called her ouster an anti-Hindu “witch hunt”.
The case caught the attention of the Indian government when, during a parliamentary discussion last week, an official cited Samant’s treatment as an example of racism in the UK.“As the land of Mahatma Gandhi, we can never ever turn our eyes away from racism,” India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told lawmakers. He added that the government will take up this matter “with great candour when required.”Several other members of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have also publicly backed Samant.
The Indian backlash against Samant’s removal has led three Oxford University student groups to issue statements clarifying that her resignation had nothing to do with the fact that she’s an Indian, a Hindu or a woman. “We are deeply concerned that sections of the Indian media are trying to pretend that this issue is one of racism against Hindus or Indians,” one of the statement said. “As societies representing the Hindu, Indian and South Asian populations on campus, we are displeased by this false narrative, and urge the media to stop pedalling disinformation in the garb of news.”The statement added that the comments Samant made after her resignation are fuelling a “dangerous Hindutva narrative” that thrives on exclusion and discrimination of certain, albeit marginalised, communities. “That Ms Samant is unable or unwilling to see this, despite having run on a platform of ‘inclusion’ and ‘decolonization’ in Oxford, is unfortunate,” it said. An Oxford University spokesperson confirmed to the media this week that it has received Samant’s complaint of harassment and that the school has opened an investigation.Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.