CASTE discrimination and denial of democratic rights abound on university campuses of repute. While there are umpteen instances of prejudicial treatment of students from marginalised communities, especially Dalits, there is no redress mechanism.
Recently, a Dalit student in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, was told by his guide not to post anything in support of Rohith Vemula on Facebook if he wished to get his doctoral degree.
On January 25, a Dalit PhD scholar from Odisha, who has registered with the Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament (CIPOD) under the JNU’s School of International Studies, stated in a letter to the Vice-Chancellor that he would commit suicide if his Senior Research Fellowship was not continued. The scholar was given 9B (extension) only after he took up the matter with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and the National Human Rights Commission. “He had written two academic books and presented 14 papers at national and international seminars but was told that his thesis could not be admitted as it lacked quality and his English was poor,” said Rahul Sonpimple, an MPhil student at the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism. A response to a query under the Right to Information (RTI) Act revealed that not a single person belonging to the Scheduled Caste (S.C.) group had been awarded a PhD degree by the CIPOD since its inception in 1972. The centre, however, refused to comment on this by saying that such questions could not be raised against it as it was autonomous.
The Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU, changed the qualifying marks for admission after conducting the entrance examination, thereby denying admission to a student belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The student was admitted only after he obtained a favourable order from a court. “Category students work hard to get good marks in written examinations as they are usually given less than three marks out of 30 in viva voce. In the direct PhD programme, where candidates are selected on the basis of an interview, the seats meant for S.C./S.T. candidates often remain vacant. For us, it is not a matter of choice, it is a fight for existence and dignity. When the All India Students Association gave the ‘Sabko Hostel’ call, we did not oppose it. We said marginalised students from rural areas should be given hostel admission on a priority basis. They didn’t pay heed. There are many students without hostel accommodation,” Rahul said. The equal opportunity cell of the university, which is supposed to deal with these issues, is dysfunctional.
Birth of Dalit groups
The agitations in northern India against the Mandal Commission recommendations implemented by the V.P. Singh government in 1990 provided an impetus for students from marginalised communities to form independent social and political organisations on university campuses. The most noteworthy of these is the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), which was formed in 1993 at the University of Hyderabad, also called Hyderabad Central University (HCU). In fact, Dalit activism took root in the 1970s in Osmania University, also in Hyderabad. The Mandal agitation gave birth to the first Dalit students association on the politically vibrant JNU campus. The United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF) was formed in 1991 by S.C. and Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) students as they felt that despite being active participants in campus politics, the dominant political climate of the university failed to address their problems. The decision to form the UDSF, guided by Ambedkarite ideology, emanated from the need of Dalit students to have an organisation that they could call their own and be led by leaders from within their ranks.
“It wasn’t so much against discrimination that the UDSF was created; since the rightist, leftist and centrist parties [on the campus] were not ready to understand our issues, it was felt we should form our own party,” Prof. Rajkumar, who joined the JNU in 1992 to do a master’s degree in political science, said. He is now teaching at Dayal Singh College of Delhi University.
Apart from raising issues such as under-evaluation and non-implementation of reservation, the forum introduced the culture of celebrating the legacy of its bahujan forefathers, such as the birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. These activities gave visibility to the UDSF on the campus and helped it consolidate and mobilise students on an ideological platform. It acted as an integrating force for marginalised students from various States. It provided an empowering and enabling environment for students from these backgrounds to cope with and express themselves in a milieu that was vastly different from the one they came from.
The growing political assertion by Dalits across the country over the years resulted in a change in the political language of non-Dalit parties on the campus. They could no longer ignore the issues of Dalits, who were also a major vote bank. It became incumbent on all parties to pay heed to the ideas of Ambedkar even if only for the sake of political correctness. They started fielding at least one Dalit candidate in campus elections. From the position of a vanguard of Ambedkarite ideology, the UDSF would oppose attempts at appropriation of the ideology.
Despite its presence on the campus for more than two decades, the UDSF remained on the margins of the campus’ mainstream politics. It could not take up several issues or push for change as it did not contest campus elections although it allowed its members to contest them on the ticket of any party of their choice after resigning from the central committee. It was more of a sociocultural organisation.
In contrast, Dalit students’ parties at HCU became an effective and strong voice on the campus, safeguarding the interests of students of marginalised communities. Manikanta, who has enrolled in the Centre for Political Studies in JNU, was part of the Bahujan Students’ Front (BSF) in HCU. He is struck by the stark difference in the politics practised on the two campuses. “Dalit assertion on the HCU campus is more, maybe because of the long history of political action in the region such as the Telangana movement and the struggle following the massacre [of Dalits] in Karamchedu in 1985. We have also had sub-categorisation and anti-Brahmin movements. In JNU, there are parties which claim to be protectors of the marginalised, but I do not see them doing much in their interest.”
There is also a difference in student mobilisation in JNU and HCU. In HCU, the BSF mobilised students to address their inferiority complex. If a student was weak in English, English classes would be conducted or a reading group formed. To become a BSF member, one must have read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste . “The other parties do not introduce their members to anti-caste literature, which results in a narrow understanding of society,” Manikanta said. The other problem in northern India is that casteism is not part of a programme for non-Dalit parties. Whenever there is an issue, all the parties take it up. “In HCU, we were trained to speak about caste or gender politics in public. But here [JNU], during a protest screening of Caste on my Menu Card , when I began to sing the ‘beef’ song, a Muslim told me not to sing. His fear got me to think: although the Left is strong on the campus, the right-wing consciousness is so strong that it creates fear among the students. It creeps into the sociocultural mindset of the students.”
Mukesh Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Discrimination & Exclusion, School of Social Sciences, JNU, and central committee member of the UDSF, said that after the JNU elections in 2014, when political consciousness on the campus had grown to such an extent that every contestant belonged to a marginalised background but issues concerning Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, Muslims, Christians, women and other marginalised sections were not adequately addressed or were not a priority, the need for a party that would take part in elections for them was felt. As a logical progression and to fill the perceived vacuum in the assertion of Dalit identity within mainstream JNU politics, which was lost somewhere in the left, right and centre debate, the Birsa, Ambedkar, Phule Students Association was formed on December 6, 2014.
But the major challenge for Dalit political formations on the campus are from the Brahminical and right-wing forces that are opposed to inclusive politics. While these formations do not differ with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, on one or two issues, they challenge the very basis of these right-wing parties.
The Dalit formations’ parcha s mince no words when they talk of uprooting Brahminism and Hinduism. They denounce the celebration of the Hindu festivals of Diwali and Holi, which are linked to the myth of victory over bahujan idols such as Holika, Bali and Mahishasura. “We are on the hit list of Hindu politics. Unlike the secular parties, who are atheist and do not challenge these practices, our intervention is to make our history and our idols the reference point and question the basis of Hinduism. None of the other parties speaks this language,” Rahul said. In fact, on the one hand Dalit formations are called casteist, and on the other, they are blamed for identity politics. While not being affiliated to any national party is a disadvantage in terms of resources and clout, it allows them to be independent and explore creative ways of solving issues and not get pressured into following orders from the top like most other students bodies do. Most of the universities have at least two Dalit students’ organisations on their campuses, with little or some impact on larger campus issues, but none of them is affiliated to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
“HCU is the best example where there are three Dalit parties: the BSF, as an ideological front; the Dalit Students Union, formed by Madigas; and the ASA, dominated by Malas,” said Chandraiah Gopani, the BSF founder who teaches at GB Pant University, Allahabad. With multiple groups, there is greater freedom to take up local issues specific to the context at hand and not to depend on a central party leadership to announce a programme. But when an issue has to be taken up at the national level, the need for coordination is felt. He said attempts had been made informally to form a central coordination committee or to organise a national-level seminar, where these groups could come together, but it had not materialised yet.
With the Rohith Vemula issue, the phenomenon of joint action committee has been highlighted, with parties of various hues coming together at HCU and JNU. An informal internal dialogue between these organisations is a unique character of Dalit students’ politics on campuses in India and what unites them in their differences is Ambedkar’s philosophy, which acts as a binding force, stronger than any other principle.
Unlike universities in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which have a history of progressive anti-discrimination politics, universities in Delhi are hegemonised by dominant-caste student groups. Delhi University has a few Dalit students’ groups; but they do not have much impact. In Ambedkar University and the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, like-minded people, who were talking informally about consolidation on the basis of Dalit ideology, were propelled into action by Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Prof. Sumeet Agarwal of IIT Delhi said: “In the wake of the expulsions in IIT Roorkee in 2015 where nearly 90 per cent of the first-year students expelled on the grounds of poor academic performance were from the S.C./S.T./OBC communities, and then when the Rohith Vemula incident happened, it was felt that somehow this discussion needed to be made visible and brought into the mainstream, at least to send across the message that there was a place they could turn to talk about these issues.” They immediately organised a memorial meeting and launched the Ambedkar Study Circle as an unofficial discussion group for students, faculty and anyone who wished to participate. Admitting that the culture on the IIT campus was quite conservative, where concerns of the marginalised are not vocalised, he said not only caste but also topics such as alternative sexuality and mental health tended to be outside the bounds of everyday conversation. The aim of the study circle is to create a better understanding of the barriers faced by S.C./S.T./OBC students and build a culture of more open discussion. “Being able to honestly examine and interrogate ourselves will be a significant step in the direction of making our campus a welcoming space for everyone, whatever background they may come from in this incredibly diverse country of ours,” he said.