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.