#Interviews

“A Traumatic Learning Curve”: Rashmi Samant On Stepping Down As Oxford SU President

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Rashmi Samant interview: When on February 11 Rashmi Samant was elected President of the Oxford Students’ Union – and the first Indian woman at that – she didn’t anticipate what was to come. Soon after her election, the 22-year-old postgraduate started getting aggressive hate mails and messages. It seems a few old social media posts of hers had resurfaced.

Those posts, made between 2017 and 2018, carried captions that many students at Oxford deemed racist. The first was a photo at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which said, “The memorial casts a hollow dream of the past atrocities and deeds.” ‘Casts a hollow’ a spin on the term Holocaust. The second photo was from Malaysia, which she captioned, “ching chang.”

She says she didn’t know these puns were problematic when she made them. An engineer fresh out of Udupi, Karnataka, there wasn’t must exposure to the political-social-intellectual discourse that thrives on social media. Following huge backlash from the student community – and even from Oxford staff – Samant stepped down from her role as the first-ever Indian woman president of the students’ union at the prestigious university.

Most recently, her Twitter account was suspended, revived, and then re-restricted. “When I thought I could not be humiliated even more, my account was suspended. Restored after 36 hours with zero followers. Freedom of Speech?” she writes. Back home with her parents now, she says she may possibly now explore her legal options.

In a freewheeling conversation with SheThePeople, Samant opens up on the irony of the entire situation, how cancel culture comes into play, and whether or not there is regret in stepping down from her historic seat.

Days have passed since you were elected and stepped down as President. How do you estimate everything that happened? What is your side of the story? 

I think it’s rather ironic because this time last year I was giving my interview for the Oxford application. It was unusual running for President because it’s usually undergraduates who run. I was a postgraduate. I barely knew anybody. All the odds were stacked against me. But something within me told me I should try. It took a lot of hard work. I felt, at the time, like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up the hill every single day.

I ran a very successful campaign. People connected with it and there was a lot of positive reinforcement.

Only one hour after I won, I started getting aggressive messages from people. ‘You made a post in 2017 at the Holocaust memorial making a pun.’ ‘You said ching chang in 2018. You have to apologise.’ Then a statement I made in my campaign was about “celebrating women, trans women, men who support us.” I didn’t realise that separating trans women from women goes against etiquette.

Did you gauge the implication of the remarks when you made them? 

I didn’t know about what was what, but it wasn’t definitely not meant to be malicious. I didn’t want to stigmatise them and it was a misstep. No one told me during the campaign, but after winning. I wasn’t given the benefit of doubt, that maybe I didn’t know certain things.

I was branded transphobic. Anti-semitic. Racist.

I’m an engineer by background and don’t culturally read a lot. When people called me anti-semitic, I had to Google it.

There were so many anonymous messages and emails full of hate. People were making posts about me. Even a member of the university staff made a post about my parents, taking an old photo off of my mother’s Facebook that said jai shree ram in connection to the Ram Mandir. They wrote, “We are not ready for a Sanatani president.”

It all sent me to a breakdown. If people thought I was insensitive, and if I was causing hurt to so many people, then it was best to step down.

‘But isn’t it ironic that this tag of “insensitivity” was applied to me and not the other way round?’ Rashmi Samant

People asked me during the campaign, “Why do you speak of decolonisation” despite the multiple benefits it brought to your country and your people? Nobody wants to talk about that racism but make connotations that I or my posts could be racist.

Does racism against persons of colour run free in the corridors of elite institutions like Oxford? 

I don’t want to make a generalised statement because I’ve had a good experience at Oxford. People without any exposure – like me, just recently out of Udupi – we lack that kind of cultural appropriateness, being politically correct. We’re very raw. But we’re genuine people.

People are quick to assume you already have these certain qualities when you’re coming to Oxford or are part of an elite institution. That’s not always true.

When it comes to negativity and social media trials, it can even happen at an Indian institute. You don’t have to go to Oxford to see this kind of treatment. But there it happens in a different way.

Is yours a case of cancel culture? 

It is definitely cancel culture. They cancelled me and my ideas and what I represent. I don’t even understand the meaning of half of these things because I haven’t studied them or haven’t been exposed too much to them. All my life I’ve lived in Udupi. My parents are not academics. They both dropped out of university. We’re simple, middle-class Indians.

I was not raised with this polished culture of being politically correct. But I was always raised to be a loving, caring person.

I am raised Hindu, I come from a traditional, very conservative family. But these days conservativeness has a negative connotation. By conservative, I mean we come from a tight-knit setup, we celebrate everything together. Not the conservativeness where women are stopped from doing things.

Discourse argues that, aside from debating ideology, one is expected to duly keep themselves updated about sensitive ideas like queer culture or anti-racism. The responsibility to educate doesn’t like on those affected. How do you view yourself in light of that? 

To be honest, self-education is correct and there. This standpoint that queer people take is correct. But when you see someone make a mistake, you tell them. For instance, my education is pure engineering and I’m overloaded with academics. I am constantly educating myself but that is limited to certain aspects.

I have been trying to educate myself about queer literature. But it comes from conditioning in India. The public idea has been that there are three genders, which is how it instinctively came out during my campaign. Maybe I have educated myself and it only came out of instinct.

It was a huge campaign, I was understaffed, I did massive work. You write so many things, you do make mistakes. And this was all in the public domain. Why did no one challenge me about it during the campaign? It was malicious intent. People digging up dirt on me and then people genuinely affected by it getting associated with it.

No matter how much you educate yourself, you make mistakes. We need to humanise people.

In view of an increase in the crackdown against young vocal women like yourself, like Disha Ravi and others, do you think dissent is being curbed?  

It is very complicated. But this is a patriarchal society and women have been the subject of dissent. Women have spoken up for themselves and there are wonderful women supporting each other. But it’s easy to stereotype.

I was scared that if I spoke out sooner, people would say she’s playing the woman card or the discrimination card.   

It’s case-specific. What’s toxic is right now there’s too much judgment out there. People are not genuinely concerned about issues and they try to channel themselves by putting hateful comments, by sensationalising issues.

I study climate change. My opinion about it is that activism is not going to get us anywhere because tweeting about it is just going to create more carbon footprint. We are already 1.5 degrees warmed. Soon to go towards 3, 4, 5, 6. We have to separate our emotions, come up with technical solutions that can be implemented right now.

For instance, the sailing trip that Greta Thunberg took to the United States. She’s a climate change activist but what is the embodied energy of that yacht she travelled in? It was huge. Renewable technology comes with a huge cost of embodied energy. I’m a geek and I can go on and on.

You’re shouting at the government for not doing enough but are you doing enough? Rashmi Samant asks

It should be more about action and not about shouting. Global warming is everybody’s problem. People should be the change they want to see in the world, not point fingers.

Do you regret stepping down as the first Indian woman President of the Oxford students’ union? 

People who know me, they love me and feel I shouldn’t have resigned. But people who only saw me as a presidential candidate, some of them hate me, the vocal minority for instance. But many messaged me (including Jewish people) that I shouldn’t have stepped down.

I wish I could be President for the whole year and I feel like I could have learned so much, brought a lot of change. I’m vocal, I’m compassionate. But stepping down at that point was crucial otherwise it would have ruined my mental health. The volume of anonymity and trolling…

Anyway, it was a good learning experience. At the age of 22, I got to see a full social media trial, public appreciation followed by public humiliation and got to be a controversial international figure.

It was traumatic but I’ll look back at it as a learning curve.