This is a guest post by SHIPRA NIGAM
That the past few months have been cataclysmic is an understatement. Personal tragedies and political catastrophes have exploded within our most cherished spaces, and brought a churning in them. What was truly transformative was the experience of both the emergence of broad solidarities against right-wing fascism, and of the reminders of multiple registers and contexts within them. These underline the need for multiple conversations to understand both our common struggles, as well as the contradictions within, and to renew a resolve for introspection through them as we move towards real ‘azaadi’.
There is of course an ongoing debate on this, and here I felt that some binaries being invoked in it are not very convincing, while others brought home stark truths that pose challenges to a patriarchal, majoritarian caste hindu ordering of society, within which we are all located at different levels of hierarchy, complicity, and engagement.
I have been part of both public universities under fire right now, and the present brings home the urgency of the dual task of defending the public university as a space for pushing the boundaries of critical thought, and confronting the very hierarchies and complicities with power that shape it. This is necessary even as processes of democratisation and affirmative action take root in public institutions . So these are some reminiscences from an alumna of both these public universities who has been wrestling with articulations and complexities which lie beyond institutional labels or binaries.
Remembering HCU, I cannot but introspect on the manner in which the campus became the centre of struggles by dalit-bahujan student bodies over time and finally in the impressive mobilisation of the protests around the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. The campus’s stark history of segregation, as well as discrimination, on both academic and administrative registers is the necessary context of such struggle. As an alumna, after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, I’ve been struggling with troubled memories of my days there, when the current Vice Chancellor Appa Rao was the chief Warden, and a similar story had played out, leading to an attempted suicide by a dalit student. In ways similar to the present event, there were charges of ‘vandalism’ against a group of dalit students linked with ASA, and accusations of alleged ‘casteist’ provocations over an incident involving the alleged corruption and mishandling by the Central Mess Purchasing Committee under Appa Rao. Ten dalit students were rusticated overnight after that incident. I also remember the indifference shown by, and the segregation practised by, a large section of the student and teaching community. How many times will that story be repeated, with the same tropes and frames and reactions, in a campus where Rohith’s was the tenth dalit suicide? After all, as has been pointed out by many, Rohith felt increasingly isolated on the same campus over time, a factor that may have also led him to choose his tragic end.
As a student from an upper-caste middle-class cosmopolitan background, time spent there shook me out of my comfort zone, rankled my conscience and brought home realities that I had only read and heard about till then. While not being competent enough to go into the details of the struggles of dalit student bodies over there (voices far more representative and involved have written and spoken about it already), I can at least testify to the deep segregation I witnessed every time I attempted to speak to immediate friends and colleagues about the rustication. The first time when I joined a class-to-class campaign for a strike by ASA students along with other student organizations like the SFI and some feminist groups, I was taken to task by furious friends for disrupting classes for even that one day. ‘We all come here to study. Classes can’t be disrupted over this.’ But didn’t those students who were rusticated come to study also? Should they not be given a fair hearing, and were they not entitled to impartial enquiry, at the very least? ‘Nobody gets rusticated without a reason. They must have done something wrong.’
And this response was to re-emerge repeatedly in the days to come. ‘You don’t know these people, they are anti-social elements.’ This came from an upper caste friend in the ladies hostel, who had reprimanded me just a day ago, for lending my personal bucket to the cleaning lady who came to clean our bathrooms. In fact, later when I became the president of that ladies hostel, I would often get complaints even about how the workers cleaning the common bathrooms were being allowed to use them! These prejudices were strong; they were like impossible-to-breach, insurmountable walls of ignorance bolstered by social and economic privilege. The seamlessness with which a discourse of upper caste merit blended with the invisibilisation of deep-seated prejudices in our everyday lives, including my own personal contexts, was astoundingly clear. Meanwhile, we heard about the attempted suicide of one of the dalits students who had presented a written apology to Appa Rao in the naive hope of being reinstated. That weakened the case of all the students, and the rustication went through eventually.
On the other hand, my engagements with feminist politics in the campus, as part of a gender collective, brought home other realisations about the complex intersectional marginalities of gender, caste, and class, and how they would even get pitted against each other at times. Left student politics, in its attempt to engage with this potent cauldron, would often lend itself to a fragile balance between populism and ideology in its electoral frays. There were even instances in which student wings of some left parties there decided that some female members were not to campaign with female candidates , since they had the ‘wrong image’, being on backslapping terms with their male friends ! There were often backlashes against women from certain regions who complained of sexual harassment, with men and even women from their university regional ‘community’ associations indulging in smear campaigns, marking them out for daring to be ‘different’ on counts which could be as innocuous as the way they dressed and walked ! In the middle of all this, conversations with dalit feminists in HCU brought home what pervasive misogynist patriarchy could lend itself to in political domains that were little more that the dens of masculine egos across the board. I still remember a poignant conversation I had with one such remarkable woman, sitting on the steps of the ladies’ hostel, the night before I left the university. About life, liberty, love, work and the great disparities between even the two of us, on all those registers, even as we shared experiences common to our gendered existence.
Rohith’s institutional murder has in that sense finally broken through longstanding apathy and reached beyond, in many ways, to wider constituencies, breaking fresh political ground. This has perhaps got to do with Rohith himself, as someone whose courageous interventions had a broad canvas and a uniquely humane vision. His engagements were with both Ambedkarite and secular left politics, and he identified as a Dalit Marxist – an Ambedkarite with a Marxist frame of analysis. In his heartbreaking farewell letter, he went far beyond the public imaginary he aspired to reach, in speaking of ‘stars, science and stardust’. In a campus where this was the tenth dalit suicide, why this suicide in particular reached a wider audience and brought together politically a dalit- minority- left solidarity has to do with the way in which these multiple registers came together in his life and death. It also had an important snowball effect in radicalising a growing consciousness around caste,led by dalit-bahujan struggles that spread far beyond the HCU campus, radicalising their articulation even within the left student bodies to a certain extent.
The extension of the struggle to JNU marks a continuum, where, as in HCU, the academic and political engagements of a student body are becoming more and more socially representative. This is a product of affirmative action, which includes reservation policies, as well as – in the case of JNU – systems of deprivation points. Again, this is a process which must go further, for instance in terms of expanding the non-upper caste composition of the faculty. JNU’s relative cosmopolitanism and left legacy have also, to a certain extent, made it a space away from the harsh realities of the outside world , which other public institutions of higher learning may not be able to replicate, with their far starker segregations . Academic engagement there has promoted analytical rigour and critical thinking as tools, while relating them to actual lived experiences. It is also perhaps the only university space where these engagements began encompassing debates on sensitive issues around contested nationalities within India as in the case of the North East and Kashmir over time. This creates a relatively protected space for dialogue, debate, and nurturing of political, academic and intellectual talent across diverse social backgrounds, in the years spent in pursuit of higher education. In other words, JNU has provided an intellectual haven and a community-base to diverse sections of the student community in a crucial phase of higher education, before they renew their engagements with the world outside after completing their education. This is surely to be valued.
Of course, much more remains to be done here to attain more egalitarian internal community dynamics, where intersectionalities of caste, class, gender and sexuality are concerned. And this is an ongoing process. In my student days at JNU, for instance, the launching of the first queer collective, ‘Anjuman’, met with considerable resistance from across the student body, in those early days of queer activism and the making visible of the LGBT experiences. These even included sections from within the left. Infact, the very physical presence of some close friends who embodied alternative sexualities brought forth sharp hostilities and routine forms of everyday harassment for a few. Nevertheless, the existence of a larger progressive discourse within enabled us to hold student political bodies accountable, take clear positions, and also build community solidarity with a wider section of students. And over the years, this process accelerated, and by 2013, a gay student was contesting the union elections as a presidential candidate of the SFI. Recently ‘Dhanak’, JNU’s new queer student collective, has come together.
The broad progressive dialogue which arose through this ‘academic-activist interface’ has shaped JNU and processes of democratisation have proceeded apace, even as student bodies became more and more representative of the diversity of the nation. After 2006 in particular, with the implementation of extended reservation policies, the anti-caste discourse received an additional fillip within the campus. This is manifest both in the emergence of dalit student bodies like BAPSA and UDSF in JNU, as well as in some transformation of symbols and axes of left engagements, increasingly shaped by dalit articulations and concerns in recent times. These also underline important questions of caste and class intersectional ties, and the politics of representation itself. There is also, as a result, an emergent moment in student politics which is moving beyond party lines and traditional agendas of the left as well as other progressive struggles. Some of this has been captured so well, again, by dalitbahujan voices coming from within JNU , both analytically, as in the brilliant analysis of the Forward Press by Pramod Rajan, as well as in the moving reminiscences of JNU students like Kshirod Nag and Subhas Bhasme.
The attack on JNU was surely a response to the above process – the charge of ‘anti-nationalism’ was surely against both JNU’s present diversity and its left liberal legacy. It is also ironic that JNU barely existed in the mainstream public imagination before it exploded, suddenly, into the national limelight in this way. Very few had heard of the JNUSU president and student leaders before this. And any publicity its student politics had received, before this, had been predicated on the issues it addressed – for instance,’ beef-eating’ and ‘kiss of love’ protests generated far more hype than the Occupy UGC struggles, protests against numerous other government policies, or student solidarities extended to struggles in Chattisgarh, the struggle of Maruti workers in Manesar, or some of the student mobilisations to deflect communal tensions in Trilokpuri recently. This was not surprising, given the mainstream media’s proclivity for sensational and selective coverage .
Sharp hostilities in sections of public discourse and the mainstream media in case of JNU fundamentally threatened the very existence of this space . Even now students continue to feel vulnerable and are still being witch-hunted and targeted. It is still hard for them to move beyond the walls of the campus . The relative prominence of JNU, its left-liberal legacy, and its location, while being responsible for this concerted attack, also demanded and brought forth unprecedented and shows of strength and solidarity from the student and teaching communities and their extended networks, and sections of media and society. What was special here was how this came together also out of a deep rooted and strong sense of community, institutional affiliation and association that the university has managed to build over the years and is to some extent unique to its milieu.
Nevertheless, despite this complex history of democratization, many commentators have posited a binary between JNU and HCU, as if support for one meant the denigration of the other. This seems deeply pernicious and mystifying in the literal sense, given their common status as Central public universities with similar social profiles and demographics of student bodies drawn from all corners of the country. Also given their role in nurturing intellectual talent through provision of subsidised education, free of strings attached with private corporate funding in research agendas, to students coming from diverse marginalised backgrounds. To quote G Arunima “It is self-evident that the attack on each of these is egregious, fundamentally anti-democratic, and designed to break solidarities that can challenge the bigger onslaught – from funding, admission policies, housing and fellowships, to autonomy. The collusion of administrations with state power too is evident everywhere. The ugly twist given to the current crises by the sangh parivaar is also clear.” An important point to stress here is that there is nothing in terms of facilities and grants in these universities which even comes close to the resource base or ‘privileges’ of private universities here or even many public universities abroad. The squeeze on funding in higher education has been felt across board. The grants that universities like JNU and HCU manage to get just about enable them to function relatively more efficiently as Public Universities.
There has also been a remarkable demonstration of courage, perseverance and commitment to their political beliefs and convictions by students who took on the establishment fearlessly despite their deep vulnerabilities across the two universities. Of course the histories of student politics and the quality of the immediate dangers being faced were different in the two universities – one requiring urgent solidarities against a virulent and bloodthirsty ‘nationalism’, and the other calling for a more foundational battle — long-term institutional engagements. And so were the specific forms and alternative expositions the political struggles took. One of these was the emergence of a dalit-bahujan articulation which became synonymous with the HCU struggle at its epicentre, which accorded primacy to institutional caste discrimination. The other was a left-to-liberal engagement, centred around the JNU row, premised on a defence of the rights to freedom of expression, association and dissent. Here there were often overlaps and solidarities too – like in the manner in which JNUSU and the other voices that emerged from the campus also attempted to use the national spotlight to push the discourse in certain directions. For instance, to bring back solidarity for Rohith Vemula protests, and in the intermingling of Jai Bhim and Lal Salaam slogans that made their way through all this into a deeply segregated mainstream consciousness. These alternative expositions became nearly synonymous; however, the difference between them does generate mutually related, yet at times conflicting, positions. Here I can merely flag some of these issues in the context of emerging debates in campus student politics within higher education.
An important development is that dalit voices now make an emphatic claim to speak for themselves, which is impossible to ignore. This has brought forth the need for introspection on the part of mainstream left student political organizations, to such an extent that the hitherto-advanced simplistic and reductive solutions to a centuries-old problem seem no longer tenable. Marxism as a doctrine entered through university /institutional spaces, where there existed a centuries-old monopoly of upper castes in the access to and control over knowledge production and intellectual capital in this country. Accordingly, it was first idealised in a discourse by those, even the most well intentioned among whom were invariably never fully aware of its experiential reality, its embodiment in non-upper caste subjectivities, and its invisibility in their lives. Hence caste was often subsumed by them under class struggles. It has taken several years for the recognition that the most powerful analysis of social inequality in India came not from a Marxist but from a liberal social democrat, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar with his resolute attention to caste as the primary contradiction in Indian society . However, his argument was that the annihilation of caste meant the emancipation of society. In a context in which economic inequalities have accelerated rapidly in India over the past decades, social marginalization may be now more strongly at the intersection of caste and class – and this requires effort at building new forms of solidarity. The earlier left-secular movement floundered precisely for this reason (among others), because its solidarities were often selective and rested upon the myth of tolerant ecumenical Hindu diversity and pluralism. This led to a certain taken-for-grantedness, which is now positively dangerous to the future of progressive politics. So to prevent similar pitfalls, new forms of solidarity that will bring together anti-caste struggles and radical class struggles as mutually transformative are surely necessary. And that precisely seems to have become the vision manifest in the engagements of many left Ambedkarite thinkers.
However, I also want to point out, against the assumption of many commentators, that the Indian left/Marxist is not limited to a relatively elite academia. It extends far beyond and encompasses very varied and heroic struggles of workers /unions/ activists/academics and includes and interacts with cross-sectional caste identities in the specific forms it takes in grassroots and worker struggles through both conflicts and solidarities – whether it is the CPI (ML)-based Khet Mazdoor Sabhas and rallies in Bhojpur, or Adivasi land right movements in Chattisgarh, or solidarities forged by activists with struggles in the industrial belt around Delhi. Or even civil rights and human rights groups confronting the abuses perpetuated by the state. The language of these struggles has also become the language of organisation/collectivisation/unionisation. The recently concluded Bhim Yatra, in solidarity with those fighting for an end to the inhuman practice of Manual Scavenging, witnessed the merging of the slogans of ‘Jai Bhim’, ‘Azaadi’ and’ MulJohaar’ by the protesters. If one thinks beyond the elite leadership – and this may also point to the need for a general democratization within left organizations which would bring lower caste and women’s voices to the fore in their discourse – there is much less reason for cynicism about the left’s ability to respond to the challenge/invitation of Ambedkarite politics. The linking of these different struggles in these symbols perhaps could mark a new synergy at ground level.
However building these forms of solidarity is not easy; they are not ‘naturally unfolding’. They are even temporary and provisional, and require from us the patience and courage to engage with seething but invisible tensions. An anecdote can illustrate this better. Recently, the noted dalit singer Shambhaji Bhagat was at JNU to release his album ‘Blue Nation’ along with the JNUSU. He expressed happiness about the ‘Jai Bheem’ slogan going viral across student movements and protests, with Babasaheb Ambedkar finally getting long overdue recognition, after more than fifty years of Independence. At the same meeting, a dalit student and artist also came forward and endorsed this. He, however, also raised the legitimate reservations of dalit counter-publics who had kept ‘Babasaheb’ alive in their imagination, their songs, their music, their lives and their multilayered engagements with his writings and his life. He also evoked movingly the inspiration that generations of dalits drew from it all over the years in a fight for basic human rights and dignity. While at one level being happy that this slogan had gotten far wider acceptance now, how could they not be suspicious at the same time, about whether this acceptance went beyond immediate political considerations and goals?
Where the reflection of these debates in student politics is concerned, a point made again and again, and worth emphasising here, is that it is public central universities like JNU-HCU with student bodies representative of the social fabric of the nation which are under attack. It is these institutions that have provided the space for and foregrounded the counter-discourse to Hindutva politically and academically. Prof Kancha Ilaiah made this point powerfully in his article foregrounding the manner in which these public universities had over time become important spaces for nurturing a dalit bahujan intelligentsia. He also pointed to the way in which they became a base for the emergence of left Ambedkarite thought. The struggle then has to be both to protect the existence, academic autonomy, and freedom of both these universities, as well as to carry forward the process of the entry, expanded access and visibility of non-upper caste experiences within academia, including the traditional left academia. There is the need to investigate, highlight, and forge a critical discourse about the intersectionalities of caste, class and gender which shapes politics today. This calls for greater patience on our part and more sensitivity to the particular histories of each campus where these struggles are emerging – and more imaginative trust-building initiatives on all sides, even as we work together on a common minimum set of agreed understandings.
[Shipra Nigam is a research scholar based in Delhi]