In the universities across India, the social-psychologically awakened youth have established students’ associations carrying forth Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s vision. Due to their epistemic activism on campuses, pursuing social justice for backward classes, women, minorities has become easier. These organizations have been a comprehensive support system for the vulnerable students and also their political representatives. Such contribution in the academic activities has led to a transformation of students as well as universities.
As everyone is aware of the protests at TISS campuses across India, they must also be aware of the dissent of some Ambedkarite students such as the one expressed in this article by Mr Deepak Nanda dated 5th March 2018. Some of the accusations made in the article are of grave concern but are described as being his personal views. But as a former President of TISS Students’ Union and 3 years member of ASA these cannot be his personal views. However, the response to this dissent must address the underlying malaise of undemocratic functioning of ASA (TISS, Mumbai) and the larger patriarchy. I have undertaken this endeavor after much painful thinking and efforts. So, dear readers, I hope you persist with me to the end of this writing.
The Genesis, Journey, and Decadence of ASA
Before we come to address some Ambedkarite students’ dissent of protesters at TISS, we will have to understand the history of these positions step by step.
I am Sheetal Kamble, PhD Scholar at TISS, Mumbai since 2014. I also did my MPhil in the same campus. When I entered this prestigious institute, there was no formal students’ body which was representing the existential concerns of SC, ST, & OBC students. Their political presence was also not noticeable. Though there was an informal organization of students, it was without a name and a proper structure. In that situation, I and some others thought of establishing an association of students based on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s inclusive vision to safeguard the rights of all students and give them voices which will be heard by the authorities. ASA was for all students who wanted to be its part without any borders of caste, religion, or gender. The ultimate goal of this association was student welfare. I have seen the journey of ASA in the last 3 and half years as well as changing nature of its needs & goals. As founder members of ASA, we thought that there was no need of elected/selected leadership in ASA if decision making takes place only through collective deliberation. Though the beginning was humble, it gained tremendous momentum in a couple of years. The inclusive vision of Babasaheb became a focal point in the Mumbai Campus due to the clear thinking of association members regarding various events which unfolded from national, state, to institute levels. One of its results is the ongoing protest in which people of all castes and genders have come together. This is a historical event because such a gathering of a diverse crowd to deal with the concerns of disadvantaged students was difficult to imagine five years ago in TISS Mumbai campus.
Slowly, as the founder members progressed in their academic journey, they became more busy with their commitments. Some members finished their studies in the TISS campus and moved on. This is where it started becoming a political organization rather than the one committed to student welfare irrespective of having command over students’ union. Today, a shadow cabinet of few people manage ASA. These leaders are neither democratically elected nor are they willing to discuss and deliberate on any matter that comes before them. Who are these self proclaimed leaders? Why do they take decisions on crucial matters without discussing with the rest of the association members?
This decadence of internal democracy most affected the women in the group. Initially, dalit women contributed physically and intellectually in the functioning of ASA TISS. However, this scenario changed afterward. Women started to get sidelined first in the meetings, then from the structure and leadership. The self-proclaimed leaders started to promote their upper caste girlfriends! They gave the excuse that the dalit women lacked the ‘soft skills’ needed for leadership, however, the upper caste women were automatically legitimate to be leaders by having themselves personally aligned with ASA male leaders! The required set of soft skills being mastery over language and public speaking and other such skills which were not facilitated by ASA to its dalit, OBC female members. These issues started getting more problematic with the feuds becoming personal and spilling over in the social media platforms. The dalit women, including myself, got labeled as being casteist for simply asking for their share in the leadership. Neither the dalit, bahujan, adivasi women’s inherent qualities were facilitated nor the upper caste participation was rationally examined! Such was the result of ASA leaders’ narrow mindedness. Due to this, many women got disgruntled and left ASA and this was turned in to another excuse to promote upper caste women! Around a year ago, I and a few women got together to form ‘Dalit Bahujan Adivasi Women’s Group’. This time, however, we have made it clear that we will not contest any elections through this group and it will serve only as a platform to raise and address our concerns. It does not mean that we have distanced ourselves from ASA but we are simply trying to fill a hole in their soul. We still hope that women are given equal space within ASA so we need not establish and run parallel platforms for women.
Students’ Ongoing GOI PMS Struggle and ASA’s Questionable Role
Now coming to TISS students struggle over GOI PMS issue and strike, I have been present from the first day of students’ strike (TISS Bandh). This strike was called on behalf of TISS students by their union along with all other campuses of TISS (Hyderabad, Guwahati, Tuljapur). The original demand for the strike was to get SC, ST, & OBC students their entitled benefits in the form of scholarship and question the brahmanical policies of TISS administration. TISS administration has been hiking fees over last few years.
Let us summarize the arguments against the protesters by Mr. Nanda (and ASA which they have expressed in various letters circulated in google groups and facebook etc.)
1. Unreasonability of protesters with the TISS Administration
Mr. Nanda claims that the protesters have been unreasonable with the demands made and are not willing to conduct any negotiations with the administration. Some ASA members also point out that government’s benefits given to SC, ST is not the same as OBC-NC. It is not possible for the Institute to survive financially with such conditions.
2. Lack of compliance of the protesters with their own Students’ Union (SU)
He also says that the SU has declared and called off the protest. Since it was the Union who gave the call for protest and were managing it for over a week, so their call for rolling back protest should have also been respected.
3. The legitimacy of protesters and their Political Views
He claims that the protesters do not qualify to be called ‘General Body’ of students and so the SU was under no moral or constitutional obligation to consult them before rolling back the protest. He also says that some of the protesters are radical leftists who desire nothing of democratic solutions. The SU, according to him, suspected this foul play and resigned!
4. ASA members not allowed to speak at the protest site.
Now, Let us answer these dilemmas.
1. Some concerns about long-term financial capability of the institute in the provision of benefits are legitimate but this also raises the concern over transparency and checks and balances in TISS functioning! Many faculty members who came to the protest site declaring their support to the protest also raised this issue. If there are concerns over mal-intentioned financial mismanagement, then let there be proper investigation by law and order machineries. So, some demands made by protesters in Mumbai are definitely reasonable. Here I must mention that the protesters at Hyderabad TISS campus ran a parallel strike, as did other campuses. Some of them, went on indefinite hunger strike. The Hyderabad administration however agreed to all of their demands! Thus, the protest there was rolled back. How is this not possible for the administration at the main campus at Mumbai?
2 & 3. The SU is morally responsible towards concerns of all students in the campus. To say that some of the protesters are anti-social elements who do not believe in democracy is a grave accusation by Mr Nanda. Many other dalit, bahujan, adivasi women and I along with the queer collective and our cis-male counterparts have been participating in the protest since Day 1. It is incomprehensible to say that we do not qualify to be called a General Body of students! If it is the issue of our numbers not being more than 500 every moment of the day, then Mr Nanda and his associates should have no trouble in remembering that in any general body meeting called by SU such high number or even the presence of the entire student body of TISS has never been gathered at one venue. After all Mr Nanda himself was the President of SU at a time! If, us concerned students at the protest site do not qualify to be called as General Body, then who does? The elite students who do not concern themselves with the protest and are happily spending their time elsewhere, do they qualify to be called as General Body members? Furthermore, if Mr Nanda accuses the radical left members of intentionally worsening the situation. Does Mr Nanda and other leaders operate ASA in democratic fashion? Then does he consider the rest of us as meek, brainless sheeps following the radical left? To have come so far in doing the protest, have we not yet displayed our courage and conviction? Or are we supposed to take any certificate from Mr Nanda? To boycott the brahmanical decision, TISS students union called the strike. In this period, the administration did not come to address students in public but wanted to conduct backdoor meetings with some student union members secretly due to which students who were striking refused the proposal of that meeting. So, instead of recounting his own plight as an OBC-NC student, he should have been at the forefront of this protest!
4. The ASA leaders did have their presence at the beginning of the protest. However, there is no evidence of them not being allowed to address the protesters. In contradiction to Mr Nanda and ASA’s claim, there is plenty of audio-visual evidence on YouTube and Facebook that people (including various faculty members) from within and outside TISS have come to address the protesters. Many of them are dalit groups from across the country. Even if they continue to say that they have been unjustly ignored, after all this support and guidance pouring from all directions, what different words have remained that the ASA’s leaders would have spoken? Even the alumni founder-members, other than myself, have also expressed their support to the protest in public and their grave concern about ASA in private. A culmination of these feelings resulted in a letter by ‘few ambedkarite students’ on 4th March 2018 condemning the act of trying to sabotage the protest by some SU members on 2nd March 2018. The letter called such elements as puppets of the TISS administration. Here, it must be mentioned that this letter has been endorsed by 29 Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, minority students and many alumni who also received word of the sorry state of affairs in campus right now. In response to this letter, the ASA Care Committee issued their own letter on 4th March, 2018 asking the SU to carry forward the protest, while simultaneously questioning the protest’s legitimacy! It should also be mentioned that this letter dated 4th March 2018 by ASA does not have any signatories!
Here I must mention that we have been humbled by the support extended to us by more than 500 organizations, especially the BAPSA of JNU, New Delhi. They were detained by the Delhi Police while protesting outside Ministry of Social Justice on 1st March 2018.
It must be difficult to digest what has been said above, but dear readers, I hope that this writing is taken in good faith and strong measures are taken to restructure the ASA at TISS, Mumbai. The ongoing drama engineered by ASA’s leaders to delegitimize the ongoing protest is deplorable. Those arguing for bringing democratic mannerism in the ongoing protest should first bring democracy, sensibility, and gender sensitivity within ASA! They must create democratic spaces for dalit-bahujan-adivasi women!
The current ASA leadership must grasp the gravity of their actions. At what point does the theater of politics start to corrupt the rest of the movement? The most important question here is, who really gets to call themselves as Ambedkarite?
Sheetal Kamble, PhD Scholar, TISS, Mumbai.