“Their Seats of Power Are Shaking in the Face of Oppressed Unity”

Shabana Ali

 (This is a rough transcript in English of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association’s Presidential Candidate for JNUSU elections 2017 Shabana Ali’s almost 33-minute long speech at BAPSA’s pre-election General Body Meeting (GBM) at the Mahi-Mandvi Mess, held on the 2nd of September, 2017.)

bapsa poster

First of all, on behalf of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, I extend a Jai Bhim, Johar, Jai Savitri and Inquilab Zindabad to all the people gathered here. Saathiyo, many people ask BAPSA many questions about BAPSA’s achievements since we have completed around 3 years in this campus. They say we only criticise the Right and the Left but what have we achieved on our part in this campus? We want to respond to all of them by saying that last year when we held the pre-election GBM in the same hall, it was jam packed and now this year even this hall has proven to be inadequate to accommodate the number of people who have come here. This only shows the level of BAPSA’s acceptance in the campus. When in 2015 we stood for the elections for the first time, we only had three candidates- two in the central panel and one councillor. Next year in 2016, in all we had eleven candidates and this year we have fielded a full panel of councillors from three schools with the full central panel. This shows the level of acceptance of BAPSA’s imagination, this shows how much the student community supports us and this is our achievement in this campus.

 

 This election is happening at a very sensitive time in this country when so many attacks are being perpetrated both inside and outside our campus from all sides. Since the BJP has come to power in the center, the attack from right wing fascist forces has only grown more grotesque, and more cruel. But I also wish to point out that these Brahmanical attacks have not been taking place just for the last three years with the BJP but in fact, have been continuing for thousands of years in this country. It is perhaps visible in its worst phase currently but the attack itself is nothing new.

 

Saathiyo, in the concluded SSS GBM, a female activist from a communist organisation, proclaimed as she was thumping the table, that yes, she comes from a privileged background and they can also talk about politics. Some other activist said that it is because of the Left that you are even standing in the campus, because it is we who have made this campus. We want to tell the communists that this campus was made by all the bahujan and oppressed students, and that it is because of these students only that you have been able to stay afoot for the last forty years in this campus. They were not doing anybody a favour when they spoke about students’ rights. They were in the union and it was their responsibility to do so. Even when they were in the union, it is questionable as to how much they represented the students of the oppressed sections, and how many issues concerning the oppressed students did they actually raise.

 

 Saathiyo, we should now speak about all the things that happened in the campus last year. We saw the brutality of the right wing fascist assault on higher education in the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. That happened when the BJP was in power in the center. When five students were suspended from Hyderabad Central University (HCU), they were suspended on the basis of caste. When Rohith is murdered, it is on the basis of caste. After his institutional murder, the huge protests which started from HCU reached Delhi, reached JNU, and it was at its peak when the 9th February incident happened. That was an excuse to label JNU as anti-national and we condemn and reject this slander campaign against JNU in the strongest possible terms. However, I also wish to say that the ‘Justice for Rohith’ movement became sidelined with the ‘Stand with JNU’ movement, because of which we still see no demands for the Rohith act to be legislated and implemented. All the organisations which call themselves progressive have been inadequate to get the Rohith act passed and implemented. With that, the right wing forces have only strengthened in the campus, and these organisations which call themselves communist are still lacking in the face of this fascist assault.

 

 The imposition of the UGC gazette is also an attack of the right wing forces, the disappearance of Najeeb is also an attack of the right wing forces, yet these Left progressive organisations through their silences, become as complicit in their attacks as the right wing is. The order which made Najeeb change his room and called him mentally unstable was duly signed by our outgoing JNUSU president. AISA has still not come up with any clarification or taken a stand on this issue so far. They claim to have run a campaign for Najeeb yet they fall prey to Islamophobia when they try to silence anybody who mentions Najeeb’s Muslim identity, they equate this with being fundamentalist, that Najeeb saw the saffron thread on somebody’s hand and then got angry and so on. This only cements existing Islamophobia. These progressive organisations claim they have been in this campus for the last forty years. For the last two years, they have run their campaign on the call that they shall defeat ABVP, yet it is these organisations which have only strengthened the Islamophobia in this campus.

 

Saathiyo, Our election season also brings with it a slandering season. We are also receiving a lot of slandering but I would not even want to offer a clarification on all issues because we do not believe in the politics of hate-mongering and rumour-mongering. We are not fighting in this election to defeat the ABVP or to defeat the Left unity, we fight in this election because we believe that that in the last forty years that the Left has ruled in this campus the oppressed have continued to face oppression as they have been facing it for the last thousands of years. Some believe that Ambedkarite politics began in this campus with the coming of BAPSA but this is not true. Ambedkarite politics has had a long history, in fact, it begins even before Ambedkar with Mahatma and Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh. BAPSA follows in the footsteps of this anti-caste legacy which has offered resistance against Brahmanical ideologies for the last thousands of years. Even before BAPSA, there were organisations like United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF) which worked for an Ambedkarite politics in the campus. Those organisations which believe that that they have been responsible for a revolution in this campus forget that there were students and organisations which have similarly worked for an Ambedkarite revolution in this campus for the last forty years. The only difference now is that we have begun to ask for our political rights with our independent political platform; so far they were very happy that Dalit students and organisations were reduced to being cultural organisations and non-political organisations. But when we ask for our rights and equality through our politics, then they begin to get uncomfortable. This is when their slandering begins. This is when their rumour-mongering begins.

 

 Since we are talking about rumour-mongering I would like to mention one point about our outgoing president Mohit Pandey. He is being portrayed as a martyr and stories are being hitched about his martyrdom. He was not allowed to register for his studentship and he is facing a lot of difficulties due to that. Saathiyo, we would also like to remind all of you that when we were fighting against the UGC gazette, then 11 students were similarly suspended and fines were also imposed on them. I want to ask the AISA-SFI activists what they did for the help of these suspended students. Did you ever extend any support to these students who were also part of this campus? You are seeking political capital from the deregistering of one student, but they do not even mention the rest of the students who were similarly suspended and made to pay a fine. These students are those who support their families from the money they get from their scholarships and fellowships, these are also students whose fellowships are not received after a waiting of months altogether. For paying their fines, we common students came together and collected money so that they can continue their studentship. This is not anything new, but I wish to remind everybody, that this fine culture has been existing for a long time, although notices and such fines have only increased multifold thanks to our VC. I wish also to remind you that whenever students have received such impositions, fines were paid in the past too. Last year Rama Naga had also similarly paid the fine, this year two office-bearers Satarupa (Chakraborty) and Tabrez (Hasan) have also paid fines. Rahul Sonpimple alone did not pay the fine. It seems the Left demanded a sacrifice from Mohit Pandey for his signature and all the negative campaigning that was received after that. They have such issues before the elections always- last year it was ‘ABVP aa jayega’, this time it is ‘Save our President’. When they ask us where were we when Mohit was not able to register, we would like to answer that we were at those various centres where students from the oppressed sections are not given a promotion from MPhil to PhD. We were at those centres where students were given less marks in their coursework and were being told that they should drop out. We were fighting the battle of all those students when you were busy making a hero out of the supposed sacrifices of one student.

 

 When we had talks of these fines and suspensions, we also heard them saying Rahul Sonpimple has secretly paid the fine and reached a settlement with the admin. There was Bhupali (Magare) too, along with Rahul who was made to pay the fine by the way. Saathiyo, if we wished to reach a settlement with the admin, we would not have with so much effort tried to collect money for them. Anyway, I hope this settles this rumour-mongering now.

 

 Those who ask so many questions to BAPSA, I would also want to ask a few questions to them. Recently, they dedicated a long parcha to us, first of all I want to thank them for it. In their parcha they tried to make the point that BAPSA thinks Left to be the bigger threat to this campus rather than ABVP. I want to tell them that whenever there have been onslaughts from the Brahmanical forces, the oppressed sections have always given them a tough fight, and will continue to do so. The right wing forces are easy to identify, although these organisations which through their progressive masks try to speak on our behalf are like snakes in the grass. The first time BAPSA fought in the elections, these Left organisations ignored us, they didn’t even acknowledge our existence, they didn’t even to care to ask a question to our presidential candidate in the debate. Last year when they saw BAPSA getting tremendous support from the common students, then they began to talk about unity and then these Sonu-Monu come together to form a unity. And this year when they see an even bigger student support for BAPSA, so they get Bittu (DSF) also to join the Left unity of Sonu-Monu. We heartily reject this Sonu-Monu-Bittu fake unity in the strongest terms. We call this Left unity a fake unity because this unity is borne out of electoral opportunism, it is based on the calculation of vote-banks, they have united because they fear losing their seats in the elections. They have begun to fear that the oppressed sections who are more in number might dethrone them from the seats they have been occupying for so long. Our students might come from a marginalised background but do not make the mistake of taking them as being fools. They might be poor hence do not make the mistake that they will buy your Left unity for long. Our students have gained an entry into higher education and have become politically conscious, and they will reject your Sonu-Monu-Bittu politics.

 

Our ideology takes its inspiration from Birsa Munda, it takes its inspiration from Babasaheb Ambedkar, from Mahatma and Savitribai Phule and Fatima Sheikh, and all the leaders who have come to represent the fight for social justice in this country, BAPSA takes its inspiration from them. Our fight is for an honest politics, our fight is for an organic unity, an oppressed unity.

 

Another question that is specially levelled against BAPSA, especially against me, is what is the relationship between BAPSA and Students’ Islamic Organisation (SIO)? Why is SIO supporting BAPSA? I have been asked personally why I am not in SIO and in BAPSA? This only shows the extent to which Islamophobia is filled in our minds that when they see somebody named Shabana Ali, they assume I must be part of an organisation of the Muslims. They also say that women have a separate wing from SIO and they are only oppressed with such a segregation. It is true that those women have formed a segregated space, but is only through that segregated space that these women have been able to voice their struggles, it is only through that segregated space they have been able to participate in politics. When we talk about the struggles of the women of oppressed communities, we get a lot of sympathies, especially from the Savarna feminists. They also bring up issues of Dalit patriarchy, that Dalit men are very patriarchal, that Muslim men are very fundamentalist and regressive. I question the timing when these things become the concern for you all of a sudden. When casteism is perpetrated, when Savarna women discriminate against Dalitbahujan women, when they give the water from a height, when they are not given an entry into higher education, when they are discriminated against on the basis of language, caste, class, region, religion, then where do your concerns go? When Dalitbahujan women enter spaces of higher education, and are often humiliated and raped, then where does the concern of Savarna feminism go?

 

We, Dalitbahujan women have been fighting our fights for thousands of years now and they know how to fight. Dalit women, Muslim women, Adivasi women, and other women from the minorities know how to voice their concerns. Please keep your concerns to yourself and do not try to speak on our behalf. Do not assume that the Muslim women do not possess an agency of themselves. Do not assume their oppression for yourself, they can very well speak out against any patriarchy.

 

Another allegation on BAPSA is that it considers Left the bigger enemy and not the Right. We face allegations from both that we are secondary allies of each others’ oppositions. This confusion stems from the left-right binary that has taken root in our campus for too long now, we are not willing to think outside this binary of left-right. That is why when we speak of social justice, when we speak about Ambedkarite politics, speak about an anti-Brahmanical discourse, so it skips their minds as to how to categorise BAPSA. It skips their minds because the Left and the Right have become so intertwined in the logic of Brahmanical hegemony that they are not able to see what an anti-Brahmanical discourse looks like, and hence the Left tries to push us towards the Right and the Right similarly pushes us towards the Left.

 

BAPSA believes in all those leaders who have staged a fight against the Brahmanical forces in this country for the last thousands of years. These leaders did not need to wait for the lead of these Left-progressive organisations for their struggles, then and even now. The anti-Brahmanical discourse is not limited to either BAPSA or even JNU. There are myriad Ambedkarite forces working outside in many parts and the remote corners of the country, and we take inspiration from all these Ambedkarite forces. When we speak for oppressed unity, we speak together with all historical and contemporary anti-Brahmanical discourses, all discourses which have supported social justice in this country.

 

We are often told that we are doing identity politics in JNU, that we are doing caste politics and thus perpetuating casteism in the campus. We wish to ask them who enjoy privileges based on their caste, who enjoy their by-default fifty percent reservations given to them, why do they not then speak about their identity. When we demand our rights, then you remind us that we are doing identity politics. Saathiyo, there is nobody here who is without an identity, everybody knows which identity they come from. When we change our name, we do not become caste-less. When we do not disclose our names, my identity as a Muslim does not disappear. Our identity travels with us everywhere we go. We are mired in identity when Najeeb is forcefully made to disappear from the campus, when Junaid is stabbed outside, when Dalits are lynched in Una, when the ringtone of an Ambedkarite rings and he is killed for that. And then when you tell us not to do identity politics, we reject this unjust demand placed on us. When people are being killed because of their identities, when people are being lynched publicly because of their identities, when people are forcefully disappeared because of their identities, your demand of doing away with identity politics does not stand. We will demand our rights that are denied to our identities, we will do identity politics and we assure them who question us that we will do this politics very well.

 

 When we raise the slogan of oppressed unity many ridicule us for playing a “victim” card. Those who have been oppressed for years do not need any victim card. Those who have fought against this oppression for years do not need any victim card. Those who are in power do not care for anybody being a victim or not, all they are interested in is retaining their power, and for retaining their power, they also enter into all kinds of un-ideological unities. The organisation which has been seeking votes and winning all these years in the name of Singur and Nandigram, has now sold its ideology for the sake of power. To save the President, it enters into an unholy alliance with another organisation and now it has added one more. More organisations might also be added in the future who knows.

 

This Left unity rests not on ideology but on the calculations of vote-bank politics. Hence we reject this unity. We believe in a real and organic unity of the oppressed, this unity is achieved when the Dalits, women, Muslims, OBCs, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, people from Kashmir and other oppressed nationalities, come together on a common platform. The oppression of all these identities is different, the discourses of all these identities is different, their oppression is also graded. What we intend to do, is to recognise and acknowledge this oppression, to have all of them speak in their own voice about their own discourses, not that anybody becomes their Mai-Baap and begins speaking and representing on their behalf.

 

 Saathiyo, I believe that I have put my points before you. All students with their myriad problems, all women who have to fight against their homes to come to a higher education institute, those who have come from rural areas and backward areas, everyone who has come to this so called progressive campus would hope that their environment would be safe and sound for them, that people would study a lot here, that ideas and opinions would be very progressive. After coming what we realise is that when you begin demanding rights on the basis of your identity you stand immediately condemned. People organise Durga Puja every year and there is no problem, you utter the name of Allah once and it becomes a fundamentalist issue. If your organisation believes in a religious ideology you would be scared to even organise your programmes because they have put you down with their scare tactics.

 

 They have always believed in putting you down and at the same time cultivating a few token representatives to speak in favour of their masters, which the BJP government has also mastered as we have seen. They begin to call out the names of Udit Raj and others when we raise our slogans. We wish to tell them that when they raise their slogans against Udit Raj we would also join them because we do not consider them as our leaders. They are only trying to reduce the anti-caste discourse to casteism, if any Dalit moves towards the BJP, then its responsibility falls on us and we suddenly become answerable. If BSP makes an alliance with BJP, how is it that BAPSA is made answerable for it?

 

They call BAPSA and other minority organisations as being gender insensitive. But when we raise the issue of Singur and Nandigram they forget about their critiques of the parliamentary left. When pointed this out, they begin using ABVP as their shield against us just to collect votes. We have to put an end to this politics of rumour-mongering. Last year they won the elections by saying ABVP aa jayega. What have they done in the last year to stop ABVP? Our protest spaces have been cordoned off by hundred meter warnings, so why does the Left talk about stopping ABVP? When Najeeb gets disappeared, then we are not even able to pressurise the administration or the government, and they claim that they would stop ABVP in the campus. When they close down the dhabas at night, this right wing agenda becomes visible as they think this would make the campus environment sacrosanct and sanitised, and nationalistic. They fear when they see girls and boys freely walking around in the night. Even the tank is coming now. Those who claim to stop ABVP would not even put up a fight against the tank which might come to the campus.

 

 What have they really done to stop the ABVP in this campus? Is this alliance here because they want to defeat the ABVP? Or is this alliance here because they fear all the student support that BAPSA is visibly getting? Have they formed an alliance because they could see their seats of power shaking in the face of the oppressed unity? Their unholy alliance fears BAPSA coming to power. They fear that all the support BAPSA is garnering from the students will dethrone them from their cared for seats.

 

Saathiyo, I end my speech here by saying that when we raise the slogan of oppressed unity, we appeal to everyone to recognise and acknowledge that our oppression operates at various different levels, whether they come from Savarna castes, or from Dalit castes, or from an oppressed gender, everyone is oppressed differently. Our privileges operate differentially. We should acknowledge and recognise our privileges rather than boasting that yes, we are privileged. In all your parchas do not boast about all the revolutions you have carried out in this campus, all these revolutions were possible because of the participation of the oppressed students of this campus. Bahujan students existed in this campus before also, BAPSA has only originated in the last 3 years. Many Bahujans who were compelled to become the foot-soldiers of the Left fear BAPSA as an independent platform. We often hear the slogan that this campus is red and will remain red, Saathiyo, this campus was never fully red. Ambedkarite forces existed here for all time, they may not have been as vocal as they are today, they may not have participated in the elections as they are today, they may not have demanded their rights as they are doing today, but Ambedkarite forces were always here, were always outside the campus, and will continue to remain so.

 

Jai Bhim!

Via Ankit Kawade: English transcript of presidential candidate Shabana Ali's speech in the pre-election GBM of BAPSA in JNU.

BAPSA poster design by Rajesh Rajamani