Round Table India
This is the transcription of Round Table India‘s interaction with Prof Vivek Kumar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, for the Ambedkar Age series of films.
In the interview, Prof Vivek Kumar touches upon a vast range of subjects, including the contours of Indian politics in the last four decades, the Bahujan movement, Dalit assertion and literature etc. He talks about the conceptualisation of the Bahujan Movement by Saheb Kanshi Ram, and its evolution and growth over the years. He also shares experiences from his own participation in the movement as a journalist, researcher, teacher, writer and public intellectual.
The interview was conducted by Kuffir along with Pushpendra Johar, a research scholar, and produced by Gurinder Azad. It has been transcribed by Khushahal Thool and Vinay Shende.
In the Ambedkar Age series of videos, Round Table India aims to produce documentaries, interviews, and talks on contemporary issues, and debates from a Dalit Bahujan perspective.
Question: Jai Bhim. Welcome to Ambedkar Age. In this episode, we talk to Professor Vivek Kumar of Centre for Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, JNU. Welcome to Ambedkar age. Pushpendra Johar who is a research scholar will be helping me in this interview.
Sir, shall we start from the beginning? From where you started, from Lucknow, your education and a bit of background? Because not many of us know your evolution as a thinker and a scholar and we would like to know about that.
Vivek Kumar: I started from Lucknow and I was born in Lucknow, but after 4-5 years we went to a small place in western Uttar Pradesh (UP), that was Afzalgarh. It is in the district of Bijnor where my father was posted. There we lived in a small tehsil which did not have electricity. There were no schools where you could study English, so we used to sit on mats with wooden slates and wooden pens. I started writing ABC and learnt some things there. But my father soon realised that being in that place they would spoil the career of their son, so he came back and left me in Lucknow. So I grew up in Lucknow and also studied there. After passing my Intermediate there was an initial hiccup. I was a science student and could not do well in science and I wanted to take up arts (stream) but my father was very particular that science (stream) had to be there. So I ran away from home and that was a little bit of tug of war between me and my father but later on he also realised that this man (I) was not going to change. In fact, he had written me off totally, (thinking) that I will not be of any use because I was so hell bent on studying arts, but I completed my B.A. in sociology and then I did my M.A.
At that time I had a little bit of a notion that if I wanted to understand my society this was the only discipline (sociology) that I could do, and I started liking it. I did my M.A. in sociology from there and after that I came to JNU. I did another M.A. here, then M.Phil and after that I did my PhD here – that is the way I started. But the best thing that I got is a person –with the name Professor Nandu Ram- as my supervisor and I think his imprint on me and his training has led to what I am today. So I not only remember my mother and father but I also remember my supervisor in the same breath because of their contributions. My mother was illiterate, she did not know much. My father was of course a post graduate from Lucknow University. So he knew the value of education. You can understand the scene with my mother; when I wrote my PhD and I gave it to her “look this is what I have written” the only thing which she said in Hindi was “aur moti kitaab likho (write even more fatter books)” and it has become very prophetic that I have been writing books after that.
Question: This was during the early 1990s?
Vivek Kumar: Yeah 1995-96, I am talking about.
Question: Ok. So that’s how you came into research and your career in academia started. But you also worked in other places. You worked as a teacher in TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) and you also worked as a bureaucrat, as a babu and then you worked in the NGO sector (Development Sector) and then you also worked as a journalist. Can you talk about this multifaceted career?
Vivek Kumar: You know I think my discipline in sociology gave me an underpinning so that I could understand society better and that took me towards a little bit of more understanding. During that period, my father was hell bent that I should become a bureaucrat so I filled up the form of Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission (UPPSC) and I got through. I was posted in Lucknow in the secretariat and in the secretariat, I could do a little bit of that job. But I did not like it you know. It was just like pleasing bureaucrats and I being a PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, it was not gelling with my knowledge so I left.
I joined “The Pioneer” as a consultant/political analyst and I created my own beat on Dalits. I started writing. I started enjoying but that was not giving much of bread and butter. It was a very meagre paying job. I wrote there as a weekly columnist in Hindi Pioneer. It was another experience wherein I could express myself. But in the meantime, ActionAid India had come and they wanted a consultant so I worked as a part-time consultant as well and I became their UP consultant for some very good work they were doing. They were trying to understand the presence of untouchability in Uttar Pradesh. They were studying 13 states but UP was the one where I had worked. At that time UP was united. I did field work in Malaitha in Uttarakhand and you know walking down kilometres after kilometres on foot and reaching a village and understanding a village in the hilly areas — that was another experience.
While I was doing M.Phil, I had got a job in Tata Institute of Social Sciences in the unit of ‘sociology for education’. But I soon realised that Tata Institute was a research institute rather than a teaching institute. And instead of learning, I would de-learn so I thought – let me return. I came back and completed my PhD in JNU. So that’s in a way one epoch of my life. One after the other I went through had different experiences but the mainstay was primarily in my discipline of sociology that helped me to understand society, bureaucracy, media as well as civil society.
Question: Yes. Thank you… So Dalit Chetna is the column you mentioned, could you talk about that a little bit? It might be one of the first Dalit journalistic experiences in a national newspaper.
Vivek Kumar: In English newspapers, Chandra Bhan Prasad was writing Dalit Diary. So Pioneer started a Hindi weekly and they wanted to start the column. I was there, preparing for civil services and after that, I was actually trying to leave my job. So they asked me to write and I joined the service and started writing a weekly column. The Pioneer, of course, was a new experience but people started taking it hand to hand and it sold like hot cakes. People would react, recognise; there were lots of letters that were coming. The Institute/Pioneer was also very happy that all of a sudden their magazine was being recognised, and that too by Dalits. So that was a beginning in Hindi somewhere: a weekly column in a magazine and that too in a mainstream magazine was written and was well received. So again my sociology knowledge bailed me out there as well
Question: So do you think this was the first time, that this was a kind of a unique effort, first time after 50 years of independence that Dalit journalists were encouraged to write in a national newspaper in English and other languages like Hindi? The historic background to this is the fact that Bahujan movement had also been building up throughout the 1980s and 70s. So could you talk about your views on this?
Vivek Kumar: I think we are socialized in this ideology because Kanshiram had arrived on the scene and all of a sudden Bahujan Samaj Party had come to power, in 1995. BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) had established itself. The whole mobilization in Uttar Pradesh was a totally different atmosphere with an ideological tinge of Phule on one hand and Babasaheb Ambedkar was already there. But Phule, Sahu, Narayana Guru, Periyar then Savitribai Phule: all were all of a sudden there and people started recognising that look there is a parallel line, and at a time when Jai Shri Ram was also there. So Jai Shri Ram and Jai Bhim were being pitched together. That was a really new experience. Buddhism at that time was also taking its shape. Ambedkar Mahasabha had also come up in Lucknow. They used to organise seminars and conferences led by Bahujan Samaj Party’s ideology of Bahujan movement.
So, we in the 1990s were a different youth. Before that, there used to be this NSUI (National Students Union of India), of Congress. Our Dalit students were much more in the Congress regime. So this was a very new experience of Ambedkarite movement, Phule movement and Bahujans also started tasting power. All of a sudden they said that, OK why can’t we be a part of this movement and they started (joining it). So, my writing of that column was coterminous with the emergence of the Bahujan intelligentsia, Bahujan gentry (and consciousness) who would read it, and Pioneer was swift enough to understand that there was a market. So, on the one hand, there was a rising consciousness, there was a rising political party movement and that somebody was there to write something and that was Vivek Kumar.
Question: Yes. You talked about Jai Bhim and Jai Shri Ram being pitched together while Bahujan consciousness was building up and as you pointed out, these two have to be understood parallelly. This new Jai Shri Ram consciousness of Hindutva centered around a militant projection of Hindu symbols. It had begun in the 1980s, starting with the Ram Mandir issue and this is building up even now, resulting eventually over the years and decades in the Modi Rule. So how do you see this progress — as the Bahujan movement has been building up, parallelly, this (Hindutva) movement has also been building up. What is your perspective on this?
Vivek Kumar: You know, one thing is for sure that for Indian society at that time when Bahujan movement was building up, it was a very new experiential reality because that was the time when Bahujan movement incorporated not only scheduled castes for the first time… Even though Republican Party of India (RPI) was there, it was mostly confined to Dalits. Kanshi Ram was trying to appeal to all the backward classes. He was trying to appeal to minorities, Dalits, Adivasis. So this experience involved a new iconography altogether. People were ready to identify with them. This created lot of fear among the other side and I am specifically talking about Congress. Congress was decimated and there was a new force which was emerging. But by nature, Indian society is a religious society and the way Bharatiya Janata Party started appealing along religious lines…
It can be a difficult fight if you really do not have a counter ideology or a counter hegemony to decimate or stop it. Nobody could stop it because of that feeling, that emotion erupted from everywhere and I will hold the socialist lobby responsible for it. They did so by giving space to the Left and legitimacy to the Rightist forces. Advani or Vajpayee – they were all in the Janata Party and they got elected. Jan Sangh was a failure. Jan Sangh was nowhere. A new lease of life was given by Jayaprakash Narayan who was leading a ’total revolution’. Whereas this was meant to be a ‘total confusion’, because it was neither this nor that: Right, Centre, Left, everybody was there. It was anti-Congressism.
But the legitimacy which Vajpayee and Advani got in 1975, it kept them, it gave them further oxygen. And there in the 1980s, they formed a new political party that was Bharatiya Janata Party. Now again if you take Bhartiya Janata Party: it was only 2 people, but who gave them legitimacy? It was Vishwanath Pratap Singh, in the name of anti-Congressism they came together and they contested. Even Mulayam Singh Yadav contested along with them. Janata Dal and BJP were contesting elections together. They gave another lease of life and after that when Vishwanath Pratap Singh formed the government, on one hand, the Left led by Harkishan Singh Surjeet and the right wing (on the other hand) who supported them. So the type of legitimacy which was granted to them, that made them a more credible force. After that it was free for all – Mamata, Samata, Jayalalithaa – they were all actually, you know, combining and contesting elections. Mind you, BSP formed a government (with BJP) but never contested election along with BJP. They were finding a coalition, a government. People said it was an alliance. It was not an alliance. Alliance is a different ball game from a coalition government.
Bahujan Samaj Party did form a coalition government but never contested elections along with them (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh. Rather, if you take, for example, TDP (Telugu Desam Party) it contested elections, Mamta contested elections, Samata contested elections; all these parties/people contested elections along with BJP, sharing the dais and speeches as well as programs. So the whole communal forces were given legitimacy by the socialists as well as by the people who came from outside. But what happens is that it is always Mayawati who is blamed, BSP is blamed that they formed the government with BJP. In Hindi, we say “samrath ko nahi dos gosain” which means the powerful cannot be blamed anytime, it is only the oppressed who is to be blamed. That is why I say that legitimacy was being given by powerful socialists as well as leftist lobbies as well and also by other political parties which are there in Southern and Western India. BJD was with them, Nitish was also with BJP but they are never termed as communal. My problem is with this, that if Mamata, Jayalalithas, TDP, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish etc have at some point joined hands with BJP, why are they not termed as communal? Why is it that only BSP is blamed as communal? This is something which is beyond my comprehension.
Question: So there is another question which arises from this. We have to understand that BJP has, in the Northern belt, in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana; it has become a kind of hegemonic consciousness, (a space) which the Congress used to occupy. They used to call all Indian politics as Congress system of politics. In these places, from Gujarat to Bihar, even if BJP doesn’t win in Bihar, it has a presence, consciousness-wise. It has become the national consciousness – the Hindutva consciousness – in some cases. So BSP and other parties that could have given competition to BJP also formed an alternative consciousness. So how did the Congress, which was such an all pervasive influence everywhere, fail? Apart from political reasons, how could it have failed? What were the other social and economic factors which gave impetus to BJP’s rise in such a strong way in these parts of India?
Vivek Kumar: I will say that there is a difference between Congress party and BJP.
Question: I am asking, you know, how did this Congress party fail and BJP succeed?
Vivek Kumar: That’s what I’m saying. Congress never had a parent social organisation, as in an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) type of organisation, which forms the ideological fulcrum and it is they who supplied cadres to the politics. Congress was an end in itself – a mere ‘secular’ binding force. Though the brahmins did rule it, but you know, the legitimacy to RSS was given by none other than Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi supported soft Hindutva. Not only Indira Gandhi, from Jawaharlal Nehru, Purushottam Lal Tandon and others, have always supported soft Hindutva within themselves. So there was not much difference at that time when Congress was actually sliding down and BJP was trying to rise. In fact, Congress had more of a communal agenda at that time. Whether it was the Shah Bano case or whether it was the opening of the Babri Masjid locks. So what was Rajiv Gandhi doing?
Rajiv Gandhi was trying to usurp the agenda which ultimately Narasimha Rao would take up: that ok, let them actually demolish Babri Masjid. And he was a Prime Minister at that time, he had taken the oath. But the worst part is that nobody is talking about the brahminical domination which gradually BJP is heading towards and this comes from a very hardcore agenda of RSS. Whether it is the South Indian brahmin specifically in the RSS lobby, from Hedgewar to Bhagwat, all come from the southern India, Deccan I would say, where I think this whole reactionary type of politics began because that is also where the anti-brahmin movement started. And that is where the brahmins were decimated in the beginning and after that, you see that a very formidable full-fledged organisation came from there. Today we see that reflection in the central government.
You start from the speaker who is a brahmin, your HRD Minister is a brahmin, your Defence Minister is a brahmin, your Railway Minister is a brahmin, your Health Minister is a brahmin, your Roads and Transport minister is a brahmin, Small Scale and Medium Scale Industries minister is a brahmin, your Chemicals and Fertilizers Minister is a brahmin. So you can see that is how monopolization of power has taken place. It looks like a Peshwai, which was never there earlier. So in that context, I think the Congress party which was only a political party without a social and ideological base, started dwindling away during the neoliberal economy period because they wanted legitimacy from every side. So they brought Maran, they brought lower level forces which were trying to monopolize power. The worst part was Congress deliberately decimated their local leaders. They decimated people from Bihar, they decimated people from Uttar Pradesh. You take Narayan Dutt Tiwari to Vishwanath Pratap Singh, all were demolished.
You start from Madhya Pradesh where Shyama Charan Shukla to Arjun Singhb – all of them were left high and dry. In Rajasthan, they lost Pilot. Only Gehlot was acceptable because he was closer to the (Gandhi) family, otherwise, he would have also been decimated. So they gradually lost and (because of) the utter failure of comprehending the ideological plank of BJP, you have Mr. Waghela as your own member in Gujarat, who was once upon a time the chief minister. Such is the ideological bankruptcy of the Congress that they gradually decimated all of them and one person should be held responsible for it. I was in conversation with one senior Congressman; he himself told me that it was Narasimha Rao who demolished Congress everywhere. Be it North, West or South; because he was feeling jittery at that time that he will not be able to survive the North Indian leaders. So the first person he chucked out was, of course, Narayan Dutt Tiwari. He also aligned with BSP. A 125-year-old political organisation aligned with a 25 years organisation, that is BSP. What was the ratio? 300 seats for BSP and 125 seats for Congress in Uttar Pradesh in 1996.
Question: We were talking about social consciousness, you know, the foundation of the Congress which was missing. But it was very evident in academia in some instances. Because most of the academia was filled with brahmins and other upper castes, who were actually posing as certain kind of left or alternative and they gave legitimacy to Congress. It’s own brand of socialism. Now you see these central universities, which are totally occupied by them. Even the state universities, they are also dominated by the upper castes, especially of the Congressi variety. Now the BJP and the Sangh plan to displace this older order and that’s how Rohith Vemula happened. I am coming to the current situation now. This is one reading of it. How do you think about this structure being occupied by the Sangh which earlier was all a Congress/Left bastion?
Vivek Kumar: One thing is for sure that when we started with this democracy, Babasaheb very rightly argued that it’s only a political democracy which meant one man one vote, one vote one value, and that social and economic democracy has to be brought in, but that has not happened. Gradually, the Institutions which were supposed to be functioning on universalistic principles with universal values of achievement orientation — I’m talking about the judiciary, I am taking of bureaucracy, universities, industry, civil society, media as an industry and so on. All these Institutions were supposed to work on universalistic principles of achievement. So anybody who has the required qualification, with the (backing of) legislations, could achieve it. But what has happened?
If you read Babasaheb Ambedkar, and Perry Anderson also wrote recently that the way Nehru came to power, I don’t think it was a democratic way that he came. He was declared a King and for the first time (in history) a brahmin became an all India level king after 1947. Never in the history of India was a brahmin ever an all India level ruler. It is for the first time that in 1947, that he was nominated. He was nominated as the Prime Minister of the country and what had happened was that the brahmins of Varanasi gave him a Rajdand and there was a sacrificial thing which was actually acquired. Now, this is basically an example of how the consolidation of the brahminical rule started in India, and after that what has happened? So many institutions were occupied. It appeared as if they were all democratic institutions, whether it was bureaucracy or other institutions, who were the people to come and occupy?
Even the welfare state which was trying to create residences, residents’ quarters, colonies: who were the people who occupied those facilities? It was basically brahmins who occupied the institutions of universities, civil society, bureaucracy, judiciary, everywhere. I think that the consolidation started after 1947. We see today the SC/ST commission’s fourth report – the Hanumanthappa report. These provide data that in 1935, the brahmin population was 5% and their representation in Class A coveted services was roughly to their percentage of the population which was 5%. But in 1979 this percentage rose to 78%. So this colossal and parallel rise is not out of place, it is not by accident. It is by design, that how one by one, with your own cultural capital, with your own people, with the nepotism how you started bringing your own people -Haksars, Dhars etc. They were everywhere. So in that sense, I think the monopolization of university is a handiwork of an ideology, which is the brahminical Ideology and these were the people to fit the bill. And once they got that head start they have multiplied it and they are multiplying it further, and despite legislations, reservations everywhere I don’t think that the things have changed.
The worst hit is the curriculum. You can easily say that “oh there are no people (from reserved categories). How will I appoint a professor? How will I appoint an assistant professor?” But if you are democratic enough, if you are morally strong and democratic, then at least you will make a representative curriculum. You have not even made a representative curriculum; instead, you have monopolized the curriculum. And that is what is problematic, that education has not become emancipatory. It has become status quoist because there are no representative values. There are no work ethics, there is no respect for work – hand work and there is no agenda for democratization. Therefore I think this monopolization of the university and the curriculum (status quoist curriculum) doesn’t have any emancipatory agenda and Rohith Vemula is the outcome of this monopolization.
Please read the second (and final) part of the interview here.
Khushahal Thool is pursuing his PhD in IIT, Bombay. Vinay Shende is an Ambedkarite working in the Corporate Sector.