(This is the transcipt of his speech at the celebrations of the 126th Birth Anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Amebdkar in Ras Al Khaimah organised by Ambedkar International Mission, UAE, on 21st April, 2017. It was translated from Hindi by Abhishek Juneja)
Jai Bhim. I am very happy to be among you all. I have come to UAE for the first time and you have invited me with a lot of love, for which I am very grateful. Especially to Kashi Sir, who is not present here today. I have heard a lot about his work and about the work that AIM does. Even though I have never met Raju Kamble Sir, I have known him too for a very long time. AIM has also been providing support to students, for which I would like to thank you all.
Today, I would like to talk a little about education. As you have just seen on the screen, my work revolves around our students and ensuring all ways possible to provide the best education to them. At the same time, we try to involve them in the Ambedkarite movement as much as possible. We have been working on this for a very long time.
Like Sir had mentioned in his introduction, I am basically from Uttar Pradesh. I come from a family where Babasaheb found little mention in everyday affairs, so I come from a background, a caste that does not have a history of being in the Ambedkarite movement. Even though I come from a Scheduled Caste family, it is our great misfortune that in my caste Babasaheb isn’t cherished as much as he is in other Schedules castes. I was the first person from my family who got to know Babasaheb and who stepped into the Movement. Therefore, I feel very fortunate to be standing here today in front of you.
I would like to brief you about my work before I go ahead. I have been living in Maharashtra for the last four years, and I came here with a clear purpose. I come from a very orthodox Hindu family. When I started reading Babasaheb, I realized that one of his most important messages was that we must exit the Hindu fold and embark upon a new journey, on the path suggested by Buddha. After reading Babasaheb I was very enthusiastic about Buddhism and I wanted to know what it meant to be a Buddhist, what the Buddhist culture was like. I had a few friends in Maharashtra who invited me to Wardha and asked me to provide some guidance to our students, and I happily accepted the offer. I had two reasons for coming to Maharashtra; one Maharashtra is the land of Babasaheb, the place of his birth and his monumental work. It was, in some sense, compulsory for me to spend some time in his land. The second reason was my desire to understand Buddhist culture; I also wanted to know why Babasaheb embraced Buddhism. I have been in Wardha for four years now. I live with the Ambedkarite Budddhist community, among them. I am elated to tell you that these four years have been the most important and the happiest moments of my life. I understand Wardha as a microcosm of the egalitarian India that Babasaheb had envisioned. I saw firsthand, the commitment and hard work of the Buddhist community in Wardha, in building Vihars and libraries, in creating the right ambience for our kids. Such community work is yet to reach North India.
There is one more thing I would like to talk about. Most of you sitting here are professionals, and have received a sound technical education in Medicine, Engineering, Architecture etc. All of us here share the experience of attending Government schools and colleges, and would remember that one constant tag that remained attached to us throughout our journeys – that of being a ‘reserved category’ student, of not being ‘meritorious’, of not having adequate knowledge. This tag stays with us for those 3-4 years of college where we are constantly reminded of having managed an admission with fewer marks. Even when these words are not explicitly said to our faces, we ourselves start feeling ‘deficient’ due to which our confidence gets hit. Even after finishing our degrees, we are not able to celebrate our success as much as them. Our students, despite being from IITs and IIMs, lack in confidence when sharing public platforms. The idea of being undeserving of the IITian tag, of somehow managing to enter these institutions with the help of reservations, has been drilled deep inside our minds. This feeling of not being good enough firmly grips our minds for the rest of our careers. Right from college, a negative identity starts taking shape inside us and this causes two great harms – first, our confidence is eroded forever, and second, our love for our community diminishes, we begin to hide our identity. This loss of a positive identification with self and community continues well into our professional lives. This ends up damaging the community, too.
Let me give you some data to put this in context. Our population, of SCs and STs, is between 25 and 30 crores, and not even three percent of us are graduates. Even among those three percent, very few feel confident about their identity. This is perhaps why even today our movement lacks intellectual and scholarly leadership. Our activists are doing a phenomenal job on the ground but the intelligentsia- the doctors, engineers, professors, and journalists- have not managed to contribute enough. And I place this lack of contribution squarely on our formative years in schools and colleges where we formulate a negative identity of ourselves. Being constantly burdened with lies around a purported lack-of-merit somewhere produces an inferiority complex inside us. In the process of gaining a degree, we lose a large part of ourselves, our confidence, our sense of success.
If we leave out Maharashtra, there is not much of an Ambedkarite student movement in any of the states. Apart from a couple of central universities, our students do not have any platform through which they may be trained to walk on Babasaheb’s prescribed path. Due to this, even though our students manage to reach prestigious institutions, they remain unaware of Babasaheb, his life, and works. Not having a sense of history about our movement results in our students viewing themselves through the eyes of oppressor communities, using their language of merit and reservations. The Savarnas find novel ways to humiliate and insinuate our students. In my knowledge, there is only one recourse to this problem, and that is Ambedkarism. Till as long our students are not made aware of the life and struggles of Babasaheb, they will find it very hard to create a positive identity for themselves. We have been working for the past twenty years to address precisely this issue. We have started a library at Wardha and we often go to neighboring villages and towns to guide the student, especially targeting ones who have studied in non-English medium schools. We are trying to reach out to as many Marathi, Hindi, Odia and regional-language students as possible. Having received my education from the so called finest University of India, I feel it is my duty to ensure similar opportunities for people who have been left behind.
If we look at Babasaheb’s idea of reservations, we will know that it is not for everyone, and it has a limited role. Reservations exist only for Government jobs, and their numbers are in lakhs only. But our population stands at over 25 crores. With reservations, Babasaheb wanted to create a class of people who would work in the future for the rest of the community. At Nalanda Academy, we try to make sure that the students who have reached prominent universities come and spend some time with the younger generation of students in small towns and villages and provide guidance based on their own invaluable experiences. Our students should aspire to reach the JNUs, TISSs of this country, and should know that Babasaheb’s movement is there for them.
We are all humans, and thus, naturally, a little bit selfish too. I went to an engineering college and faced a lot of discrimination. The scenario inside engineering colleges was very different in the 90s. I fought for three years, between 1996 and 1998, and despite actively seeking them, I did not find a single organization that was willing to work on the issue of marginalization of our students inside campuses. I come from a second-generation-literate family, my father was a lawyer. The first generation is gullible to think that caste exists only in villages now and that medical and engineering colleges in big cities are safe and secure for our children. This is patently untrue and a myth that the caste problem recedes as we rise higher up the class rungs. We are raised thinking Delhi and Bombay will be fair to us. In truth, as we move higher in our academic and professional careers, discussions around caste keep disappearing from our dining rooms. As a kid, I was told about my caste and the system that enables such discrimination, but nobody knew how this worked inside the education setup.
When I reached my engineering college, I had no weapon to protect myself against the abuses that were to come my way, because nobody talked about this at home. We had always been taught to not to talk about our identity. But parents need to understand that while it may be prudent to save us from humiliation during childhood, we shall be on our own when we go to college. The upper caste students come after a completely different socialization, not only are they taught about their castes, they grow taking pride in their privileged social location-as Brahmin and Rajputs. Even a four-year old among them is aware of the attributes of his caste, as a Rajput he ought to be brave, as a Brahmin he ought to be wise. So you see how differently we are trained about our caste. Our kids are taught to conceal their caste, which creates a sense of shame in them. The kids feel that if their parents are hiding it, it must be a matter of shame. This stark difference in the attitudes towards one’s caste location becomes apparent in 9th or 10th grade when kids start asking about each other’s caste inside classrooms with questions as direct as, ” I am a Trivedi, a Tiwari, a Brahmin, who are you?”. This is when our students face embarrassment for the first time. When they go back and ask their parents about who they are, parents then find it difficult to answer because they had believed all along that with education, this stigma was over and their children would never have to face such insults.
What can the parents tell their kids now? Because the upper caste kids in the class pride themselves in their brahminness, their thakurness, what do our kids have that they can be proud of? How will you give your child a positive identity now? The Upper caste kids have history, the entire Indian history is essentially an upper caste history. But we don’t have any heroes in this history. I am not talking about Modern History (where we have Babasaheb) but ancient and medieval history. The Rajputs will claim Maharana Pratap, the Brahmins have Jawaharlal Nehru and what have you? Now, if your family is not Ambedkarite, you would not have anything positive from history to give to your child. And your identity comes from your history. Therefore, if you are not telling your kids about Babasaheb, you are making your kids weak. I am not asking you to send your children into the movement; I am saying this for your own selfish interest- that you are making your kids weak if you are not telling them about the movement’s history. Because I can assure you that your kids will be asked these uncomfortable questions about their identity.
Now if you don’t give your kids a positive identity, by the time they turn fifteen they would be faced with an identity crisis. This is where they begin to lose confidence. As the child reaches Class XI, conversations around careers like engineering and medicine start taking place and the next question he is faced with is of reservation. Now whether or not your kid is willing to avail the option of reservation, he is going to be forever tagged and burdened with this word. I don’t have a full-time job, I teach and yet this tag refuses to leave me after all these years. Reservation becomes an inalienable part of our identities. We become ‘Reservation people’ for the rest of our lives. All the debates on TV and newspapers around reservations will be one-sided, you will never get to hear our side of the argument. The crux of these debates will be this- Reservation is equal to merit is equal to efficiency- and that reservation kill merit, which kills efficiency. You are deemed worthless. Even though very few among us avail reservation, our entire community is termed parasitic, as dependent on other communities and incapable of succeeding using our hard work alone. Debates on TV openly air unsubstantiated opinions like our children getting selected despite scoring a zero in exams, or with just 30 percent marks while upper caste children don’t manage to despite scoring 90 percent. These careless accusations impact our kids very deeply. You may think that it does not impact them but it does. Seeds of negativity and self-doubt are first sowed in our kids at this moment.
Let me give you an example. My nephew is in India’s finest Law School. He went to the best English medium school in Lucknow. When he was selected for the Law School, he didn’t seem too pleased. He told his mother that he had been selected only because of reservations, and hence didn’t know why he should be celebrating. He felt inadequate. He felt not-good-enough. The difference between the unreserved category cutoff and SC cut off was marginal. Gone are those times when the difference used to be huge. Today our kids are as competent as other kids. Yet, that 5-6 mark difference had created such self-doubt in the mind of the boy. My family had no answer to his problems because nobody at my home has known about the Ambedkarite movement. They could not tell him that these reservations are not charity, they have not been given as alms. The upper-castes have always termed reservations crutches. But they are not crutches. This is our right, and our great forefathers have fought for it. Our leaders, Babasaheb and many others, had to struggle for it and only then could our community secure these rights. The Indian Govt. or the Savarnas have not given this to us in charity.
The other thing that needs to be understood well is the vacuousness of the concept of ‘Merit’ that Savarnas love to throw at us. It is a myth which needs to be busted. Let me elucidate using an example. For about four years, I have been preparing students for competitive exams for entry into Universities. You all know that there is no such thing as a common school system in our country, each state has its own system. Inside Maharashtra, there are three kinds of Maharashtra state board schools- Marathi medium, semi-English medium and English medium. Besides these, there are CBSE schools and ICSE schools. You may very well know that there is a clear hierarchy, a graded system among these schools. The poorest children, like from our communities, go to Marathi medium schools. There isn’t a common syllabus or marking scheme. But when our kids finish 10th and 12th, we find that all higher education is in English. If you want to take admission in JNU, TISS, or a reputed engineering or medical college, all their courses are in English.
We need to understand how merit is constructed from this point of inequity. The example of TISS, a very old institution founded by Tatas but which is now autonomous, may prove to be instructive. TISS conducts an online entrance exam in the month of January. There are 100 objective questions in the first stage of the exam. After one qualifies at this stage, one’s called for an interview two months later. Notice how merit is constructed from this point. The first stage is conducted exclusively in English and has four sections- Maths, Reasoning, Current Affairs and English grammar. There are thirty questions on English grammar, thirty on Maths, twenty each on Current affairs and reasoning. Tell me now, how is it possible for a Marathi or a semi-English medium student to qualify this exam? Not only is the exam being conducted in English, which means Mathematical and reasoning abilities are tested in the English language, there is a separate section on English grammar. This gives an unquestionable advantage to English-medium students, they would not require preparing for the grammar section as their school education takes care of that. A student from Marathi or Odia medium school who has studied Maths and reasoning in Marathi and Odia will find it very hard to attempt in English the same questions he would otherwise have easily solved in his preferred language. This is true for all higher education colleges across India. There is a word, Hauwwa, in UP, which means ungrounded fear. A hauwwa of English has been put into the minds of our students, who feel they are not intelligent if they cannot read and write English. It is very obvious that English medium students will excel in such exams over their regional language counterparts, all because the exam is designed to admit the former at the expense of the latter.
Now let us for a moment imagine a situation where the tables are turned and the same exam is conducted in Marathi, with Marathi grammar being tested in place of English. And suddenly, the whole merit game is inverted. The English medium ones will now score very poorly, just due to the change in medium. Would you consider these English medium kids unintelligent now? No, because this entire game is about medium. The entire game is of ensuring that the majority population of this country may never participate in higher education, and are easily deemed non-meritorious. Merit comes from intelligence, but these exams do not test intelligence, they check how rich the competing students are. The richer you are, the better school you will go to and the easier it will be for you to crack these exams which are tailor-made for English medium students. This gap of 10-15 marks between the respective cutoffs is not a marker of the gap in our intelligence but of the gap in opportunities. These institutions like to maintain this gap of ten marks to make sure we never regain our confidence. Those ten marks remain with us as a stigma throughout our lives. Our students internalize this, faulting themselves for the difference in cutoffs, not understanding it is the discriminatory system that is responsible for these gaps. The question paper is set to maintain this ten mark gap, to always keep us non-meritorious.
I would like to give another example here. Most of you must be aware of bank exams in India. How many English words do you think an average bank clerk in India needs to know for his everyday transactions? Hundred? Two hundred? If you look at the Clerk exam, English is compulsory and of a fairly advanced level. If you check any other exam, the paper is designed in a manner that it will unnerve you at first sight. Students are reluctant to take bank exams and opt for Group D exams for railways only because the latter do not test English. Therefore, the entire system is designed to make us feel deficient, inferior. It is designed to make us feel not-good-enough for IAS, medicine, engineering, academia. And the ones who have managed to reach these places are beneficiaries of reservations, which the Savarnas think of as charity and dole.
Besides all this, our students face a lot of explicit discrimination. You may have heard of Rohith Vemula. Much before this incident, in 2009-10, we went around India and investigated 22 cases where our students had committed suicide. This problem is much bigger than what we perceive it as and at the core of it lies what I have been talking about- our identification with ourselves and our communities. Our students are very talented, yet they lead their lives feeling deficient about their capabilities. At this point of low self-confidence, when they are faced with direct discrimination, they are often unable to fight. They struggle for a year or two and then take the extreme step of ending their lives. This problem is rampant across university campuses in India, especially in professional courses. If you look at the suicide statistics of IITs, you will find that out of every ten, 6-7 suicides happening there are from SC community students. Our representation in IITs is around ten percent but in suicides, we make up about 70 percent of the total number.
When we came to know this, we wanted to understand the reasons behind such incidents. We found that it is often impossible to prove the incident(s) of discrimination responsible for the student’s death. Many a time, students and families prefer to take back their complaints fearing the wrath of Professors and college administration. Despite such incidents, the suicide-causing apparatuses remain intact. Professors in these colleges revel in this culture of impunity. They can make hurtful remarks questioning our intelligence, our ambition because they know they can get away with it. Imagine cracking one of the toughest exams to reach a place where the Professor calls you out in a hall full of students who have come from different corners of India. He threatens to suspend you, he questions your credentials to be present there. What would go through the minds of our kids then? Let alone pride that should ideally have accompanied them to these universities, our kids are filled with shame. The Professor’s remarks puncture their self-esteem. This also gives an opportunity to Savarna students to take digs at our kids for the next four years. This venomous environment envelopes our students and causes them great mental strain.
At this point, what options do our students have if they have not been groomed well in the Ambedkarite tradition? One is to become very aggressive and the other is to retreat into their shells for the next few years. Most of our students opt for the latter. They remain secluded and stop socializing altogether; they generally start remaining aloof and rarely participate in college activities. Their confidence plummets to irredeemable levels. When we came to know of this, we wanted to tell the world that caste discrimination flourishes as well in universities as fiercely as it does in villages. The discrimination here takes different forms- like failing our students in viva and practical exams. Such discrimination is hard to prove empirically. So we decided to document all such cases and put them together. For four years, some of us ran a helpline for Dalit and Adivasi students. The calls we received on that numbers further helped us in the documentation. During this phase, we came across suicides of 22 children. We met their families, siblings, friends to try and find out what made the student take his own life. If a 16-17 year old is contemplating suicide, it is clear he is in a lot of pain. We made four documentaries under the title – Death of Merit, which can be viewed on YouTube. This was the time when issues around caste discrimination in campuses started catching the attention of people. This is why we are able to agitate about Rohith Vemula’s death today. If ten years ago I had told my parents that IITs and premier medical colleges are full of discrimination, they wouldn’t have believed me. In fact, they would have suggested that the problem lied inside us, that perhaps we were undeserving of IITs and lacked merit. Hence, it was important to bring to light our documentation of student suicides across university campuses.
There was a case filed in Supreme Court against IIT Delhi. In 2008, 22 of our students, most of them from small towns and villages, were expelled from IIT Delhi after the first semester. After having cracked one of the most difficult exams, they were forced to drop out for failing to pass one or two subjects. Most of these students were from the poorest regions of India. They came from non-English medium background. The ambiance inside IITs and other premier colleges is much Anglicized and westernized. Our students take a lot of time to acclimatize. I took over six months to get used to the Upper caste, English-speaking students dominated campus at JNU. Everything from how they spoke and what they wore was shocking to me. In such environs, if our children find it difficult to cope and their academic performance suffers, it is cruel of the college administration to expel them after the first semester. They deserve time to make that transition to an English medium based education. After they were expelled, we first went to High Court and later to Supreme Court. We proved at the court that the kids needed time not because they lacked in intelligence but because it was difficult for them to settle down. Fortunately, at the time, the CJI of the SC was KG Balakrishnan Sir, who is himself a Scheduled Caste, and he could appreciate what we were contending. He ordered IIT-D to re-admit the 22 students.
The Manmohan Singh Govt. promised to make a law to address the problem of student suicides but it remained in the Draft stage for too long and was eventually binned. We are still waiting for justice in each of those 22 cases of student suicides. The government and the college administration promised to take action but even in open-and-shut cases of clear discrimination where the child had clearly mentioned the reason for his distress, no action was taken. Through this entire episode, there’s one thing we understood very clearly – it was futile to wait for justice. This system is very strong and exists to serve their interests, and it is nearly impossible to shake this system. We must either create a new system or think of a novel strategy.
After much deliberation, we have come to realize that instead of addressing individual cases, we must fight on the ground; we must prepare our children even before they enter college spaces. We need to create a support system for these children so that they never feel they are alone in their struggles. For the last three years, our vision has been to ensure our students reach all major universities; our professors reach all major universities so that they never feel helpless. We also wish to put up a credible challenge to the present education system, one where entrance exams that are heavily weighed against us use English as a weapon to kill off our aspirations. We are studying the different entrance exams to understand how we can facilitate a smooth entry and access into these institutions. We need to put this message across loud and clear that your education system is useless till as long as it remains inaccessible to people from different classes.
There is one last thing I would like to discuss here, and that is the privatization of higher education. The Government has started withdrawing its funding to universities while encouraging more and more private universities to set up. I have heard that the BA course at Ashoka University, Delhi, costs lakhs per year. Who do you think can afford to send their child to such places? If the Govt. withdraws itself from the university scene, it indirectly means closing the door on us. In the last few years, so many private engineering and medicals have come up in Maharashtra alone. A medical college at Wardha, last year, was selling one MD seat for five crore rupees. Tell me, we don’t have five lakh, where will be managing five crore from? This privatization is going to present the greatest challenge before us in coming times. Right now, due to the efforts of Babasaheb, our people are becoming doctors and engineers using reservation. The government is receding from University spaces very tactfully, having understood that people from our community are now entering these spaces in large numbers. The government does not want us there and the best way to ensure that the State altogether exits the university scene. Very few among us will be able to afford higher education if it is privatized. Even today, our families cannot afford monthly fees at government schools which are between 100 and 500 rupees. The State has been withdrawing itself very slyly and gradually because it knows that a sudden exit will create a lot of resentment.
The most efficient way of withdrawing over the years has been to dilute the quality of education at these institutions. In my father’s generation, government schools were known to be the best. Most doctors and engineers came out of these government schools. What, then, has happened in the last 20-25 years that has resulted in their pathetic state today? How did the same schools that were functioning very well in the 60s and 70s transform into such neglected centers in a span of just two decades?This is when we come to realize that these schools were running very smoothly till as long as their own children were attending these schools. The day our students started entering govt schools, their children migrated to English medium private schools and the State stopped caring for govt schools. The govt schools today are grossly under-funded, the teachers are ill-trained, the teachers are made to do 50,000 odd jobs- a teacher at a Govt school does everything else except teaching, he performs election duties and everything such imaginable. I have known many 10th, 12th passed students from Marathi medium schools who cannot write one sentence in Marathi, and it is not their fault. They went to schools where the teachers never showed up. The state can continue this neglect with impunity because Upper caste children don’t attend these schools anymore.
Until a hundred years ago, the Savarans did not allow us to attend schools. Now they can’t stop us because it is a constitutional obligation, so they have deliberately brought down the quality of education so that the difference remains intact. The govt schools today exist to keep us at bare literate levels while also making sure we never reach a stage where we are able to compete with the Savarnas in entrance exams. The State works as much to provide us literacy as it does to ensure we do not receive quality education.
I am telling you all this to also remind you of Babasaheb’s golden words – Educate, Agitate, Organize. Babasaheb’s idea of education was not one of bare literacy but of fostering a culture of awareness, a consciousness about our community and society. A lot of us think of the movement only in political terms as BSP, or only in cultural terms as Buddhism, or in social terms as BAMCEF. But I think that the word ‘movement’ is a much broader category. If you are focused on your child’s education, this too constitutes the movement. If you look at Babasaheb’s life, he was writing a lot of books, struggling to secure rights for us, but at the same time, he was also deeply invested in opening new colleges- Milind College, Siddharth college to name a few. Now if you look around, tell me how many schools and colleges have we managed to establish in the last few decades? We have just not managed to build our own institutional spaces. Our engagement with the movement is restricted to voting every five years. Till as long as we are unable to create a new system, build our own institutions, we will not be able to pressurize the State. We will forever remain at the mercy of the State to provide good education in schools and colleges. This chain of dependence needs to be broken. We want our institutions, we want our syllabus, and we want our history. If we are all able to secure these for our children, they will no longer be ashamed of their identity, their community, or their history.
This is going to be a long struggle. Some of us will have to fight all our lives, and perhaps then we would have moved one step in the right direction. It is my sincere request to those present here to look inside your communities, see if the places you come from have the necessary infrastructure for education. It is going to be difficult to start contributing right away, but please spare a thought on this matter. Because if we don’t, I can assure you that very soon a section from within our own communities will reach for our collars. They will remind us how we have failed them despite having availed reservation secured by Babasabeb, how we have been selfish to only further our own careers in the process. The gap between educated and uneducated Schedules Class families is ever increasing. Two generation ago, we were at the same level. Today the same families who had availed reservations four decades ago are sending their children to English medium schools and premier universities. The ones who have been left behind will come for us and ask very uncomfortable questions. We need to go back to Babasaheb’s basic understanding of the word ‘reservation’, which was of ‘paying back to the community’. It is the duty of those among us who are educated to create something for those who have faced constant neglect at the hands of the State. We need to break this cycle of dependence so that our future generations do not have to be at the mercy of Upper castes for their education and careers. We must work so that we are able to present to them an emancipatory culture of Equality and Liberty.
I end my speech here and fervently hope that this communication, between you and us who work in different parts of India, continues in the time to come. I thank you all for being such a patient audience.
Anoop Kumar is an Ambedkarite activist and teacher based in Wardha.
Abhishek Juneja lives in Dehradun; he’s an engineering dropout who later acquired an MA in political science. He has worked in a variety of jobs.