Prof. P. Kesava Kumar
In recent times, the privileged public sphere named University has occupied the centre stage of Indian politics. University is often viewed as an active place of learning by holding together the diverse social and political communities. It is not only a centre for catering knowledge, it also produces knowledge. Needless to say that it has located itself in a privileged public space in society. Knowledge produced from the society is channelized through curriculum of the university education. By specializing in the skill of knowledge, the intellectual community emerging out of university education may provide direction to the society to build a better society. In other words, future of the nation imagined and influenced through the intelligentsia. Apart from the questions of what constitutes knowledge and whose knowledge prevails and is institutionalized as public knowledge system, we have to understand the social context of this processing of knowledge systems and political value of the existing domain of knowledge. There is no doubt that the idea of the University is still continuing on the premises of colonial ideas.
The elite, in crude form brahminical class, continued the colonial knowledge by not making any attempts of decolonization. Now this brahminical institution named ‘University’ is at the verge of collapse, if not facing threat from subaltern social groups. From late eighties, we may see the contestation of the brahminical idea of university and counter knowledge claims by the marginalized. This is the time of entry of dalits, women and rural poor into the elite university education system. It does not mean that there was no student activism prior to late 1980s. The students’ activity in 1970s and early 1980s is mostly from the left and radical left aimed against state and the struggle centered around the idea of ‘revolution’. From late 1980s the situation is different. The conflict between the privileged and marginalized has widened. So the struggle is within the communities for the rights of social security and more participation in politics. In this context, the politics of public sphere has changed significantly and so has the university. The students’ activism in the university is between social groups. The contestation is between the hegemonised and marginalized social collectives. The students activism of University in 2010s has acquired complexity by intertwining of various social and political factors and become difficult to explain the situation in known political categories. This demands a new language to explain the contemporary university space.
However, Universities are immediately reflecting the social face and political voice of the nation as they are taking the lead in articulating the social and political aspirations of people of the nation. The conflict among the students groups has to be understood as the social conflict. The political narratives circulated in the campuses are acquiring their meanings in the social context of the respective campus. To understand the substance of the political emerging out of these students struggles are crucial in assessing the changing nature of the Indian political and identifying the potential of politics of liberation. Rohith struggle– spontaneous, uncompromising, courageous, rebellious students struggles emerged after the suicide of Dalit student Rohith, becoming a collective meeting point for students activism in India. This Rohith struggle promised a new Indian politics by bringing diverse social groups and ideologies of liberation together. This is the new social practice and novel protest against the state and social system. It is a big challenge to sustain the movement for a long time. The post Rohith students’ politics, throws further challenges to sustain this students’ solidarity. This has to be understood carefully by close reading of Students’ Union elections of JNU and HCU. The students’ struggles of Indian Film Institute, Pune, Jadavpur University, IIT Chennai may be helpful for further substantiating the mood and politics of students’ struggles.
The University is a modern public space. The students’ struggles of Hyderabad Central University have changed the very character of this public space. Especially the struggles of Dalit students took the lead in alternative democratic politics of the nation from the time of pro-Mandal agitation to the recent Rohith struggle. With the Rohith struggle, the Amedkarite politics of University has not only captured the imagination of the nation but also got acceptance from alternative politics to casteist hindutva politics. From 2000 to till now, the campus dalit politics has consolidated its base and also acquired an appeal with non-dalit students, even the muslim students. With the rise of hindutva politics, dalit student politics were targeted. Dalit students were retaliating against the dominant casteist forces in all possible ways. As a result, Dalit politics of the nation has not only revitalized but also emerged as the only viable alternative against fascist hindutva forces. (This note traces the student politics from late eighties to early 2000.)
The suicide of Rohith Vemula, the Dalit Research scholar of Hyderabad Central University ignited the new era in dalit politics raising issues which have become a debating point of mainstream Indian politics. This is a new chapter in the history of the students’ struggles of University of Hyderabad. Rohith through his self-sacrifice has not only expressed his protest against everyday ongoing caste discrimination in the campus but also created a space for struggles to be waged with brahminical forces. Today, it is clear that the issue of caste and Amberkarite politics has emerged as a forceful and powerful alternative to play a greater role in future politics of the country. In the context of hindutva rule of BJP, the political parties such as Congress and left parties realized that they have to act beyond mere lip sympathy towards dalits. There are conscious efforts from the mainstream political parties to internalize the anger and conscience of dalits to an extent. Media too felt the bulldozing of the academics and campuses by the BJP government and the need to support the victims of hindutva politics in its own style. The face of Facebook is covered with Rohith’s smile against an unresponsive society and irresponsible administrative systems. Rohith’s suicide has to be understood in the context of politics of students’ struggles of the campus, weakening of organized dalit politics in the country, secular forces losing the grip of over people and massive defeat of the Congress and left parties, marginalization of dalits in both governments of Telugu states and above all, victory of the hero of Gujarat massacre, Narendra Modi, as unopposed Prime minister and his BJP.
Till the eighties, the entry of Dalits into the Hyderabad Central University was minimal. From the eighties onwards, there is a visibility of Dalit students in the University. The entry of students from lower caste groups is possible only because of the reservations in educational institutions. Mostly, they are confined to the Social Sciences and the Humanities. A serious debate began in academic circles about the lowering of academic standards in higher education. For the Dalits, it is a new experience in the University. They are usually confronted with the existing academic and cultural environment of the University, which is new for them. On the other side, Upper Caste students feel threatened with the very entry of Dalit students. There is a strong feeling prevailing among these students that Dalit students are grabbing their opportunities in the name of reservations without having any ‘merit’ or making any effort towards it. As a result, one can see a serious confrontation between the students from lower caste groups and upper caste groups in the context of competition for resources and opportunities.
This can be seen in the agitations around the implementation of Mandal commission recommendation for ensuring reservations for OBCs in government jobs. This created almost a polarization of Indian society on the lines of caste. Mandal issue was a turning point in Indian politics. The inherent contradictions in the issue of caste came into public debates. This episode influenced the civil society in general and University campuses in particular. A serious politicization began in the Universities and students became conscious of their castes, rather than pretending to be ignorant of caste.
To understand the Mandal and Post-Mandal politics in a public space like the University, the developments in the University of Hyderabad and the political assertion of Dalit students in the University for a decade may provide some insights. This University produced many Dalit writers and scholars in contemporary times. This University is known for its immediate response to the political happenings of India, more than any other University in the Nineties. Dalit politics outside the campus particularly influenced the University.
University of Hyderabad as a central university came into existence in the late seventies in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. It was established as per the six-point formula intended to concede to the demands of the Jai Andhra movement. It was assumed that the University may provide opportunities for higher education to people from all regions of A.P. since another university in Hyderabad, Osmania University, predominantly catered to the needs of the Telangana region. At present, the University has been able to attract students from all over India, though the majority of them are from A.P. The location of the University assumes importance, as A.P. has been known for intense political struggles like the Naxalite movement and contemporary Dalit and women’s struggles. Students of the neighbouring Osmania University had gone to villages to participate in rural-peasant struggles in Telangana in the eighties. That was the atmosphere surrounding the University at the time of its inception. But the University of Hyderabad had been immune to all those political influences throughout the eighties.
While conceiving the idea of that University, the underlying premise was primarily to promote excellence in the field of Sciences, and it was followed by Social Sciences and then the Humanities. Semester system was introduced and retained till now to monitor the performance of the students closely. Teachers have been given total autonomy in the matters relating to curriculum, teaching and evaluation. The medium of entrance examination is only English. These things heavily influence the social composition of the University and the retention of students from relatively disadvantageous social backgrounds. But it is precisely this criterion that has become essential to the identity the University advertises to enhance its reputation. Throughout its career, the University had a significant number of students from the elite and upper middle class back ground. This University fulfilled the upper caste, middle class dream of studying in an island of excellence where pursuit of knowledge is to promote one’s career alone. Majority of University teachers come from elite social backgrounds who have studied in ‘prestigious’ institutions. But they do carry notions of unbridled academic pursuit as a short cut to serve the developmental needs of the society. Everything else appears to disturb this middle class aesthetic of the calm, pleasant campus devoid of ‘dirty’ politics. Everything seemed to be ‘fine’ in those early days.
Till late eighties, students used to organize around their classroom. His/her department or batch, marked the student. One is identified by the names of a few individuals visible in public. Disadvantages associated with particular social background, like one’s caste, economic position, rural/urban and cultural (un) skills associated with them were never openly talked about. They were pushed under the carpet and made beautiful by the cosmetic liberal environment. Dissent was limited to private murmurs. Collective activity was centred around picnics, freshers’ and farewell parties. The idea of discomfort over elite ways of life were partly expressed in terms of particular depts or groups; for instance, English dept. students had the image of being hip/arrogant. In those days, the enrolment of Dalit students into P.G. courses was minimal. Most of the Dalit students used to drop out of their courses as soon as their first semester got over, as they were not given the required percentage of marks. Of course, the dropout rate used to vary from department to department. Students from the Dalit community didn’t have any other option, except to exit from the University. It was rare to find Dalit students with 50% marks in those days. It was accepted as one’s fate, which cannot be changed by conscious human effort. The enrolment of Dalit students into research was almost negligible since the rule of reservation was not followed in case of admission into research programmes.
Things started changing by the end of the eighties. There had emerged a class of students from the Dalit communities whose parents had been employed in small government jobs. This can be mentioned as the outcome of efforts of Christian missionaries and welfare policies of the postcolonial government. These students were able to study in some of the good colleges located in the developed coastal region of the State. They had entered into the campus by the late eighties. This phenomenon has become regular and irreversible.
Breakthrough in the political situation of the campus came up with the announcement of Mandal commission recommendations providing 27% of reservations in employment for OBCs. This has resulted in nationwide hysteria among the upper castes who went protesting against the government move. Upper caste students within the campus also joined/led the mobilization with the active participation of women. University of Hyderabad’s upper caste students spearheaded the anti-Mandal commission forum (A.M.C.F.) at the state level in Andhra Pradesh. They came up with the articulation that these (OBC/Dalit) students would breed inefficiency in governmental institutions. For instance, bridges built by them are bound to collapse and if they become doctors, they will surely end up killing the patients as they are necessarily inefficient. As a consequence, the country will go to the dogs. Aren’t there many poor people within upper castes? Why not economic criteria? Aren’t we all human beings? These were basically the arguments against reservations on the basis of caste. They described OBC/Dalit students as inefficient and at the same time they staunchly refuted the idea of reservation on the basis of caste. How can you blame us for something, which our forefathers have done? Any way we are not practicing untouchability. That was the attitude of upper castes on the campus as well as all over the country.
Anti-Mandal commission forum (AMCF) from the University had become prominent in many of the activities conducted against Mandal commission report in Hyderabad. This has precipitated a strong feeling of hurt, indignity and insult prominently among the Dalit students and the few OBC students. There was a sense of hurt as Dalit students were referred in derogatory terms in AMCF articulations. As a response to AMCF, a few students had pasted poems by progressive writers in defence of reservations. (Janachaitanya Vedika’s poems and Varavara Rao’s Deja vu) on the walls. Then, the students from Dalit communities at the centre and a few OBCs and sympathetic progressive students among the upper castes together and formed an organization, Progressive Students Forum (PSF) in the year 1990. Prior to this, there was an informal discussion on naming the organization, whether it should SC, ST and BC Students Welfare Association or some other name. The Dalit students began programmes of protest against AMCF. Dalit students took it as a point to attend the classes when AMCF called for boycott of classes. AMCF students had regular programmes in the city of Hyderabad like dharnas, shoe polishing, sweeping roads etc. to prove that they would be “reduced” to doing menial jobs if Mandal commission recommendations were implemented. The University authorities supposed to be neutral, provided them with buses to go to the city comfortably. That was pointed out and made public by the PSF. There was an encounter between a huge procession of democratic organizations of the state and few AMCF students who hijacked a bus to go for a dharna. The AMCF students shouted slogans against the people in the procession. The processionists had come to the bus and gave a few blows to AMCF students in bus. The AMCF in the University alleged that goons hired by the PSF and had resorted to violence. At that time, the Union minister P. Upendra visited the campus on an official function. Students of AMCF tried to disrupt the meeting and entered into a fierce verbal confrontation with him. PSF students intervened and defended the government’s decision. After a few days, the PSF called for a University bandh. Dalit students sat at the main gates of the University to block the entry into and exit from the University. Then AMCF students came and just walked over the Dalit students. Dalit students confronted them forcefully. University declared vacation immediately in order to diffuse the crisis.
That can be mentioned as the first instance of direct confrontation between the Dalit students and others (AMCF) in an otherwise peaceful campus. It had become clear and open to the campus, who is who. The silence was broken by the upper caste students and met with a timely response by the Dalit students. There had emerged a kind of polarization between the Dalits and others. Despite this polarization, there have been a few upper caste individuals, who were with the PSF and actively participated in it. This polarisation had made explicit the deeply ingrained attitudes of upper castes towards Dalits. It had caused a semantic rapture and radically changed meanings associated with Dalits. There was a tendency to indicate SC/ STs with PSF in informal conversation. Immediately after the vacation, whatever happened during Mandal agitation period was thrown into the realm of the private of the upper castes, it was never again discussed in public so enthusiastically. But the spectre of PSF continued to haunt them. PSF, which was formed in that context, continued to take up various academic and socio-political issues. It had given a sense of confidence to Dalits to be comfortable in campus and to express one’s problems and make demands for resolving them. This atmosphere helped to raise several questions relating to inbuilt biases within the academic system.
With the active emergence of the PSF, the Students’ Union of the University lost its importance. Students’ Union is an elected body and is supposed to represent all the students. The students’ union is the sole authority on matters relating to students. The emergence of separate category PSF made the students’ union irrelevant as PSF thought that they will represent themselves separately. The space of discussion and debate was also taken up by PSF through its innumerable public meetings. So the Students’ Union became hollow and was left to perform only functions like organizing orchestras on occasion of freshers’ parties, arranging buses to city on the occasion of UGC NET and civil services examinations etc.
On the other hand, PSF began to question the casteist biases built into notions of academic standards and merit. They took up instances of students who were not passed or those who had got less mark. They have highlighted how Dalit students had been excluded from classroom interaction and active student-teacher relationship because of the implicit ease and comfort in their relationship among upper caste teachers and students. This was made possible for the upper castes with their English accent, body language and cultural skills. This has resulted in a severe exclusion and isolation from classroom. As a result, Dalits were considered as unfit to be students in this ‘prestigious’ university. This process of exclusion and finally awarding grades was made an issue by PSF. This was articulated as one of the important discriminations in academic institutions on the basis of caste. PSF submitted memorandums to authorities, issued pamphlets on these cases and talked to various departments.
PSF was born and had grown in quite a turbulent time in Indian politics. It was bound to negotiate and cope with the various challenges that have come to the forefront during and after Mandal commission agitation. One is the growing communalization of Indian society centred on Babri Masjid demolition. The second one is liberalization and privatisation of the economy and its associated evil impact on the education sector. Thirdly, proliferation of politics based on identities (caste, gender, region, religion, language etc). The campus witnessed endless debates and discussions over communalisation and privatisation issues during that period with education in the central focus. PSF tried to build opinion against the Dunkel proposals through pamphleteering and public discussion. At the time of the Tsundur massacre of Dalits (1991), PSF collected relief to the tune of 80,000 rupees and went over there to stand with the victims of the massacre. In the PSF initiated discussions, the then public intellectuals associated with civil liberties and radical left used to participate. The practice of pasting pamphlets on walls had become regular from then onwards. There was never an idea of leaders representing the organization while speaking to authorities. Almost all the members of the organization used to go at once at the time of speaking to authorities. Thus, there was no secrecy and no idea of a particular leader heading the organization.
PSF had contested elections to the Students’ Union once on its banner. That was the only instance of students contesting elections on behalf of the organization. One of its contestants won as general secretary. During the elections, upper caste groups conducted negative campaign against PSF. The nature of the campaign was vilifying PSF. PSF was blamed for politicising the campus. They were marked as hate categories by branding them as ‘SCs’, ‘Naxalites’, ‘trouble makers’, ‘ violent people’ etc. Strong animosity was built against the PSF. In that situation, one of the members of the PSF spontaneously reacted and thrashed two people who were active in the hate campaign against the PSF. Then the entire campus reacted by moving in hundreds, shouting slogans like,’ down with the gooodaism of PSF’ etc. These kinds of mobilizations were quite new to the campus. These kind of isolated instances by Dalits were blown beyond proportion and upper caste students asked for rustication or some form of stern punishment. Upper castes demanded the banning of the organization as well. This is how the upper castes repeatedly responded to isolated instances. Authorities have taken this support as an opportunity to demolish the organization and to silence its political voice. Following this, two important members of the PSF were denied seats in the Ph.D. programme. While protesting this, the authorities deployed the police outside the V.C’s chamber and created terror among the students.
By this time, there had already emerged a separate voice of women. A group of women came together to form an organization, Women Students Forum (WSF). This forum mainly comprised students from the English department belonging to states other than AP. They were more vocal, convent educated, urban-based, middle class, independent and confident. They had basically taken up issues of sexual harassment and made explicit the silence surrounding issues relating to women in a situation of apparently joyful life. They faced a lot of negative campaigning with unsigned posters and through active circulation of rumours about them. Once, some of the members of WSF were sent pornographic mails, apparently to threaten them and dissuade them from activism. These kinds of techniques with fresh innovations are still followed to dissuade women from activism. The campus had been hostile to issues of women. They haven’t got any kind of support from authorities while facing hostile campaigns. They have brought in patriarchy into the campus political discourse as a critical conceptual tool. There had been a tendency to tie PSF and WSF together by the general public as both were dissenting groups in the campus. On some of the issues, WSF and PSF worked together.
The decade of nineties is known for the autonomous Dalit movement in Andhra Pradesh. It was also the time around which craving for a strong identity had emerged in Dalit politics. In campus, in PSF the markers of distinction were loose. There has always been scope for non-Dalits participating in it. The ideological, political expression was informed by debates. As against this, Dalits came together and started a separate organization for themselves in the year 1994, with membership exclusively being given to students belonging to SCs and STs. It was named after B.R. Ambedkar, i.e., Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Students Association (hereafter ASA). It involved a separate expression of Dalit political and cultural identity. Students of SC and ST communities have strongly involved themselves and participated in this organization and evolved a new collective life. The PSF was weakened with the shift of support of Dalits to ASA.
Around this time, a separate cultural and literary organization named Visphotana had come into existence. It enabled and encouraged students to write poetry and engage in discussions over current trends in Telugu literature like Dalit, feminist and revolutionary literature. It conducted seminars, poetry-meets and ran wall magazines containing poems of outstanding Telugu writers as well as poems by students. A considerable number of women students also participated in its activities. This organization became the literary articulation of the agony of many Dalit students and produced a good number of writers in Telugu literature in later times. This literary organization filled the vacuum left by the PSF in negotiating the different political identities of campus.
In the mean time, two shocking incidents happened on campus in the year 1995, one was the suicide of a Dalit women student and the other, the rape of an upper caste woman student. These two incidents generated a lot of political debate among the various groups of students. Students mobilized in their struggle against these incidents with their respective political stands.
A Dalit woman named Suneetha had committed suicide after being betrayed by an upper caste Reddy student who had promised to marry her. People across political spectrums participated in the beginning. Later PSF, ASA and WSF together led the agitation and went to the village of the upper caste student and campaigned in the village to boycott the family of the accused. In support of this, they mobilized the local democratic organizations. An enormous amount of debate took place among the organizations involved in the issues. They analysed the issue varyingly, as per one’s perspective, as involving caste or gender as the primary analytical category. ASA considered this issue as primarily a caste issue and later a gender issue. Women Students’ forum considered this issue as primarily gender and then caste. PSF considered this as caste, gender and class issue. Whereas upper caste students considered this as a humanistic issue rather than any other. Visphotana brought out a booklet containing the poems written on this issue by the students on campus, named as ‘Suneetha Poddunne Posterai Palakaristundi’.
Another incident that led to a lot of political debate happened on August 15, 1995. That day, some villagers from one of the villages that surround the University, raped a woman research scholar on campus while passing out of the women’s hostel. The campus as a whole was shocked. All students agitated for the nabbing of the culprits immediately. There were regular meetings on the campus to discuss the future course of agitation on this issue. The important idea that had come up for discussion was that women should be given leadership as it involves intricate matters relating to women’s dignity and since it is a ‘women issue’. There was another view, predominantly from the men – that there should be equal representation of men and women and described it as ‘human issue’. All the campus organizations were actively participating in this struggle.
ASA had put as one of its demands an ex-gratia of two lakh rupees to the rape victim in its pamphlet supporting the agitation. The demand of ex-gratia created havoc among the upper caste, middle class women of the campus. They got irritated. They demanded an apology for mentioning a ‘price for women’s dignity’. In that charged atmosphere one of the faculty commented, ‘we are so insensitive to women, let us accept that all men are bastards, including me’. This caused an enormous frustration among men and a big procession took place to attack that faculty member. They demanded that the faculty member should be suspended immediately. The women students as a whole came in support of that particular faculty member and from men only a few individuals of PSF came to protect him from a mob attack. That led to huge processions and counter processions over this issue. Men and women were totally divided on this issue. There was no talk between men and women even among friends for a few days. The main issue got sidetracked. The point to note here is that the Dalit students of ASA were compelled to turn against women and upper caste men came in support of ASA in the name of ‘men’s pride’. This reveals inbuilt contradictions and possible political alliances in the given context. In the following elections to the Students’ Union a Dalit student got elected with a huge margin (not a member of ASA) against a woman who contested from the PSF banner who lost. The guess is that women didn’t vote to a women candidate even after such a sharp divide.
Let me explain the issues involved and the functioning of ASA. ASA has gradually become the sole representative voice of the Dalit community on campus. The ways of expressing solidarity among Dalit community has assumed new ways. A huge gathering takes place on the occasion of the birth and death anniversaries of Ambedkar every year. This is the spectacle through which the strength of the Dalits is shown in public. A strong network of Dalit students was established in each and every hostel through forming hostel committees and celebrating Ambedkar anniversaries through them. They continue the fight against attitudes of awarding less marks by upper caste teachers, which PSF had done earlier. They have put sustained pressure on the authorities to follow reservations in admissions. They demanded seats for Dalit students in research every year as it has become a common practice in selections to leave the seats of SCs and STs vacant.
To strengthen itself, ASA usually projects the PSF, as a Naxalite leaning students organization. It consciously tried to keep Dalit students out of the fold of PSF. Involvement in PSF was seen to be inviting the unnecessary risk of police involvement. This was to confront with the informed political debates from outside ASA. The speakers invited for the functions were Dalit ministers, successful Dalit officers and Dalit leaders like Katti Padma Rao. Other than the celebration meetings of Ambedkar, it organizes meetings to politicise Dalit students. It confines itself to activities related only to the Dalit community. Ideologically, it defines its position as assimilating Marxism with Ambedkarism for the liberation of Dalits. The campus witnessed the confrontation of Dalit students of PSF and ASA on many isolated incidents. More than ideological fights, the conflict was to establish its organizational hold on campus. On many occasions, both worked together also. In later days, PSF was slowly disappearing and the individuals of the earlier active members of PSF remained to mediate various Dalit and women groups in crucial times. Whatever the anti-Dalit attitude shown by the students of upper caste at PSF were now turned against ASA.
Within Andhra Pradesh, there emerged the Madiga Dandora, a movement which demanded the categorization of SC reservations between Dalit sub-castes. Madigas, along with some other smaller castes, are relatively deprived in accessing the benefits of SC reservations. All over the state, there emerged a phenomenon of separate Madiga organizations. In the University of Hyderabad also, the numerically small Madiga community had gone away from ASA and formed themselves into a separate organization named Dalit Students Union (DSU) in 1996-97. This organization has been facing problems due to its numerically less number. ASA remained predominantly a Mala organization. Due to mutual hostilities, these communities could not engage in any negotiations with each other. These communities always organized themselves with reference to other community. DSU too organized along the same lines as ASA. But the difference was that it involved Madiga leaders and employees. If ASA was supporting one group, DSU used to support another group in the students’ elections by bargaining for one small post like cultural secretary or joint secretary.
There has always been a stereotype created of Dalits by the upper castes. This time, the round had come to ASA. ASA has made attempts to take part in the various activities of the University or to actively participate in the affairs of the University. For instance, they wanted to participate as mess secretaries in hostel messes. They want to participate in orchestra by dancing. They were otherwise left out of all the programmes. They wanted to make their presence more visible. When they participated as mess secretaries, they were projected as corrupt. Anybody can be corrupt, but projecting it as the character of the community leads to a situation of hostility and confrontation. When they participated in the University functions like orchestra, they were projected as troublemakers and creators of terror. There are other stereotypes in circulation as scholarship holders swallowing govt. money etc. They are also portrayed as violent people. These stereotypes cannot be changed without public articulation. The major problem of the campus Dalit politics is that when one articulates the problem of Dalits in public they are bound to be stereotyped, ridiculed and made to be defeated in a deeply entrenched casteist society. There was no other possible way to convince the public except to thrash and scold out of hopelessness and bitterness. This is again branded as violence and the entire community is depicted as violent. It appears that there is no possibility of going beyond this in the near future. It needs a deep politicisation from both sides. For Dalits, language (English skills) and sophistication is always a problem to express their genuine justified positions in the public space of University.
The upper caste students do not need any organization or agitation since their interests are always safeguarded by the University system. The nexus between students-teachers-administration of upper castes is very strong. The whole system is totally dominated by them. So, their interests are taken care of by this dominant system. They project themselves as ‘against politics’ and ‘only for academics’. The imagined threat from the Dalit students too is not ruled out. After the AMCF, there was no organization formed for upper caste students, though spontaneously they responded in many issues in the name of ‘students’. In late nineties, there were efforts from the upper castes to start organizations. ‘Discovery’ and ‘Bermuda’ are such organizations and which later formed as ABVP. Both ‘Discovery’ and ‘Bermuda’ didn’t have any formal structures. They propagate and circulate stereotypes about Dalits and women through secret posters. Especially the ‘Bermuda’ publishes secret, vulgar posters particularly aimed at womens’ activities. These stereotypes are actively propagated in their informal conversations. They never come out in public. But ‘Discovery’ group organizes public seminars with figures like Arun Shourie, Gurumurthy of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch etc. Discovery has also been organizing RSS sakhas in the campus. These two groups are active mobilisers and lead whenever there is a procession against Dalits. They used to mobilize upper caste votes and also played a crucial role in choosing candidates from the upper caste side. They have also developed a strategy to place Dalit, Muslim or women candidates loyal to the Hindutva ideology to nullify the claims of the actual groups articulating on behalf of them. With the Hindutva forces in power, they created an atmosphere to formally begin a branch of the pro-Hindutva, upper caste ABVP in campus. Both upper caste students and the administration had by then picked up courage to confront and negate Dalit students on campus. This happened in the early years of this decade.
Apart from this, University Discussion Forum (UDF), a liberal upper caste organization, with leanings towards the CPI (M) is active on campus and had managed to win the Students Union elections. Though progressive, its strength lies in deliberately keeping away from ASA, otherwise it will lose its upper caste base. Later days, UDF came out with its own identity as SFI. This was often under the leadership of Kamma students belonging to left politics. Later it was consolidated with increasing membership of students from Kerala and West Bengal.
On 13th January 2002, ten Dalit research scholars of ASA were rusticated from University of Hyderabad for allegedly beating the chief warden and another warden. The rustication of students was unprecedented either in this University or any other Universities of the country. This had once again shown the vulnerable situation of Dalits even in a modern liberal institution like the University. This had invited protests from Dalits and other democratic forces all over the country. This incident was a culminating point for Dalit politics over a period of a decade in the University of Hyderabad. It provided an occasion to retrospectively look at the complex and the torturous journey of Dalit politics spanning over more than a decade in an elite University.
In course of time, the campus is aligned in the lines of United Democratic Alliance (ASA, DSU, Women’s Collective, United Students Forum, collectively known as UDA), UDF and ABVP at the time of the Students’ Union general elections of 2005. UDF panel got elected over UDA and marginalized ABVP. The successive defeats of ABVP made them to install the portrait of Vivekananda in hostels (as a propaganda measure), which became a point of controversy. ABVP justified this as an honour to a national youth leader. The other organizations UDA and UDF oppose this as an issue of ABVP’s effort at communalisation of the campus. Vivekanada was considered as a symbol of Hindutva appropriated by Hindu communal forces. ASA had taken a stand that Vivekananda should be opposed as a Brahminical ideologue who supported the caste system. The undercurrent of struggle over symbols is an act of political assertion of social groups of the campus. The ABVP poses a question logically, when the portrait of Ambedkar is allowed, why not Vivekananda? All these reflect the struggles at a symbolic level between the students of progressives, lower castes and upper castes.
In the wake of identity politics of late 2000s, there are many organizations formed in the university to exclusively articulate their political positions. The dalit students , apart from ASA and DSU, organized in the name of Tribal Students’ Forum (TSF) and Bahujan Students Front (BSF). With the intensified struggle for a separate Telangana state, Telangana Students Association (TSA) and Telangana Vidyardhi Vedika (TVV) were formed in the campus. Though these are small organizations compared to others organizations of the university they made a conscious effort to etch their identity in the campus. Interestingly, there is a convergence among these groups as most of the students of these organizations are from Telangana region. In students’ union elections of 2012-13, they formed as a third front alliance partners against ASA-SFI front and ABVP.
With the emergence of ABVP as a force, both ASA and SFI have not only changed their strategies to consolidate their organizations, but were also compelled to form alliance and starte sharing the power in students union in 2010-11. From 2012 onwards, ASA has started contesting independently or by forming the United Democratic Alliance (UDA) by bringing BSF, TSF, DSU , OBCA and muslim students association SIO and MSF. The muslim students from Kerala, Kashmir and Hyderabad are active in forming the muslim students organizations. The muslim students of Kashmir and Kerala have their own political context. NSUI too started its organization in 2012 but its presence is minimal. Because of dalits presence in this group, they too usually support ASA. The winning of students union election gave new energy to ASA and other side ABVP is not in a position to elect in students union election from the last seven years. The alliance groups of SFI and ASA alliance groups to an extent checked the ABVP. After BJP came into power, ABVP is trying its level best to consolidate its strength and started contesting power of both left and dalit students in the campus. ABVP is desperate to establish its supremacy and to win the students elections in the regime of BJP government. Interestingly muslim students started supporting the ASA rather than aligning with SFI. It is a definitely new experience for ASA. The dalit students are started articulating the issues relating to muslims. On one hand ASA base is expanding and on other hand it become a challenge for ASA to sustain a movement.
In the University of Hyderabad, ASA is a major students organization. The students politics of campus are with mostly drawn with reference to dalit politics mediated by ASA. ASA is an Ambedkarite students’ organization. This is mostly dominated by Mala students of coastal Andhra. Mala students are numerically more than Madiga students in the campus. On the other hand Madiga students are associated with DSU and half of the its madiga students are drawn from Telangana region. Though the Ambedkar students association having the dominance of Mala students, symbolically it made an attempt to provide space for Madiga, tribal and recently muslim students. There are occasions Madiga students of ASA contested and were elected as President in Students’ Union elections. DSU too extended support to ASA on these occasions. Tribal students too contested on the banner of ASA for presidential post in election. Under ASA banner, even some of the upper caste students elected for students union elections. In campus space, ASA has often projected by the upper caste in negative shade. They often viewed as a violent force in the campus. Both administration and teaching community targets the ASA. On the other hand, SFI projects ASA as a casteist and ABVP as communal. SFI even try to propagate the ASA that it does not have strong political commitment. For them only class politics are real and deliberately keep silence about caste. Because of articulating skill and their social background, SFI cadre belief that their politics are ultimate and morally correct. In every aspect their political arrogance is visible in public. In reality, SFI and ASA compete each other in sharing or winning the upper conscious in their favour by targeting the dalit politics of campus. Both even cleverly attempt to bring one of the dalit force under their fold to conceal their caste bias on one hand and to win electoral politics. But on occasions SFI and ASA are compelled to come together to get elected their candidates. But ideologically we find no convergence between them. There is no conscious attempt from both sides to open up new ideological ground.
The origin of ABVP has to be seen in the Anti-Mandal student agitation run by AMCF. This is predominantly articulated upper caste groups. Its students base is mostly from the sciences and numerically strong computer sciences. This includes students from North India, backward castes and non-dalit rural groups. In other words, the students who consider themselves apolitical will identify with ABVP. They are conscious and constant in their critical attitude towards the everyday politics of dalits by treating as nuisance of campus. They used to get encouragement from the teaching staff of HCU as most of them are Brahmin community. The internal anger of upper caste students and intolerance towards dalits often reflects as patriotism as ideal. The upper caste middle caste attitude is presented as normal and genuine by the public sphere. In campus public sphere, they view themselves as meritorious and their concern is only pursuing education others viewed as disturbance to campus and so to the nation.
The students’ organizations and their politics indicate the social and political dynamics of Indian society. There is no doubt that in post- Mandal India, dalit politics has emerged as a major and crucial political force. Dalit students in HCU are ideologically transformed from the Progressive students Forum to Ambedkar students Association. They have a ideological journey from radical left position to radical Ambedkarism by inventing dalit self. Politically dalit students are conscious of keeping away from the liberal left politics such as mediated by SFI. In the course of dalit consolidation, dalit politics too opens up to its internal contradictions. Each dalit social group wants its own autonomy and seeks recognition in public domain. Sharing the opportunities and power is a real challenge among the dalit social groups. Both realized the importance of social solidarity in dalit politics with reference to upper caste enemy but at the same time ready to whatever extent against the other dalit to politically gain or retains its identity. In course of time, dalit groups started consolidating one against another by leaving the potential upper caste enemy. Their relation ends up with suspicion to each other. The mala students dominated ASA and madiga students organization DSU are caught in this tussle in the campus. Both have a political compulsion to come together but at the same time resource mobilization is primary for both at the cost of negating the other. Formation of Tribal students Forum as an independent association reveals the ineffectiveness of dalit politics in articulating the issues of tribals. Dalit politics are still at rhetoric level in addressing the tribal specific issues.
However the entry of the Dalits into the space of the University not just built a more creative space within the political atmosphere of the University. Apart from democratization of campus, dalit students and their organizations reproduced their knowledge systems. They reshaped the intellectual output from the Social Sciences and Humanities departments. Though the upper caste teachers/scholars repeatedly blame the Dalits for “bringing down” the academic standards, the truth is that, the insistent intellectual questioning by Dalit scholars have actually redefined these very disciplines. The upper caste has started articulating this situation as crisis of social sciences and humanities. University of Hyderabad, in that sense, is a pioneering institution that has created many ground breaking dissertations from the nascent Dalit scholarship. It has been quite a fertile ground for production of a thriving Dalit intelligentsia, both women and men who are still actively contributing to the literary, cultural, and scholarly fields. The University students and alumni very often provide the political leadership for dalit struggles in A.P and Telangana states.
Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is a writer and professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi. He received Ph.D. degree from University of Hyderabad. He authored ‘Political Philosophy of Ambedkar: An Inquiry into the Theoretical Foundations of the Dalit movement’, ‘Jiddu Krishnamurti: A Critical study of Tradition and Revolution and Dalita Vudhyamam: Velugu Needalu (Compilation of essays on Dalit Movement in Telugu).
He regularly writes on issues relating to literary and cultural politics of dalits. He maintains a blog untouchablespring.blogspot.com