Comrade Kanhaiya’s last words in the speech given at JNU before he was arrested under the sedition act were ‘Lal Salaam aur Nila Salaam’. The slogan denotes a significant ideological shift that the country has been witnessing in the last few years and in particular, the last few months, after the incident of Rohith Vemula’s death in the University of Hyderabad campus. The slogan refers to the prolonged joint struggle by all the marginalised communities: workers; Dalits; women; religious, as well as sexual minorities- and urges them to stand against the oppressive economic regime of the dominant political parties in the country. The political position taken by Kanhaiya in his speech denotes the diversity and eagerness of JNU campus student politics to be open, promoting discussion and accommodative in addressing the need of the hour. It represents the fact that the campus, mostly known as a bastion of left and partially left politics, has been able to make an ideological shift during the time of crises to strengthen the struggle against the communal and fascist forces endangering the democratic rights of the individuals concerned.
However, one needs to understand that the revolutionary stance taken by the student movement is largely an outcome of a prolonged interaction and engagement, carried out between and dominated by the parties on the left and other students’ cultural outfits representing the voices of the marginalised communities on the campus. The popular perception of JNU campus is that of a ‘leftist bastion’, producing some of the most important leaders in the left parties. However, a close observation of its student politics reveals the significance of numerous initiatives taken by the students belonging to marginalised communities to extend the debate on inequality and exploitation beyond the dominant thinking of class inequalities in society. The JNU campus had a significant history of Dalit students movements, the formation of a cultural forum in the 90s that still represents the voices of the marginalised students, who mostly belong to SC & ST communities. The cultural forum is the outcome of the larger changes happening in Indian politics, such as the emergence of identity politics and the continuation of numerous incidences of violence, such as the massacre of eight Dalits in Tsunduru in Andhra Pradesh, and others which had taken place in most parts of the country.
A large section of Dalit students till, today, continue to be part of the forum, and actively participate in different activities that it carries out. The interesting aspect of the forum has been that it does not employ membership drives, but every student belonging to the SC-ST community becomes, by default, its member, and can participate in its activities. The forum acted as a platform for the marginalised students to raise their voice, put forward their demands and engage with the dominant, ideological ‘left’ parties on the campus. It has organised cultural programmes such as Ambedkar Sapta- a week long celebration of the anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth. The celebration includes a diverse number of performances, from street plays to conferences and lectures, that send out a larger message of social equality among the students. It is events like these that ensure the voice and concerns of the marginalised do not get lost in the larger debate of global economic inequality within the campus. The forum did make an attempt, through the organisation of lectures consisting of diverse leadership (such as Comrade Sharad Patil, Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, Dr. Mungekar, and others), to pinpoint the limitation of class analysis of Indian society, and strengthen the perspective on caste and gender differences in said society. Some of the well-known faculty members currently teaching at JNU and across the country are one outcome of the strong Dalit movement on the campus. It continues to be a forum that provides leadership for the students on issues that the dominant political parties on campus hesitate to take on as a mainstream political demand among the students. These issues mainly include the filling of reservation quota allotted for the Dalit students (as well as faculty) on campus. In recent times, the forum has started using ‘Right To Information’ (RTI) as a means to disclose the casteist nature of the JNU administration regarding fulfilling its commitment to said reservation quota. The forum, through its activities, always tried to point out that struggles against class inequality cannot be carried out in isolation of issues of caste inequality in India.
Similarly, the outfit raised by the Muslim students- mostly belonging to the lower castes- raised the bar for debate over the issue of communal politics on campus (though this outfit could not be sustained for a lengthy time). The outfit largely supported by the Dalit students discusses the popular work of Ali Anwar’s ‘Masawat Ki Jung’, questioning the caste and class inequalities within the Muslim community. It was not an easy task for the organisers to speak out on an issue that has never been raised by any dominant political party in the country. The concern raised by such movement was that the larger pressure of communal politics do not allow the community introspection on the issues of marginalisation and deprivation within the Muslim community. However, the campus and, most importantly, the students appreciated it and supported it, despite the differences of opinion they might hold regarding the idea. Apart from this, the campus has a strong North-East Student Forum that, time and time again, through cultural activities, continues to disassemble the stereotypes about these students. These are merely a few examples of the varied number of activities carried out by student outfits that significantly contributed to maintaining the heterogeneity of debate and discussion on the campus. It is the continuous engagement of the socially marginalised students that contributed to the process of ideological evolution of the student movement on campus. JNU stands out as an aspirational example for progressive movements, showing the way to continuous engagement and discussion, devoid of any political prejudice or violence, which can lead to more constructive outcomes, and help develop pathways towards resolving the contradictions of our time.
To me- first as an insider, and now as an outsider- JNU students’ movements still appear to be full of contradictions and disparity. However, in spite of all its inherent contradictions, the JNU student movement has never stopped evolving, and continues to keep itself open to new ideas and thoughts. The students have ensured that the sanctity of the discursive space created by the student movement is not broken down- either by the students themselves, or by any administrative intervention. The students have used this space to share diverse social experiences, in order to guide the campus towards an interactive process of learning and understanding the social and political reality of the nation, as well as the world. This socio-political aspect of the JNU student movement continuously keeps urging all of us- and especially the marginalised sections- to stand in solidarity with its aims. JNU, as an institution and as a movement, has always learned from its crises, and this current crisis is teaching us all a new lesson. That lesson is the importance of bridging the joint struggle of the working class and the socially marginalised against the casteist and fascist forces in the country. Hopefully, learning this lesson will lead to the creation of new pathways to challenge and transform the existing caste and class inequalities in the society. The onus falls on the students’ movement to carry forward the struggle for redistribution and recognition, thereby challenging and transforming the social reality of India.
Suhas Bhasme, is a Postdoc fellow at Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. He did his Ph.D. from University of Sussex, Brighton, UK.