Dalit and Adivasi Students’ Portal
(First published in the ‘Dalit and Adivasi Students’ Portal’ in 2010)
Narinder Jakhu, age 31, is pursuing his PhD at Department of Political Science, Punjab University, Chandigarh and is also teaching there as a guest faculty. He is a JRF scholar working on the issue of Dalit Assertion, Mobility and Atrocities in Haryana. Apart from his academics, he is passionately involved in mobilizing and creating various support systems for Dalit students in the campus as the President of Ambedkar Students Association, Punjab University.
Please tell our readers about your background.
I am from a village name Shakarpura that lies in Tohana tehsil of district Fatehabad, Haryana. I belong to a family of leather tanners that brings dead cattle from village and then produce leather from their skin and sell it in the market. My father studied till primary and mother is illiterate.
I have three sisters – all younger than me. The eldest among them is now married and could not study much. But both my second and third sisters are now pursuing graduation. One of them has completed her diploma in polytechnic too.
What has been your educational background?
I have quite a diverse background. I completed my 10th with 46% marks and then chose Commerce stream to do my 10+2. But I took Computer Application as one of the majors for my B.A. at DAV College (Nakodar, Punjab) along with History, Political Science, English and Punjabi. Then I joined Punjabi University, Chandigarh for my Post Graduation in Political Science and later completed my Mphil there too. Currently I am pursuing my PhD in the same department.
Does your family still involved with leather tanning?
Almost a decade ago my family left this occupation as my father decided against it.
What made your father to do so?
We are the only family belonging to the chamar caste in our village and had to collect the bodies of dead cattle. My grandfather, then father carried this tradition for long. However, in between, my father got the opportunity to work abroad in a gulf country as labourer for few years and when he returned back he started making efforts to leave the caste-profession.
With the money earned in Gulf, he started a small shop, nearby village, selling electronic items like radio, clocks etc. Initially it went on well as there was no completion but slowly many others also entered and my father had to withdraw.
In between we kept on our caste-occupation as it was very difficult to survive otherwise but my father was adamant and kept on trying different business ventures. Finally my father went into timber business along with a friend in 1998 and since then we had some steady source of income and my family left the caste profession for ever.
How did your father go to a gulf country and when?
My mother’s family is from Jalandhar, Punjab and this area is very well known for immigration. People here have migrated to different parts of the world looking for employment. Lots of Dalits have also migrated at least to gulf countries if not to big western countries. My maternal grandmother used to work as house-cleaner in one of the landlords family. The landlady was quite fond of her and suggested sending my father abroad for work and promised all her support.
My father had some primary education but was unemployed then. So he agreed to go abroad. This was in the year 1980. He required some 13,000 Rs which he raised by selling my mother’s jewelries together with some financial support from the landlord family.
So my father stayed in gulf and worked there for four years and returned back in 1984 in the wake of anti-sikh riots. He was not willing to stay away from the family in such a time. During his stay there, my father was able to save about Rs 3 lakh and after constructing a pucca house for our family, he spent the rest for his business ventures.
Did you ever face any caste discrimination in the school?
Yes, there are many but let me share one experience. I was in the IXth standard at one government school and at that time Haryana government came out with a policy of scholarships for Dalit students whose family members were engaged in menial/unclean caste-professions like scavenging, leather tanning etc.
The school authorities came to our class to prepare the list of such students. But no one stood up except me although there were many Dalit students whose families were still engaged in ‘unclean’ profession.
Next day, my class teacher who was present when the authorities visited the class, made me to stand up in the class and forced me to repeat what my family did for living. When I told that we are leather tanners, she started making faces and said in a very humiliating tone, “You lift dead animals and peel their skins!”
After this incident, the attitude of my classmates changed and I was subjected to lots of nasty comments.
There were other students in your class who were eligible for this special scholarship but they did not avail of them?
Yes, perhaps they wanted to escape from the same kind of humiliation that I met afterwards. But when I got scholarship and they saw the money, many of them repented. The amount was Rs.250 per month and after six months I received Rs. 1500 and that too in a thick bundle of Rs 50. When my Dalit friends saw that bundle, they felt very sad.
You are the first one in the family to reach even Std Xth. How conducive was the family environment for your studies?
Till my class Xth, I also used to work with my family in skinning dead animals but my father never approved of it. He wanted me and my sisters to focus completely on studies once he came back from the gulf where he saw that most of the Punjabis work there as manual labourers whereas other Indians, especially from Andhra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu had white collar jobs. They used to sit in AC and work as engineers, architects, technicians etc. Then he clearly understood the importance of education and when he came back he was quite clear on how he wanted to take his family forward.
So the family encouragement for education was always there but there was no guidance as such and till my graduation, I was absolutely clueless about my studies and career. The only thing mattered for me was to keep studying so as to get a decent job.
What caused the turnaround and made you much serious about studies?
I was the first family member to be able to go to college apart from one distant cousin who was pursuing his PhD from Punjab University Chandigarh then. Somehow he came to know about my competing graduation and sitting idly. He called me up and persuaded me to join the Punjab University, Chandigarh for my Post-graduation and continue my further studies
I took admission there with his help and then got really motivated by the university’s environment. Perhaps for the first time I got inspired to make efforts for excelling in my studies and also got the sense of what higher education is all about. But still I was not able to perform well in Post Graduation and scored only 48 percent.
I came back to my village very disappointed but then thought what I am doing here sitting idly. I went back to the University after some time and applied for improvement in all 16 papers of my Post Graduation. I stayed illegally in University hostel with one of my friends and studied for the improvement. With one year of hard labour finally I was able to improve my percentage from 48 to 56 % in MA and simultaneously I was able to clear NET in the year 2006. I became very confident and decided to pursue my career in academics.
Academics is not a very popular choice, especially for Dalit and Adivasi students since it requires a long gestation period whereas most of our students are supposed to start earning as soon as they graduate.
On the contrary, I felt that the safest bet for me was to clear NET and pursue academics as my career. Preparing for competitive exams is much tougher financially and also these are very dicey as even if you clear the written, the chances are that you will never be able to clear the interviews without paying bribes.
Then in my case, the whole academic environment in the campus was very NET centric and therefore probably I chose to clear NET. After clearing it, I joined for my Mphil in the same University under the guidance of Prof Ronki Ram who is a very well known scholar on Dalit movements in Punjab. He supported me a lot in my studies and I completed Mphil in 2007 and immediately got an appointment as a lecturer to teach in Government College, Kalka.
Then when did you come back to join for PhD?
I decided against registering for my PhD immediately after Mphil as I was in debt. I had borrowed money from my friends and relatives for my studies and therefore decided to take up a job and repay the loan. Also I wanted to prepare for JRF so that I could concentrate fully after registering for PhD. I taught Political Science for two years and this helped me a lot to have a better understanding on my subject. In 2009, I quit the job and registered for my PhD and also cleared JRF. Right now besides my doctoral research I also teach here as guest faculty.
This is quite a remarkable journey and our congratulations on your achievements.
What is your topic for research?
‘Changing Pattern of Dalit Mobility in Haryana’ is my PhD topic whereas I did my M.Phil dissertation on ‘Caste-based Atrocities and Dalit Assertion in Haryana’.
Why did you choose Dalits as a topic for your research?
As I joined Punjab University for my Post Graduation, I came in contact with Rajesh who was working with BAMCEF. He made me aware on various Dalit issues, about Babasaheb Ambedkar and also what it means to be a Dalit. I started attending seminars, workshops and meetings on our issues and also keeping tab on newspapers. I also joined Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) – a body of Dalit students at Punjab University and started actively participating in all its activities.
Haryana was always in the news those days in connection with atrocities on Dalits. In 2004, there was Golina incident, and then came Gohana, Salvan, Hissar, Jind – places that were in news because of some or the other atrocities happening on Dalits. The graph in Haryana is going vertical vis-à-vis atrocities on Dalits. I started visiting all these places and worked with local activists and therefore it was natural for me to choose this as my research topic.
Apart from your academics, you have been quite active working with Dalit students and mobilizing them on different issues. Right now you are the President of Ambedkar Student Association. Tell us about the organization, its objectives and activities.
Ambedkar Student Association was formed by some of our Dalit seniors in 2001 and I joined there in 2002. Being completely unaware about our issues, I started taking deep interest and participated very actively. Within a year I was nominated as Vice-President of the organization.
The reasons for formation of this body was to have a pressure group to prevent discrimination with the Dalit students in the campus that was and is much prevalent and also to raise our voice if any such incident happens in the campus.
Then we also needed a body to enforce various provisions that are there for our welfare in the campus but are never implemented. For example take the case of reservations in faculty positions. Before 2001, there were hardly any Dalit faculties. The roaster system was never enforced and the teaching positions reserved for Dalits lay vacant.
But the situation changed dramatically, the moment our seniors formed Ambedkar Student Association and started agitating, under its banner, for the implementation of reservations in teaching posts. We organized dharnas, rallies and could influence the authorities and the reserved teaching posts started getting filled.
But unfortunately we were not able to maintain the same tempo and for few years the organization was in limbo as many seniors left the campus after completing their studies and there was a big vacuum.
Right now ASA is quite active in the campus once again. How was it revived?
In 2006, some of the senior students came together and decided to reorganize ASA, by then I also got admission in Mphil and have rejoined the University. Being one of the senior most and already having experience as an office bearer, I was nominated as the new President of the Association.
Our first task was to increase the strength of the organization as we were only 12-15 people then. We started looking for the Dalit students in the campus and spent lot of time with them individually trying to explain the issues, our objectives and linking them to our Association.
But we faced stiff completion from other students’ groups active in the campus that used to lure our students because of their much financial and political clout. They were more organized and were able to advertise themselves much. However, they never took up Dalit issues and used our students just as fodder.
We did not have much financial resource to even organize meetings and other programmes. Then I became faculty and kept aside my one month salary towards setting up a Help Desk for the Dalit students during admission times.
What was the objective for running a Help Desk for Dalit Students in Punjab University?
The main objective is to motivate more and more Dalit students to join the University as this is the most prestigious one in Punjab and has better academic environment. Also most of our students face lots of problems while taking admissions due to lack of guidance and information. So the Help Desk is manned by senior students who take turns to help our students and we also guide students from different part of Punjab and Haryana to take admissions here.
What has been the response?
We have been fairly successful in achieving our objectives and have been able to deepen our network. Many Dalit students got admissions through our efforts but the competition is really tough here and many of our students from rural background are still not able to make it.
And the most unfortunate part is these are the students who are little bit aware of Babasaheb Ambedkar and are more willing to participate in the movement in comparison with the urban-educated Dalit students who never come with us openly or work together on our issues.
What are the problems that the Dalit students normally face in the campus?
At the time of admission, our students face many problems. Many of our students get admission through general list but are deliberately pushed into category seats and even if they are given a seat in general category, they are discouraged by denying them other benefits as a Scheduled Caste student.
Then there are post-admission problems like not being able to avail the scholarships properly. These are never displayed properly on the notice boards and even if our students apply, their applications are not forwarded on time. In many cases, even chairpersons of the departments have sat on the applications and not signed it without giving any reasons.
Then there are many government policies that remain in university administration files and are never implemented. We have been trying to take up all such cases and stand with Dalit students in the campus.
Another issue is implementation of reservation in PhD. Not many of our students are able to get a guide. Normally one guide takes 5-6 students as research scholar under him/her but most of them are unwilling to guide a Dalit student even after if that student has cleared JRF.
Then comes the issue of appointment as a guest faculty in the campus. There are lots of positions but not many of our students get the opportunity to teach and gain some exposure. Our research scholars are continuously ignored despite their academic achievements and the positions are given to others on the basis of nepotism and caste.
Please tell us about any particular case that the Ambedkar Students Association is dealing with right now.
Last year Punjab Government came out with a policy that all those Dalit students whose parental income is less than one lakh to be exempted from paying all non-refundable fees. But still the University went ahead and forced our students, who were eligible for this exemption, to deposit the fee. When we enquired, the University feigned complete ignorance. Then we secured a copy of the letter of instructions to the University from Punjab Social welfare Department and went to meet the campus authorities.
Now they started saying that the government had not release the grant yet and they had to take fees otherwise the whole burden would fall on the University itself. Therefore when the grant would come the University would refund students. This is a very sad situation as many of our students were unable to raise the money even if they were assured of refund. This is simply harassing them for no mistake.
Some ASA members suggested going to court but many of us also thought that it would take lot of time and also University authorities would get an easy excuse for not doing anything till the court orders come. So we decided to approach politically and started making representations to different political groups but not many showed interest.
Then we met Mr Avatar Singh Kareempuri, a Rajya Sabha member from BSP. He listened to us carefully and immediately wrote to the Chief Minister of Punjab about our problem. Then our VC was also intimated and he immediately called me and demanded on why we are approaching politicians for our problems. I very humbly answered that the purpose of meeting was to inform the government that if it makes such provisions then it should also release the grant immediately.
Within a couple of days, the VC issued the order to refund the fees of all deserving Dalit students. I don’t know whether the government grant has still come or not but our students got their fees back.
Thanks so much Narinder for such a wonderful sharing and we wish you and all the members of Ambedkar Student Association very best.