Students vs. SEWA or Dalit Student vs. Dalit Women Workers? Student ‘Politics’ on CDS Campus: Praveena Kodoth, J Devika, Sonia George

There have been reports in the media of an agitation by students of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram,  because a fellow student was asked to leave the hostel  to facilitate an investigation of a complaint against him by the Self Employed Women’s Association, which runs the cafeteria on campus.  These reports and some exchanges between faculty have been circulated on the web / social media and has led to wider discussion of this event.  We consider it imperative to put forward our shared perspective as women activists as well as bring together our views as women faculty members of CDS and co-ordinator of SEWA respectively.

The student was informed in a letter that the action against him was until such time as the investigation was completed.  Media reports have portrayed the agitation as having been motivated by the victimization of a Dalit student by the workers of the cafeteria. Also it is being propagated that the student was ‘turned out’ of the campus when the letter from the Director required the student to ‘leave’ the hostel and refrain from using the cafeteria until the investigation was over.  Deliberately enough, the action was not to prevent the student from entering the campus.  We present here the context in which the student was asked to leave the hostel, the politics of the portrayal of the incident by the students as an infringement of the rights of a Dalit student and the larger implications of their claims, that feminism has been used to victimize students on the basis of caste.

In the past few weeks SEWA had indicated that they would like to withdraw from the CDS because the dignity of their workers was being compromised by the behavior a small group of students, who expected the workers to ‘wait upon them’.  Their workers were afraid to refuse the demands of this set of students though these demands were clearly a violation of the regulations in the cafeteria.  On Thursday, the CDS Director acted upon a written complaint from SEWA that a specific student had come to the cafeteria at 9: 55 am i.e., after the prescribed time for breakfast (9.45 on holidays)  and on being refused to be served had barged into the kitchen, threatened the SEWA workers that they could report the incident to whoever they chose and had walked away  with food.  The complaint from SEWA emphasized that the student’s behavior posed a threat to the security of their workers on campus.

At other times, frictions between workers and students in a cafeteria may be a small matter that could be sorted out by the administration.  Indeed, the CDS has a committee with representatives from all sections on campus to take up any problem arising between stakeholders in the cafeteria and this committee has taken several complaints of rash behavior by students and shortcomings on the part of the workers.  In this case, however, the student’s behavior was in the nature of trespass and SEWA’s point about the threat to the security of their workers was serious enough to warrant action.  CDS appointed an inquiry committee and asked the student to leave only after ascertaining from the student that he had acted in the manner described by SEWA.  Indeed, if students thought they could go into the kitchen and threaten women workers, there was no guarantee that they would not assault them or otherwise violate their rights.  The student claims that he had a right to the food because he had paid for it.  The point here is that the cafeteria has a mess system to which the students must subscribe if they reside in the hostel but are allowed to take leave for a prescribed number of days a month.  However, the cafeteria has fixed hours for serving meals.  These are broad windows stretching to almost more than an hour and a half for breakfast.  On receiving the letter, the student made a complaint of harassment against the SEWA supervisor, claiming that she had discriminated against him on the basis of his caste but he refused to leave the campus.

Instead, on the following day, he along with a large group of students confronted the Director.  Needless to say, in the manner of these agitations, the Director was heckled with slogans that he was being ‘draconian’ and was suppressing the ‘rights of students’.  Shouting and jeering at the Director and clapping whenever a point was made in their favor, however derogatory it was of the ‘rights’ of other human beings and particularly of a set of women workers from the poorest strata of society who also happen to be mostly from the lowest castes, they demanded not only the revocation of the action on the student but also that the contract with SEWA be rescinded.  First, they accused the Director of supporting SEWA against the students .  Going further, the students alleged that there was corruption in the allocation of the contract by CDS to SEWA to run the cafeteria.  In the name of transparency they demanded that they must have a role in deciding the arrangement made to run the cafeteria.  They sought public tendering.  Here we address each of the charges / claims made by the students because of how they resonate on their (students’) understanding of the rights of women in a workplace and equally important because of the implications they have for the governance of an institution like CDS.

Alleged Victimization of a Dalit Student

During their agitation, the students claimed that the SEWA workers had consistently discriminated against a Dalit student and had done so on the basis of his caste.  There are a number of issues that arise here.  The student was obviously guilty of breaking into restricted premises, threatening women workers and taking away food (kept perhaps for the workers) against clear directions not to do so.  Why was the student able to do this?  What politics underlies the strategy adopted by the students to combat the charge by turning to a supposed ‘history of discrimination’ by the SEWA workers against the student concerned?  It is revealing that in their projection of the issue initially ( in the  Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi newspaper reports on May 5) the caste identity of the student was highlighted but SEWA was not even mentioned.  These reports simply said that a Dalit student was victimized by the canteen staff.  The vast majority of SEWA workers are from the least privileged sections of society; often greatly disadvantaged by widowhood, divorce, or separation, in a society in which marriage continues to be the major condition for women’s social membership. Indeed, a majority are Dalit.  Why was this information withheld?  Since then however media persons are become better informed.  Hence, a report that appears today (Times of India, May 5, Trivandrum edition, p 3) alleges that the immediate provocation for students was the harassment by SEWA workers but that lower caste students have been discriminated against by the faculty.  It also says remarkably enough that most of the faculty supported the students’ agitation!  This is probably incorrect because many of the faculty was not present on the day because they are on vacation.  Nevertheless, the effort to shift the target or broaden it from SEWA workers to faculty is itself telling.

Clearly, at the core of this issue are the power relations that define the everyday interactions between students and poor lower caste women workers.  As part of the process leading to a complaint against the student, the SEWA had informed CDS that their workers were intimidated by a small set of students, who routinely flexed their muscle.  In fact, we learnt that the SEWA workers used to keep breakfast for this group of students who arrived routinely arrived after the prescribed time.  This incident occurred after the faculty member in charge of the canteen at CDS had on the basis of a complaint from the SEWA office told the supervisor to flatly refuse to continue the practice.  The SEWA have said their workers were repeatedly humiliated by this group of students.  Is it any less of an infringement when the student who humiliates toiling women workers, who are far less privileged than him/her, is Dalit?  It may then be pointed out that the CDS acted against only one student and that he is Dalit.  The immediate complaint was against the said student and it was felt that it was serious enough to warrant the action that was taken.  However the inquiry was broader and its terms of reference included the group of students all of whose names were not mentioned in the complaint.

It has been a puzzle why the daily interactions between the students and the SEWA workers have been generally perceived as a tense one. To unravel it, one might ponder on whether treating ‘students’ and ‘SEWA workers’ as two internally homogenous categories is valid. If this is so, how and why a certain group of students and perhaps a certain group of SEWA workers do not get along, ought to be the key question. It is quite possible that there is a certain section of students who are implicitly intimidated by SEWA workers who are confident about their rights and therefore behave forthrightly , and a certain section of SEWA workers who may not be willing to simply bear it passively. Nevertheless, it must be noted that these groups are not equal: the former group is surely far more powerful than the latter, but as we have seen in many struggles over privilege in India, it is the powerful who protest their victimization most shrilly. At CDS, we have had the earlier experience of a private provider running the canteen.  The women workers in this previous arrangement used to work up to 12-14 hours a day at times for a pittance.  Our worthy students and many others did not complain or care!  It is when women workers who are aware of their rights begin to work in the canteen that all these complaints accumulate: this may not be just a coincidence. Is it the case that students are far more at ease when they have women workers who do not have the organizational backing to voice their rights?

‘CDS has long been using feminism against caste …’

In the course of the protest, a view that was expressed by some protestors was that the institution was using ‘feminism against caste’. Now this brings up a debate very familiar by now, a key argument of which says that implicitly- or explicitly- upper-caste ‘feminism’ excludes or even actively suppresses questions of caste inequality. But since feminism has been irrevocably pluralized by now, one wonders what the connotations of the singular usage might be in this context. Clearly, ‘feminism’ here lumps together the institutional measures for protecting women’s rights and dignity at the workplace which proceed from the authorities (‘feminism from above’), and assertion of women’s rights from ‘below’, i.e. the women’s trade union which SEWA is.

But the ‘caste’ against which ‘feminism’ has been set up, however, excludes the SEWA women and thus erases them from the discourse of caste inequality. Why is the aggression against lower caste women workers, which, according to their accounts, predated the immediate incident, not perceived as caste oppression as well? Surely, this should have been the case, had their complaints should have been heard fully? Here, one finds overwhelming importance being granted to the students’ version of events but it is quite evident that no solid reasons have been advanced so far which allow us to grant greater weight to the students’ version over the SEWA workers’ version. Is this because a class angle is at work here? Is it easier more possible for an upwardly mobile Dalit man to draw upon a discourse of caste oppression than impoverished lower caste, often dalit, women workers? And vitally, has any role been conceded at all to ‘feminisms’ These are not questions to which we have readymade answers but they ought to have been raised, if what the students initiated were to be termed a ‘protest’ at all.

The students’ characterization of the SEWA has also stressed the ‘economic exploitation’ of women workers by their organization.  According to them, the SEWA workers are given a pittance from the total income from running the canteen, and working them to death – one student even claimed in an email that they received just Rs 2500. One is not aware what the basis of this calculation is, but SEWA’s accounts show that the workers receive Rs 6000-7000 a month. One concrete way in which the students expressed their ‘concern’ – and this predated the immediate incident – was by speaking with one of the canteen staff in private, persuading her to work in the canteen directly under them for Rs 8,000. This was reported to SEWA . Now, surely, this is an interesting detail. The market for domestic labour in Kerala is currently a seller’s market: a domestic worker can earn up to the same amount working in a private home, and lesser hours. In the SEWA canteen, the work is shared by a group of workers so the workload is lesser. However, the offer of this salary for running the mess kitchen full-time is nothing short of exploitation!  Therefore it is clear that this apparent concern about economic exploitation of workers is not just thin, but outright false.

Finally, it is worth noting that CDS is a place where several minority positions coexist – single mothers, never-married women, generally, men and women who have chosen to live by non-heteronormative norms. Have we even thought whether the present crisis isn’t fuelled at least to a degree by, for instance, homophobia?

Allegations of Corruption against CDS and SEWA

The students also alleged that there was corruption in the allocation of the contract to run the cafeteria by CDS to SEWA.  In doing so they crossed crossed all boundaries of decency and respect for the ‘rights of workers’ as one of leaders of the agitation yelled at the Director ‘thangalude ammamanete makkal aano SEWA’ which translates culturally into ‘are SEWA your sexual partners’ and literally into ‘are SEWA your maternal uncle’s daughters’?  The idiom in which this charge is made is highly feudal.  Needless to say that students should resort to it reflects dangerously abusive attitudes.  Under matrilineal kinship, a man’s maternal uncle’s daughters were considered their ‘rightful’ sexual partners (licit and illicit).  Even today, when matriliny is no more, the ‘sexual right’ of a man over his maternal uncle’s daughter is joked about.  Is this acceptable behavior, when such charges are made by Dalit students against anybody, in this case ironically against toiling women workers, who are largely Dalit?

But the issue of the contract between CDS and SEWA requires greater attention.  This is an issue on which there has been no lack of transparency.   SEWA was appointed for very concrete reasons after much deliberation by the CDS administration.  All this is documented and CDS and SEWA accounts are audited.  If indeed the students had any doubts they only needed to file an RTI petition.  The reason that CDS chose not to go through the tender route is also well known and has been explained to the students ad nauseum.  Nearly two years ago before renewing SEWA’s contract, a review of the cafeteria arrangement was conducted by a committee which included representatives of students. The canteen review was conducted in two months in early 2012 and the committee members collected information from a wide variety of sources, including the records of canteen management at CDS, fifty- five interviews with the whole range of canteen-users, inputs from SEWA and the CDS administration, information about prices of food from canteens in other educational institutions and the scale of their operations, and catering contractors in Thiruvananthapuram city. The report was submitted to the Committee of Direction and approved.

Governance and Student Rights in Perspective

Are students’ rights necessarily in conflict with the organization’s interests? Here it may be important to get a sense of what could be meant by ‘students’ rights’. There has to be a balance between students’ rights and the organizations’ long-term interests. As far as an organization is concerned, the rights of students should encompass not just the immediate concerns of the current students but also entitlements of future students. The Canteen Review Committee Report observed: “Given that the institution is bound, foremost, to protect the health and well-being of users in a small and rather bounded community, many members of which are not locals, food must necessarily be healthy and fresh – and this is what the institution must ensure above everything.” (p.5)

An autonomous organization like CDS is well within its rights to make arrangements for a cafeteria on its campus which it believes to be in its long term interests so long as the process is transparent and takes into account diverse interests of stake-holders.  The agitating students claim that they are ready to run the canteen in case the arrangements with a private caterer failed. However, they had refused the option of running the canteen, offered to them during the canteen review. The Canteen Review Committee Report (2012, p. 5) noted:

…  this seems completely non-viable because students, who by rights would have a major role to play in this system, have expressed the view that their schedules are too intensely packed for them to take up this additional responsibility. The expenses on hiring cooks and helpers of a sufficient number and competence also seem quite heavy, judging from the information the Committee has collected from other canteens. In our discussions, it was also observed that this system, which is in force in many college hostel canteens in Trivandrum, is prone to corruption and abuse as well.

Surely, a cafeteria arrangement at an educational institution cannot be held ransom to the flip flops of its student body.   The last arrangement with a private caterer who employed a group of women deteriorated to a dangerous state of hygiene and high level of exploitation of the women workers in order to provide food at dirt cheap prices.  As a consequence many of the students and most of the staff stopped eating in the canteen.  This meant that students were cooking in their rooms which they are not supposed to do as per the hostel rules.

Since the CDS has invested in an industrial kitchen, which requires experience to operate in a sustainable way.  SEWA is one such group.  SEWA is also a trade union with a long experience in running cafeterias in the city, including industrial kitchens.  The SEWA and CDS have collaborated in the setting up and running of a bio gas plant and in dealing with the garbage.  Besides, as the Canteen Review Committee noted, contractors were much less likely to allow monitoring by users’ committees. These are serious concerns for CDS.

Last but not least, the strategies and tactics employed by the students to violate the rights of workers and the effort to force the Director into submission in a highly charged environment does not bode well for governance  at CDS. However romantic rebellion may look, democratic and just everyday life requires that systems are in place that check misuse of power on all sides. Decisions such as the one which sparked off this agitation are not taken in an ad hoc manner by the Director but evolved through a consultative process.  In this case it took note of the response of the student concerned and the SEWA. Forcing a revocation of such decisions does not augur well for CDS, or for that matter, its students.

Praveena Kodoth and J Devika are faculty members at CDS; Sonia George is the Secretary of SEWA Union.

31 thoughts on “Students vs. SEWA or Dalit Student vs. Dalit Women Workers? Student ‘Politics’ on CDS Campus: Praveena Kodoth, J Devika, Sonia George”

  1. Besides the actual truth, it is a matter of shame that student body at an institue such as CDS rising solagans agaist female workers (SEWA) in such a manner. I wonder if these are the very students who study and conduct research in feminism, women empowerment and other social and security issues related to women?


  2. Dear Devika, Praveena and Sonia,
    Thanks a lot for this bold piece that does not hesitate to call a spade a spade simply because a particular stance of ‘dalitism’ seeks to reduce, disingenuously, every issue today to some phantom cause, where the larger historical – even prehistorical narrative becomes the sole determinant of ‘truth’. In such a situation, the specificity of the case never matters – everybody is always-already casteist!

    I am sure the other side will also have a story to tell and let them, if they are honest, come out in public debate rather than circulate their position in social media circuits (by which here I understand, platforms like facebook). I use the term ‘dalitist’ here to distinguish it from the dalit movement in general, which many of us not only support but in fact engage with intellectually in order to clarify and develop our own thought. As opposed to that, this ‘dalitism’ is now the name of a blackmail that can be visited upon anybody – without any thought, without the slightest need to make any argument and with complete irresponsibility.

    To my ears and eyes, the ‘dalitist’ response in the story you tell is so stereotypical that by now one can actually begin to tell in advance what the subsequent plot will be. So for instance, there was a case, some years ago, of a student who happened to be dalit (an aspiring Congress leader) who was denied entrance into Ph.D in a Delhi University department because his proposal required more work. This is actually standard practice and students from all castes are meted the same treatment. If they do not make it in the first round, they are supposed to be in touch with one of the faculty members who will be there prospective supervisors and work on their proposals more intensively and apply in the next six-monthly round. More importantly, in the same year, other dalit students had actually been selected and so the charge of caste-based discrimination simply does not hold. However, this was made into an issue of caste discrimination and taken to the SC/ST commission. Generally left out left-radicals too found in this an ‘issue’ in order to promote their otherwise marginal politics. At least in one case, I know that a dalit student accused of serious sexual harassment made the report against him to be a case of anti-dalit prejudice.

    I think the time has come to resolutely refuse this ‘dalitist’ blackmail and judge issues through public debate where arguments are met with arguments, evidence with evidence. It is very easy to say that everybody else is casteist but it is time we insist in this being shown through evidence and counter-evidence, rather than simply alleged. In any case, for too long have issues of poverty and class, gender discrimination and violence, ecological destruction and so on been reviled and branded as ‘upper caste’ concerns and it is as if simply brandishing the dalit card is enough of an argument to trump all these other concerns. In any case, the ‘dalitist’ response is only the response of a new and articulate middle class among dalits (and some generally left-out overseas radicals in search of authenticity). The sooner we recognize that these issues – some of which (labour and gender) you have raised in your post – are as important as those of caste discrimination against dalits, the better.


    1. Prof. Aditya Nigam, it seems that you jump the gun too often. It’s a pity that your snobbishness more than anything else puts you on the wrong side. Ya! you got the script right, unlike your ilk, we often use the constitutional means available to us hoping for the elusive justice. Am sure you are aware of the incident of a medical student from Chandigarh who killed himself because his professor said he would not pass him. Interestingly that student cleared the exam when it was evaluated by an external committee of three members. Dronacharyas do exist! It’s a different matter if you want to turn a blind eye to this phenomenon.
      Just a curiosity! Does the “articulate middle class” dalit make you uncomfortable for they also have acquired a tongue which otherwise was ‘your’ privilege?
      P.S. Do you think that the CDS students demand for revoking the suspension of the student from Hostel is bad politics like the author wants us to believe?


      1. Pindiga Ambedkar,
        Abuses do not make an argument. But if I still cut through your abuses, what exactly are you saying? Where did the question of the Chandigarh student come in from? Apparently you want to say that “Dronacharyas do exist” and this was supposed to be an illustration. Now what exactly does that have to do with the issue at hand? Was the student at CDS suffering at the hands of Dronacharyas – a suffering he took out on the women workers? I do not turn a blind eye to any issue of discrimination, but this is a common strategy, to invoke instances of caste discrimination and humiliation in one place to argue in entirely another context, in favour of others who are clearly using their class and gender privilege against poor working women. I am really past caring if that makes me anti-dalit in your eyes. So if you have nothing to say on the CDS issue, there will be no use taking this argument further.
        In my comment above, I had also raised some issues other than the immediate one at CDS – but the point of that was clear: to underline the ways in which some people like you have now perfected this kind of politics – one that makes actual and genuine instances of humiliation and discrimination into excuses for all kinds of violations of norms by others. Such people cannot get away simply because they claim to be dalits. Or are you saying that all dalits should be exempt from the law of the land (the ‘constitutional means’ that you loftily claim to uphold) because they are dalits?
        Finally, I am the last person to be uncomfortable by the ‘articulate middle class’. I have not only openly written in support of Chandrabhan Prasad’s Dalit capitalism agenda and continue to support it in very public ways. I have also taken contemporary dalit thinkers very seriously – and their thought has contributed to my own thinking. I have a lot of respect for many of them. Unlike you, I do not paint all dalits with the same brush. Dalit intellectuals, writers and entrepreneurs have opened out different ways thinking about society and politics as far as I am concerned but if someone want to defend criminal acts in their name, you can count me out.


        1. Prof.Aditya Nigam, precisely my point was what was the incident of Delhi University where a student approached the SC Commission got to do with the incident in CDS. Since you were trying to say that you knew the script of what was going to happen? I was reiterating the fact that it’s not a crime to approach a body if one felt that he or she was a victim of prejudice.
          Coming to the CDS incident, you have formed your opinion on reading the above article and chose only to comment on the dalits. May be the problem of irresponsible behaviour is not unique of dalits alone. But you chose to only pick on the dalits. inspite of the protest was called by the Fair enough!
          while I have formed my opinion after reading the above article and the responses of the students from CDS. The protest of the students was “triggered” against the notice of the Director asking the student to leave the hostel within two hours upon receipt of such a notice. The students also raised other issues that needed your attention as well.
          Anyone found on the wrong side of the ‘moral’ law should be censured,no second thoughts on that. But I beg you to give ‘evidence’ if any dalit student accused of ‘wrong doing’ got away b’coz of his or her social origin as you say is the usual script of the dalits plan of action.
          Also could you elaborate, “I am sure the other side will also have a story to tell and let them, if they are honest, come out in public debate rather than circulate their position in social media circuits (by which here I understand, platforms like facebook)” for the sake of clarity as to where the public debate should happen?


      2. Pindiga Ambedkar, get your facts right! The student was not suspended, he was merely asked to step aside pending inquiry, which was to last less than a week! It is of course very convenient for you to paint it in stark black-and-white, and dub all of us ‘casteist’. But then I find that it is useless to waste my breath on the likes of you, people who assume that all women have male protectors at the home or workplace and so the accused can continue to share common space with a woman who lodges a complaint, for the male protector will save her in case the accused makes a move. And I wonder why you don’t care for dalit women at all? Now, I know what you will do — accuse me of being an upper-caste feminist. However, please note that the dalit student has not come out on his own — not written a word — rather he has been constantly represented by his mostly upper caste and middle caste peers. At least the SEWA leadership, which is mostly dalit and adivasi women, have been speaking of this — today they held a fullscale strike at CDS, asking the question: “you think dalit women harass dalit men?” If I were you, I would be suspicious of why these self-righteous upper and middle caste students are so keen to force a division between dalit women and men.


        1. Dr. J Devika, first of all thank you for the write up on the CDS incident. I have not branded anybody as being casteist, my only disagreement was with Prof. Aditya Nigam’s idea of juxtaposing things that are not related and ends up trivializing the issues raised by dalits. May be you could re-read what Prof. Aditya has written in response to your article. Like you said, “please note that the dalit student has not come out on his own — not written a word — rather he has been constantly represented by his mostly upper caste and middle caste peers”, your write up clearly states that but Prof. Aditya Nigam misses this and furthers his argument by saying, “To my ears and eyes, the ‘dalitist’ response in the story you tell is so stereotypical that by now one can actually begin to tell in advance what the subsequent plot will be.”
          Ma’am my facts are based on your article and that of the students and by “suspension” i meant that it is a temporary action; otherwise I could have used the words, rusticated or terminated in its place. I believe that the enquiry could have happened without the suspension cause any student is not in a position of power to influence the enquiry.

          Lastly, my politics is for the liberation of all from the clutches of patriarchy and Brahmanism, our lives which otherwise are so much governed by.


          1. Dear Pindiga Ambedkar

            How I agree with your last point. And I have always felt that we have different paths to it and believe that even if we cannot build alliances, we must respect this difference. I am sure the time will come when there will be a space for us for politicized dalits (in all their diversity) and ‘caste-queers'(which I how I sometimes perceive myself to be). But I want to say again that the student was not suspended — he was not to be out of the academic programme even for the 2 days within which the inquiry would have most probably been completed (a week was the most the committee was given). He was not declared out of bounds on the campus. He was asked however to keep away from the cafeteria and the hostel till the inquiry was complete merely to ensure the safety of the women, so that they would not be intimidated by him. Please remember that the SEWA women, who are also dalit or latin catholic or very underprivileged OBCs, had been complaining about a whole group of male students, a mixed-caste group, since more than the past six months. This student has been on campus for some 3 years now; he is a star student; his supervisor is very favourable to him and he is a very powerful man, a higher-up in the CPM, a former member of the State Planning Board; he clearly has loyal friends among the upper castes; he also gets a fellowship very regularly. The SEWA women work in shifts. They have to leave the canteen and come there alone at fixed hours. It would be easy for this group to wait at the path from the gate to the canteen and intimidate them. In fact, the very next morning, a senior professor at CDS went to the canteen early in the morning and told the women that they’d better withdraw their complaint. This is actually totally against the rule! The terms of the inquiry committee were broader in fact, but action was against this one because he was the one who committed the open breach — but others would have certainly been pulled up too, had the inquiry actually happened. I strongly suspect that the dalit student has been actually made a scapegoat by his own peers — and sadly enough with his own consent — to protect the interests of these other students!


            1. Ma’am thank you for the reply. Hope CDS community works out something; to create better working conditions and rights for all contract daily wage and SEWA workers on the campus
              Also, hoping that the people who can foresee the stereotypical response of the dalits were at-least not correct on this front.


  3. I am posting here, a certain public status posted by Aarathi Ganga, a student of CDS which provoked outburst. It is not that i agree with this post, but it illustrates the stand of the students.

    “But the girl students of those days had much more sense, and had a genuine love for women unlike the completely male-identified women and development researchers at CDS today.”…(from a common mail from J.Devika).

    I am a person who had so much respect for you once,but now I would like to ask you,what are you thinking about yourself and what are you thinking about the female students in the campus?We have our own decision and we stand up with what we think is right.First you attacked the male faculties and male students telling they have behaved very badly and now when you see female students are also standing with the justice,you are trying to put down us.You may be a well known academician and a renowned feminist and you are misusing the positions that you hold.I want you to publicly apologize to the female students in the campus for making a comment like this.Behave yourself.I am sure that this post is going to make my life a hell in CDS and I will be individually targeted but I am fed by this so called ‘feminist’ drama happening in the Centre.Shame on you.


    1. Aarathi’s status is quite illustrative of the style of the students’ attack — trying to fend off criticism with near-abusive language and near-threats (‘behave yourself!’). I am quite sure that the description of women and development research-aspirants at CDS today is not off the mark though I don’t see why this particular student should identify with it so closely since as far as I know, she is not yet such a researcher. I want to quickly make clear on this public forum that I wrote back to her as soon as I saw this, assuring her that she need fear no victimization and that I will be requesting the concerned authorities to exclude me from all evaluative work concerning her. It is strange how these female students did not have the minimum sense of justice to visit the workers and hear out their version as well before launching into the male-led quest for ‘justice’! Of course the response will be that we are right, we are right, WE ARE RIGHT — YOU ARE WRONG! And with no evidence to back it up and no response at all to the simple question why the testimony of highly underprivileged lower caste women workers should not be accorded at least equal value with the testimony of privileged students, mostly upper- and middle- castes, who receive fellowships that are generous for a country like India, live in large, airy single rooms with attached bathrooms, steel almirahs, sometimes a balcony, 24 hour wi-fi and water supply, besides enjoying the best library facilities in south India. Much righteous anger is being expressed by these students on FB right now, but then FB groups are hardly the public — I was amused by some many ‘public challenges’ issued to us on FB groups, by the childish bravado that safe spaces accord.

      But I do think the most crucial question all this raises is a different one: what is wrong with the liberal education at CDS that it produces students who have an inflated sense of entitlement, a deeply consumerist one (“I paid, therefore I should get food at whatever time I choose to present myself!), lie without batting an eyelid (until recently, there was some agreement that the student had gone to the canteen late — and so many of the CDS alumni were protesting ‘micro-regimentation’ at CDS — but in their letter to the Chairman of the Governing Body of CDS, they claim he was on time), fear the public such that they fume only on FB groups and mailing lists and rely on the dominant media to represent their case, and have very poor skills in general.

      Besides, there seems to be a clear agenda — in fact a CPM agenda — at work. Judging from alumni responses, it appears that many persons who are die-hard CPM supporters have extended unquestioning support to the students while refusing even the most obvious of questions like the one raised above. This would mean that we are in for a long haul, but I am not flinching.


  4. We the students’ community at CDS feels that a response is required from
    our side to the series of mails that were put in the public domain by few
    faculty members following the protest on 3rd May, 2013.
    On 2nd May 2013, Mr. Siamlal was served a letter on the grounds of
    ‘unacceptable conduct in the canteen’ without giving enough room to raise
    his concerns and further asked to vacate the hostel within two hours. This
    triggered the student community to voice out longstanding and unheard
    issues regarding the canteen in the form of a peaceful protest. However,
    the said faculty has reduced our protest to a mere ‘drama’ without
    acknowledging its importance or the fact that the Director heard and
    responded positively to several of our demands. We condemn in strong terms
    such attempts to trivialize our concerns by stating it to be ‘a tantrum
    over breakfast’. We also condemn the statement that we were an ‘infuriated
    mob’. Such statements we believe would dilute the major issues. Hence it
    needs to be retracted. The protest was a joint decision by the students
    irrespective of gender, class or caste and was conducted in a democratic
    and peaceful manner. We would also like to clearly specify that, the
    present protest was not ‘led’ by anyone and kindly note that we are not a
    group of gullible ‘mob’ to be a part of ‘pre-organized scoop which someone
    hoped to cash on’. Further, it is not us who ‘insult (ed) the institution
    by calling in the police’. It is wise to verify ones facts and not to base
    your allegations on ‘hearing about it from outsiders’

    There were also questions raised on the students’ first-hand knowledge of
    social issues and their participation in politics as credentials to the
    solidarity expressed in the present struggle. Please note that we were in
    protest for a fellow student who has been through and experienced all
    dimensions of poverty and oppression. Hence, there is lived experience
    amongst us who can vouch for the same.

    We conclude by saying that indirect threats to the so called “student
    leaders” was not called for. For the attention of all, till this moment,
    the student leadership includes all students.

    We respect the Centre for what we are and for the courage and solidarity
    that we assembled in the course of our education here to protest against
    what we feel was a just cause.

    With regards

    CDS Students Community

    Ps I would like to add that Dr J vika was completely absent from the scene and has not even tried to hear students at the centre whom she loves and teaches.Atleast before you go to the public domain you could have attempted that ,we would have been happy to give you a detailed account of what happened and why we protested, and you would have been better informed since you chose not to be present at the centre on that day.


    1. Sumeetham, this is of course the text of the letter that you sent around and I replied to you too, in detail. I am going to post that response below but before, let me respond to the last point inserted. I was not at the Centre when your mob-action took place but not out of town and hence contacted over and over by journalists and other visitors who were at CDS at that time. My friends who witnessed the mayhem you created let me hear you on the phone; and that is also how i got to know who informed the press and got media one to come. I also got to know the manner in which the cause for the mob action was reported to the press, the shocking concealment of details. I reconfirmed all these with the non–teaching staff who are eyewitnesses — there were things I rejected after this. For example, one reporter told me that you had targeted the director with homophobic slogans like ‘are you a man? are you a woman?’, and then slyly asked me why students had used it. I put the call down of course. But at CDS, the people i spoke with told me that nothing of the kind had happened. Besides, this article is written along with an eyewitness, Praveena, who saw everything that day and was part of the processes in the former day too. The facts that I cite — the student abusing the director and sewa, the corruption allegations, the call to the police that was from neither the director or the registrar — will be vouched for by many many eyewitnesses, I assure you.

      As for hearing you, do you have anything more to say than you already have? You students demand so much motherliness all the time! You want sympathy all the time, it seems — if i want to know the ‘truth’, I must come to you and hear it from your mouth. At the same time none of you, even those of you who claim social commitment, had the decency to go and meet the SEWA women and hear their version!

      Here is my letter, below:
      ————————— Original Message —————————-
      Subject: Re: Students’ clearification regarding certain allegation
      Date: Mon, May 6, 2013 12:11 am

      Dear students

      Thank you for writing to me. I will try to answer your concerns the best I can, but first of all, may I know, who put the mail that you read into the public domain? It was sent to the all_faculty group and how come you read it? This means that somebody from the faculty breached confidentiality,
      and by now, I know who. Obviously, we are a more intimate group and we vent our feelings more freely. For example,the details of my personal life are also available to you through the largess of the very same person in his mail to all users! Enjoy! This is surely not the students’ fault and I have no ill-will about it. BTW, please do mention my name openly next time. By not mentioning my name, you were probably trying to be kinder than this colleague of mine; I appreciate it, but please feel free!

      But especially in the light of this illegitimate sharing, I will not retract one word of I said, not a single word. But I will explain why I said what I said. It is my view that you did behave like a mob and misrepresent the events to the world outside to the great shame of CDS.

      Your representation of the letter given to Siamlal is actually
      inadequate. He was not asked to vacate the hostel but to leave it and not enter the cafeteria — and he was not prevented from entering the campus. The difference between ‘leave’ and ‘vacate’ is important and it was irresponsible of you to ignore it. Mind you, the charge is of trespass and intimidation and these are economically and socially disadvantaged women, of equally low caste backgrounds! In any of the Western universities that many of you aspire to reach, this would be considered an assault on personal dignity and tried accordingly. Of course those are western universities where we would all bend over to obey the rules; CDS is just a cheap third-world place where we can play with the rules, right?

      I think I have a totally different view on the alleged casteist discrimination. Siamlal was one of my favorite students and I gave him very good grades ; I was very proud when he did splendidly in the PhD interview and do look forward to excellent work from him, but I don’t think he is in the right now. About the experience of poverty, the very large majority of SEWA women too have precisely the same experience, and indeed still struggle with, and along with it, face menaces like dowry and domestic violence. I have a more detailed account here, if you would care to read :

      In a confidential group I am free to share exactly what I think of the event which transpired and your actions which attracted so much media attention. Let me tell you why I am so incensed: for four things. One,and most important of all, the apparent role of some faculty members who joined you in jeering the director, which had broken down complete the
      decorum to be followed between peers in the faculty. This is a matter I will not discuss with you.

      Secondly, the fact that I had to go through the horror of hearing the jibes and jeers of journalists who had pretty accurate information — I know because I cross-checked every detail they were giving me with those who witnessed your actions. Seeing it was easier; hearing people pour scorn at a place I love was utterly painful. I knew, when I came back,
      that this institution which I love, which gave me shelter when I had now, is going to be thoroughly defamed and misrepresented in the public. I cannot have an iota of approval for those who either managed or mismanaged
      the act to achieve this effect. Yes, my disappointment with you is not about what you wished to do but about the way you did. You would say you have accumulated grievances especially about the director’s behavior. I too have had to deal with such things both in the present and in my student life, But our generation had a different way of tackling these rages: we expressed it outright, to the face, with no forward calculation about whether the obnoxious teacher might fail us in a future exam. It is better not to have grievances accumulate, but to express them firmly, politely, publicly, and with confidence and scholarship. It is mean people
      who carry grudges which are then expressed in a mob. Again, I don’t fault you entirely here. The social environment is one which encourages as of us to become forward-calculating rational agents. But we must at least be self-reflexive of this.

      Thirdly, your language — completely depoliticized and at times some of you made outright filthy comments that qualify straight as sexual harassment– I have plenty of well-confirmed reports on this, that is, several people who were present at the scene told me the same thing over and over again and would be too willing to testify. I think that alone
      made you a mob : a mob that booed down naysayers, intimidated them with ugly words, and cheered ayesayers, even when their moral standing was shockingly low. A mob need not indulge in physical violence; intimidation is a form of violence.

      Fourthly, the way in which you literally heckled the director to conceding your demands is not acceptable to me. It sets a very bad precedent. Tomorrow some student who I may have given a poor grade for specific reasons, which she, for whatever reasons, cannot see, can well gather twenty of her friends, grab some placards, get a cheap TV channel to come, shout filthy slogans, heckle and jeer me publicly — and intimidate me into retracting my evaluation! I am not saying any of you will do this,but this is a precedent. This is reducing CDS to the level of University College; very good for budding student politicians who can bully academics into silence but terrible for the intellectual health of the place.That is why I said I will not retract a single word, even if you gherao me day and

      And I have studied enough of political movements to know that ‘everyone is a leader’ is just a romantic falsehood that we tell ourselves simply to justify the hegemony of the very-solidly present leadership. Actually I do hope you have some leaders, probably those who mobilized you with emails and called up the press and TV etc. Because if it is the case that each of you is a leader, that is a feature that political scientists widely acknowledged to be the prime feature of a mob — and my feeling stands confirmed.

      And it is very sorry that you think you are socially ommitted. I don’t know if my advice is worth a penny, probably not, but I urge you to introspect on the comparative advantages of fellowship earning PhD scholars over impoverished woman workers. If the aggrieved student is dalit, the aggrieved workers are also economically disadvantaged OBCs/latin catholics/dalits, who however have neither the social nor the
      cultural capital this young man possesses. And the fact that the complaints of lower caste SEWA women — they predate the incident involving Siamlal, definitely — does not occur to anyone as equally one of caste harassment! You have erased those women out of your discourse of caste; you have enthroned just the dalit man in it.

      This is all I wish to tell you. But since you have given me a chance to speak with you, let me also tell you my thoughts. I have decided that henceforth all my interaction with you all on campus or outside will be purely formal and professional. This way I will not get hurt when you behave in these ways. The anguish I have suffered in the past two days is too deep to verbalize. I have been so close to many of you and we have had a relationship of warm informality; you were always welcome into my home and I have tried to help you in all ways I can, moral and material, not because of the charitable instinct because when I looked at many of you, I saw the inheritors of my intellectual legacy, all the intellectual
      resources that I have amassed. Through my life, I have amassed not material wealth but knowledge, which only students can inherit. Mind you, this is a legacy that only my students can bear, not perhaps my biological children. To find you involved in actions that make you utterly unworthy of it simply breaks my heart. But then, maybe you do not need it, and all the ethical baggage it carries. Sorry, dear ones, for having thought so.
      Oh, while I will not take back any of my reading of your act, I will surely take back this useless intellectual hoard.

      You cannot imagine what a terrible, terrible blow you struck me but I will not hold it against you and surely bounce back and be well and whole again in the heart — but learn to protect myself from such emotional turmoil henceforth. Best wishes, then, and I am sorry if I caused you hurt, but I
      stand by my evaluation of your act. And I wish to be silent on this from now with you and will write more only when I am in a better frame of mind. Whatever emails addressed to Dr Joseph in the all_users id from me are not really meant for you; but since he stooped so low, I had no choice, I am sorry.

      Yours truly
      J Devika


      1. please do not trivialise our issues. I personally expected that you would be open to opinions from the student community, but you have proved that a dialogue is quite impossible now. As a student at the Centre i felt that i had to respond to your very long post in kafila which is a thorough mis-interpretation of events.
        You may chose to diagree with me, but remember, that we as a student body decided to go for a strike after thorough discussion and delibration. You can argue out your causes in a three page long mail, but please remember that we went out to fight as a group for a just cause.
        Long Live the Spirit of Democracy
        Sumeetha M
        PhD Scholar


        1. Ah sumeetha, it is you who now trivialise the SEWA women’s issues. Yes, you and me have the freedom to interpret events very differently and consider our versions closer to the truth. You students had all the newspapers in Malayalam, a T V Channel, and the Times of India, and all your FB circles (and surely much more time and energy than me) to project your views and interpretation and establish them as truth, and I have only kafila! That says something of your relative strength – you are a very large group and is well-supported, even if you don’t know, by the Jamaat-e-Islami and the CPM. And of course by the very strength of ‘dalitism’ that Aditya Nigam mentioned above. And I must say your last statement is funny indeed — oh let me assure you I am not a stranger to politics and maybe you don’t know, but I have been quite active in a range of democratic activisms in the state. You didn’t go out anywhere: you went from the hostel to the foyer of the academic building of CDS. In the past 10 years, I have tried very hard to persuade students to ‘come out’ – starting with the Muthanga agitation, through the Chengara land struggle, the fight for Chitralekha, the DHRM, Kudankulam … I can count on my fingers the numbers of you who have even responded! So much for your fine claims! And yes, long live the spirit of democracy and may it not be appropriated by elites who can’t see beyond their noses.


          1. …and sumeeta, i was also quite active politically as a student, you know. Let me tell you, I outlived the anti-Mandal assault, when overnight, all of us who didn’t agree with their hooliganism were declared undesirable persons on the JNU campus. therefore i will outlive your fb fulminations i suppose.


  5. From Praveena Kodoth

    May 7, 2013 6:17 PM

    Thank you, Sumeetha and Aarati. As you choose, deplorably enough, to take the laziest route to responding to the arguments that we (Sonia, Devika and I) made in our piece by citing such non issues as that Devika was not present during the incident, let me remind you, I too authored the posting
    here. Sumeetha you are a research scholar, I wonder if every piece of evidence that you present in the papers you write or that are found in what you read is based on witnessing things first hand! Nevertheless, since it has come to this pass, let me repeat that I witnessed the entire show. Yes, I did say the SHOW. Going by your stock responses to Devika I am sure I will now invite the charge of desecration. RECANT! RECANT!
    After all, the pious among your ilk is turning the event out to be nothing short of a sacrament – of the assertion of student rights in CDS! I shudder at the thought of having provoked further occasion for the advertisement of the argumentative skills of the CDS students. But indeed to answer arguments from my colleague with slogans and accusations (behave yourself, for example)! What a shame, Aarathi! I must add that your most recent strategy of pitting women students against a woman faculty member smacks of age old patriarchy! Hold it, Aarati I do not mean that you cannot make your own decisions. Your affiliations are there for all to see and I fully believe that you chose them yourselves because, secure in the privileges you enjoy and not in the least self reflexive about them, you identify fully with your fellow male student/s. What I am talking about it the bases on which you define your affiliations.
    As far as your collective narrative goes – expressed in various fora and marked by a shocking lack of internal consistency – you have shown yourself much too eager to vacate the charges that you have made (in a hurry?) when they became difficult to defend.

    Praveena Kodoth, Associate Professor Centre for Development Studies Trivandrum.


  6. Hello, friends, Ravi Palat forwarded your intervention in the
    student-cafetaria workers case. Many thanks. Why do students feel
    entitled once they are into the university, regardless of their


  7. Ugly game, Dr. Devika. You’ve got most of your facts wrong. Even your comment/ writeup/ response seems to be tarnished by hypocrisy and anti-student biases. Clearly your students are upset with campus services. Who exactly are you catering to in an educational institution (pun unintended)- and why should students not have the right to request for food (since there clearly was some left, why was it being wasted?) 15 minutes before time on a holiday?


    1. I am posting this comment by some coward who calls himself/herself cdsbuff just to illustrate again the extent to which the present generation of CDS students and/or their supporters can go. I am collecting all such comments from FB too, and they will be surely of use when I finally move against those intellectual runts. Well, cdsbuff, your facts keep changing all the time, what can I do about it. And your question about who I sleep with is irrelevant to this debate. I could well frame a counter-question but that would be deeply sexist!


  8. In response to my comment on Aarathi’s facebook status, Beena Vigneshwaran, alumni of CDS wrote ‘’Not understanding why te students are responding to those who r outside the purview of cds students, staff and alumni.. It is an internal issue. Only outside member is sewa at present…and Rajasree is only te daughter of a faculty, she is not directly related to cds to my knowledge…’’
    I find this very interesting because never in my life I have heard that an issue which got wide attention in newspapers and other major public platforms internal. Whether or not the daughter of a faculty member, Am I not an Indian citizen who has access to media? And how is SEWA an outsider? Please do enlighten.


  9. SEWA now has the option of resorting to a political solution of the issue through more organised action or file a Police complaint against harassment. What happened amounts to harassment at workplace.


  10. @Pindiga Ambedkar,
    You still do not answer why students harassed by ‘Dronacharyas’ have to go an take it out on the relatively powerless women workers – and how this becomes an issue of anti-dalit discrimination.
    I brought in the DU example precisely to illustrate how a generic excuse is used to claim immunity or privilege. Something that your comment does as well.
    You are wrong to allege that I pick only on dalits indulging in wrong-doing – I do not have to take your certificate for what stances I have taken publicly on record. Once again this is a stereotyping that people like you have perfected and I do not feel I need to respond to such accusations.
    Kafila is not the place for me to give evidence to you on the wrong-doings by anyone – inquiries are going on in some of the cases (as in the case of many non-dalits as well) and evidence is being presented by aggrieved parties in requisite forums.
    I do not think I need to explain anything further in relation to your comment.


    1. Prof. Aditya Nigam, please read what you have written. The protest was called by the student body of CDS and not by Dalit students. So your theory of Dalit “blackmail” doesn’t hold water. The whole text of your reply to the article was nothing but dalit bashing and I am limiting this claim to your reply to the article, so please do not assume otherwise.

      Using your suggestion “evidence” with “counter evidence,” can you plz. provide evidence or validate your hypothesis how the CDS incident “To my ears and eyes, the ‘dalitist’ response in the story you tell is so stereotypical that by now one can actually begin to tell in advance what the subsequent plot will be.”

      Prof. Nigam, bad behaviour should be condemned so please do not think that I am condoning the incident at CDS. No, am only trying to engage with you, for you have made certain generalizations and I felt these needed to be challenged.


  11. I am posting here an email sent by an ex-student of CDS to the CDS alumni list, with his permission:

    Dear All,
    It is nice to know that CDS forum is active and at last I am happy to get mail from everybody including my batch mates VP, Sunny and Jojo. It is heartening to read the mails that says,”we all love cds”.. By the way as a perpetual late comer during Mphil I have apologized umpteen number of times to canteen SEWA ladies. Always they have accepted my apologies and had given me food at odd hours. They never ever
    considered my social standing as a Dalit or son of a tamil plantation worker.

    What I don’t understand is reluctance of the research student to apologise for being late at the first instance and worse barge in to their work space?

    CDS should first teach good manners and basic decency to behave properly. Please don’t let anyone play any gender or caste card. It is disgusting.
    At the same time the administration has to listen to the grievances of students. It is quite revealing that they are not heard. Any indiscipline on their part has to be dealt with proper due process.

    There is something wrong with quality of academic discussion also. It is surprising that so many mails are shot at a non event and none to discuss vital issues facing people..

    Hope members will also spend time and opine on serious issues like Nitakhat ie return migration from gulf, energy crisis, koodankulam standoff, waste disposal, sand mining, land agitations, road widening, education- thalayennal, spectrum and coal allocation etc etc..
    With regards
    1997-99 MPhil Batch.
    District Police Chief


  12. I am posting here an ‘open letter to the students’ by an alumni of CDS, dr K T Rammohan, and my response. This is with his permission:

    dear cds students,

    While I am fully with you on most of the points you have raised, I do not
    endorse *at all* some of your observations on social network sites.
    Especially, I am embarrassed by your comments against Dr J Devika, who is
    widely respected as a socially committed and truthful intellectual.


    And I wrote back:

    Please — thanks Ram, but i don’t need the protection that may be afforded
    by this statement. When women who are far more disadvantaged by me are
    degraded, insulted, humiliated and defamed, and them accused of wrongdoing
    by these people who you call ‘students’, I don’t care for this shelter.
    And in any case, many of these ‘students’ are half my age, but I am
    confident that I have three times their energy and skills and for sure
    will secure justice for myself, however long and hard it may take.

    And I seek to hold them accountable for their viciousness not just to me
    but to these other women (till yesterday I was the darling of many of
    these ‘students’, only when I took the women workers’ side did i become a
    demon) that is because I refuse to treat these fully-grown young men and
    women as ‘kuttikal’. They are citizens and are required to behave



  13. I wish the issue is rather amicably settled (I know it sounds like a cliche!) and not brought to a point of flare up with misplaced antagonisms between ‘identities’ ..
    workers,students,faculty, dalit, men,women,academic and non academic could perhaps rise above these divisive alter egos and could listen patiently to each other. I wish they could still resolve to defend the dignity and freedom of all! There may still be a lot of common ground to tread.


    1. Well I am sorry Kandamath Manayilvalappil Venugopalan it is a cliche! Not that anyone wants a fight to the finish … but this ‘dalit issue’ is simply not a dalit issue at all! And our point has precisely been against the vulgar division being forced between dalits and women by deliberately erasing the lower caste status of the women workers. Interesting how the worker identity is drawing almost no sympathy at all.


  14. I see this issue as a microcosm of several similar issues. I am based in Delhi and my search online has not revealed the steps taken or action taken or any update since 9th May. May I request an update if it is possible.


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