Why Everyone’s Talking About the Oxford Student Union Case

Rashmi Samant made history as the first Indian woman to be elected student body president, when controversial social media posts emerged.

Michaela Stone Cross

March 17, 2021

Why Everyone’s Talking About the Oxford Student Union Case
Rashmi Samant, an Oxford graduate student (via Instagram)

The University of Oxford’s recent race-related controversy is gaining a second wind, as members of the Indian government publicly condemn the treatment of graduate student Rashmi Samant. In February, 22-year-old Samant became the first Indian woman to win the election for the presidency of the prestigious Oxford University Student Union, the student body government. Two days later, on February 18, she was forced to resign after a student organization, the Oxford Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE), made allegations that her past social media posts showed anti-Semitism, transphobia, and Sinophobia. 

Samant, who had run on a campaign platform of “decolonizing Oxford,” issued a public apology. "[The statements] were the posts of a teenager who just had access to the world of social media,” said Samant. “I again reiterate my apology to those genuinely hurt for my repeated ignorance but not to those with malicious intent who targeted me on ‘insensitivity’ through anonymous accounts.”

Samant is hardly the first university student whose social media posts have impacted their academic standing (a 2019 case involved Harvard rescinding a student’s admission upon the discovery of racist tweets). For students raised alongside the Internet, social media posts offer an added layer of scrutiny into their viewpoints. 

Right-wing Indian media quickly seized upon the controversy, making Samant a kind of poster-child for Hindu oppression, Western hypocrisy, and the excesses of cancel culture. Samant returned to her home in Udupi, Karnataka, claiming that the racist cyber-bullying she was facing in England had become too much for her to handle.

“Her diversity should have been celebrated, but instead of that, she was cyberbullied to the point that she had to resign and even the Hindu religious beliefs of her parents were publicly attacked by a faculty member and that also went unpunished,” said S. Jaishankar, a member of the Indian parliament, on March 14. “If this is the kind of treatment that happens at the highest institute like Oxford, what is the message that goes out to the world?”

The controversy centered around three social media posts Samant had published between 2017 and 2018. An Instagram photo of Samant in Malaysia with the caption “Ching Chang” elicited the majority of the criticism. Allegations of anti-Semitism pointed to a post featuring the Berlin Holocaust Memorial — “the memorial *CASTS*  a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds,” wrote Samant, in an awkward allusion — as well as her comparison of South African apartheid architect Cecil Rhodes with Adolf Hitler. Additionally, Samant’s campaign had made a post that separated “women” from “trans women,” which some interpreted as transphobia. 

In a statement posted to Instagram in early March, Samant apologized for her Instagram caption about Malaysia, but stood by her comparisons between Rhodes and Hitler, writing, “In a university where Cecil Rhodes stands tall looking over all of us, I took a stand that Rhodes was no better than Hitler himself...By no means was I attempting to demean the experience of Holocaust.”