Last month I read an article “Some of us will have to fight all our lives: Anoop Kumar”1 on Round Table India where Anoop Sir talked about how students from marginalized sections of our society are asked many uncomfortable questions about their identity in higher educational institutions and how growing up in an Ambedkarite family can help them to tackle this identity crisis. Coming from an Ambedkarite family of Nagpur, Maharashtra and studying at this prestigious Delhi University, this topic is something I can relate to and this article is a small attempt to share my personal experiences and thoughts on it.
Some of you would ask why I am writing now about an article which was published almost a month ago. Today, something happened with me that evoked many thoughts in my mind and the only words reverberating in my ears was that of Anoop Sir’s from that article. I attended a seminar on “Social Exclusion and Discrimination in India” organized by my college. When you discuss social exclusion the topic of Affirmative Actions or Reservation comes in. And you always have a heated debate on it. Here also, the debate was no different from any other space with lots of arguments being made against reservation by the audience which is no surprise. I was listening to all of them silently. I am otherwise a very introverted and shy student who will not speak even in my own classroom. And the name of reservation is enough to make us feel more uncomfortable.
In such a situation, we try to conceal our identity and do not counter any argument against reservation no matter how baseless it is. After a long fight with myself, I finally convinced myself to ask a question to the panel. A “reserved category” student asked a question on reservation! Believe me, this is a kind of courageous task. I did it. The panel responded very well. While I was praising myself for doing this, someone or to be precise a professor of the college put forth a question on why reservation should not be on “economic basis” and this argument was supported by the rhetorics of “elite dalits misusing the benefits of reservation.” While the panel was answering the question I again dared to stand up and speak. I tried to counter these arguments. What I did say is not important for what I want to write here. The discussion ended and I realised how a girl who cannot speak in her own class, in front of her own classmates dared to stand on a platform with so many professors and students from different departments and spoke on the most uncomfortable topic of reservation. I realized by doing that I indirectly and unintentionally asserted my identity quite strongly. This is not a normal thing to do in a space dominated by Savarna class where most of us try to hide our identity. I was trying to figure out from where did I get the confidence to do that and I recollected Anoop Sir’s words. This confidence was built up in me while growing in an Ambedkarite family. Yes!
The scenario of Dalit families of Maharashtra and particularly Nagpur is completely different from rest of the country. From the very beginning, I was told that we are not “Hindus” but “Ambedkarite Buddhist.” Now, why this matters. This helps us to build a positive identity. You don’t accept the negative identity of being “lower” to other fellow upper caste students because you completely separate yourself from them. “Jai Bhim” is among the few words I learned to speak along with “Aai and Baba” (Mom and Dad). I grew up learning about Babasaheb, Savitri Maai, Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and other Dalit Bahujan leaders and social reformers. In other words, my family introduced me to my own history. They told me about caste based discrimination and exclusion at a very young age. This prepared me to tackle any kind of discrimination strongly unlike other dalit students whose parents may not have introduced this “caste concept” to their children and eventually make them unable to confront it directly. When you have students in your classrooms who have history to be proud of, as you know the entire Indian history is an Upper Caste history, a Dalit student will somehow feel ‘lower’ to them if he/she is not aware of his/her own history. Here my family makes a difference for me. When anyone takes pride in their “Thakur-ness”, “Brahmin-ness” or “Rajput-ness,” I know how to be proud of my “Ambedkarite-ness.” These things help you to survive in this exclusionary, alienating spaces. They prevent you from being secluded. With Babasaheb on your side, you don’t fear any questions raised on your identity. The tags of being “non-meritorious” and “undeserving” do not bother you because you understand the hollowness of this concept of “merit”.
Dear Dalit and Adivasi students studying in any of the educational institutions of this country, if you can hear me and your parents did not tell you about all this which was told to me then do not wait anymore and read Babasaheb. Know about his life and struggle. It’s never too late. This is for our own benefit. You have to survive and excel in this Brahminical exclusionary spaces. And no one can help you in this other than Babasaheb. To know Babasaheb is like emancipating yourself from the humiliating and insinuating identities imposed on you. It will help you to understand that your history is one of oppression and not shame. He is the weapon that will protect you against the negativity and doubts on your own presence in these spaces. Do not let go this opportunity to acquire an education for which our forefathers struggled all their lives. Let me quote a poem of Savitri Maai for you:
Go, Get Education2
Be self-reliant, be industrious
Work, gather wisdom and riches,
All gets lost without knowledge
We become animal without wisdom,
Sit idle no more, go, get education
End misery of the oppressed and forsaken,
You’ve got a golden chance to learn
So learn and break the chains of caste.
Throw away the Brahman’s scriptures fast.
I never realized the importance of Ambedkarite values given to me by my family until I left my city and entered a different world. The salutation of “Jai Bhim” which was more or less a compulsion for me to greet my elders in my home and society has now become the most beautiful thing I want to continuously hear on my campus. My phone which used to have wallpapers of Messi now carries a beautiful picture of Savitri Maai and Jotiba Phule that inspires me to learn and learn and learn more. These small things help me to survive and struggle here. You too will find your own ways to keep you motivated. Fight till the end. Do not give up because you cannot afford to lose.
Tejaswini Tabhane is a budding Ambedkarite and a first year student of B.A (H) Economics at Miranda House, Delhi University