I met Bhatta Ram for the first time at the Interaction Programme organised by the Ambedkarite Students’ Association in July, 2018. A sharp-looking boy, he was sitting among the students, listening to every word carefully. Once you meet him you will not forget his appearance. After that meeting, I was away for my PhD data collection until the end of August, and then left for Austria for a one-semester student exchange programme during my PhD. Despite being away from the campus, I kept in touch with Bhatta Ram through social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook.
When I returned from the United Kingdom (UK) in February 2019, Bhatta Ram was the first one to whom I offered chocolates brought from Austria. I always admire him for his dedication and commitment towards society. By appearance, he might be thin, but when you interact with him you would realise how strong he is. By exchanging words with him, you might feel that he can’t speak English as fluently as students from English medium backgrounds. But if you spend a few minutes with him, you would realise how deeply sensitive and dedicated he is to contribute to the community.
Bhatta Ram is contesting elections for the post of President in the Students’ Union of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, 2019. Coming from an economically weak background, it was the biggest challenge for him to complete the journey to where he has arrived today. He hails from Tapra village in Barmer district, Rajasthan located on the India-Pakistan border. He was associated with the DAGAR movement lead by Bhanwar Meghwanshi in central Rajasthan. He had lad the struggle of Kaludi village where 70 Dalit familes were forced to migrate due to caste-based atrocities. He studied at the village government primary and secondary Hindi medium school. The Dalit students in his village primary school were not allowed to have even mid-day-meals together with so-called ‘upper caste’ students. Bhatta Ram writes in his paper published on Round Table India about how caste violence affects the everyday lives of Dalits in Rajasthan. Moreover, speaking confidently in public places, and more importantly, with the upper castes is generally considered to be a caste crime in the village. As a result, our people are not able to build their abilities in the same manner as upper castes. However, he could build himself into a confident man and come from a caste-based village to a metropolitan city like Mumbai.
After his undergraduate degree, he spent nearly 8 months at Nalanda Academy, Wardha, Maharashtra, under the guidance of Anoop Kumar, a well-known activist and academician. The purpose behind this was to prepare for the entrance examinations of higher educational institutions like TISS, JNU etc. He got through the entrance for the Water Policy and Governance programme at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai campus. The pain that he observed in his community and witnessed in his village has made him stronger in his resolve to work in a constructive manner for the community. He has made his best contributions through various activities conducted by Ambedkarite Students Association (ASA) as well as the previous Students’ Union. He was the student representative of Dining Hall Committee during the academic year 2018-2019.
When we used to discuss about caste violence, he would say.”from taking birth in a Dalit family in a state like Rajasthan, to reaching here, was not an easy journey This is a place where an interaction with an unknown person starts with asking the person’s name and caste. If the upper caste person gets to know of one’s caste, then they choose not to interact with him/her if s/he belongs to a lower caste”. It is not a new thing in India. Caste has become one of the serious problems that is found not only among the Hindus, but among other religions too. When I was in the UK, people would often ask me about caste and gender-based violence in India. I would tell them that caste is practised in all the religions, and they would be surprised. I suggested that they watch ‘India Untouched’, a documentary film made by Mr. Stalin K. This documentary film gives a glimpse of how the caste-based hierarchy is practised by Christians, Sikhs, Muslims and people of various other religions in India.
The annihilation of caste is the end goal of the Ambedkarite movement which would not be possible to attain by simply talking about it. Moreover, political power is a must to contribute meaningfully to the society. There are constitutional organisation and institutions where one would find people from certain social groups, mainly forward castes, in top, powerful positions. Look at the recent data published by various newspapers about central universities and key government departments. It will certainly make you think about the idea of reservation and its practical realities. This is not a phenomenon found only in universities. Rather, it present is in almost all the government departments — state, central — and deemed-to-be Universities etc. They show the same kind of behaviour everywhere. In my research, I have coined the term ‘Social Corruption’. There is a need to raise voices against this and to secure representation to fight against such malpractices at constitutional institutions.
In this regard, I remember one of the dialogues from the Bollywood movie, ‘Super 30′ (2019) which has inspired me and many others. Thus, I really wish that there would be more Bhatta Rams who say,’ab raja ka beta raja nahi banega, raja wahi banega jo haqdaar hoga’ (‘no longer will the son of a king be a king, only one who is fit to be king shall be one’). Unfortunately, to make this true, it was a path-breaking journey for Mr. Anand Kumar as the founder of the ‘Super 30’ programme. He went through tremendous hardships and obstacles with his brother, mother and the hundreds of students who were part of this institution. In ‘Super 30’, his caste was not shown by the filmmaker, in order to make money, unlike in the movie ‘Article 15’ (2019), where the caste of the hero, was highlighted multiple times. Still, I welcome such movies, hoping that at least somewhere, debates among people of the oppressor castes would take place.
Bhatta Ram, coming from a similar background, carries the dream to contribute in more meaningful ways by assuming the leadership of the Students’ Union. I asked a few questions to him in this regard, to which he gave very analytical answers, as presented below:
Why do you think the President’s post is important for you?
Babasaheb told us us,”Go and write on your walls that you are the ruling community”. The reason Babasaheb said this was because he was very well aware of what can be done for the communities who have been kept away from the mainstream development process. I think that I can contribute in a far better way by assuming the post of President, than what I am doing as an individual. The recent protests, their methodology etc. could have been more constructive, keeping in view the contemporary regime in various states and at the centre, that has an impact on universities too, including ours. We should have learned from the movement for justice for Rohith Vemula. It was one of the highly sensitive and important movements in the history of Bahujan students’ movements. What happened at the end of that movement? The appointed committee gave the report saying that he is not Scheduled Caste (SC), he belongs to Other Backward Class (OBC) and hence, action can not be taken under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocity Act. What does that mean? They acted as though they had the license to kill the OBC students! The movement that rose in the name of Rohith Vemula, was somehow reduced to the question of whether he was SC or OBC, after which it was completely suppressed, and our leaders could not do much about it. This is how they rule. They divide the Bahujans and rule, no matter whether they are from Right or Left wing. We have to fight our own fight together as Bahujans. This is a fight of the oppressed against the oppressor.
How can you resolve the burning issues in the institute?
Look, the issues can be resolved and solutions can be found by having discussions, using the mind to overcome the problem, together with the administration. Any individual or group can not do much until the institution is convinced about finding ways with co-operation from the student representatives. If somebody thinks that the Students’ Union should work against the administration, then I would say this is a mistake, and a loss for marginalised communities. The administration is for the students. In Rajasthan, the Right to Information movement was invented and spread across India by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). Their slogan used to be “Hamara Paisa Hamara Hisab.” It means “our money, our account.” It’s all about accountability. Who is accountable to whom? I believe the Students’ Union is accountable to the larger student body, while the administration is accountable to the student body as well as their higher authorities. From the students’ side, it is the Students’ Union’s responsibility to make the system accountable. And to make the system accountable there are multiple ways: one of the best ways I find is to have a dialogue with the administration and arrive at possible solutions in favour of the student community.
What kind of solutions do you think are possible?
At present, there are key issues, one of which is the Hostel and Dining fees of the students from SC, ST and OBC (NC) categories. On this issue, there have been protests and agitations from our seniors and our students in all the campuses. Yet the administration has not agreed to our demands. After studying the issue, I understand it like this: as per the GoI PMS scheme there are minimal allowances for hostellers and for non-hostellers, which are not at all sufficient to meet the prescribed fees of the hostel and dining hall (DH). When I discussed this with my seniors, and even some professors, it came up, that if the policy had provisions for this and despite them, the administration did not implement them, we could have gone to court to seek justice. But since it is a policy-level gap, how can we fight the legal battle? So first, a collective effort should be made to put pressure on/work with the concerned ministry/department to correct the policy that includes more allowance for hostel and DH expenses. If we can do that, one of our important problems will be resolved. My first priority would be to work on this constructively.
About the off-campus issues, for instance, the Hyderabad campus hostel and DH fees. If we could resolve the policy issue, then the SC, ST, OBC (NC) students would be exempted from these. For the general category students, and those who are not eligible for the scholarship, we have to work with the administration to reduce these costs, raise financial aid through various means and make sure they would have to pay minimum fees.
Moreover, I have learned from my one year of experience of being in this campus that there is a need to have a healthy and sensitive dialogue with the administration with mutual respect. In my first week on this campus, a group of people organised a meeting in which they were just blaming the institute and trying to fill our minds with hatred. However, a few of our seniors clarified how these people wanted to capitalise on our issues for their political gains. I have hopes from the people who will fight collectively with me and those working in the system, despite differences of opinion and ways of work. I don’t have anything other than that – neither social-economic capital that will uplift me or Bahujans from problems. Therefore, I will certainly work closely with those students who want to resolve the issues and with the administration to find out the solutions to the problem. And I am sure if there is political and bureaucratic will, the solution will certainly be found.
However, it doesn’t mean that I will not protest and agitate on the gate or on roads, in and outside the institute against the institute and the ‘state’. I would always keep it as a last option; the reason behind it is not that we do not have the courage to go against the system, or that we don’t have capabilities to do that. Generations of us have been protesting; a protest is just not about gathering on the road and raising slogans but, for us to study in the institutions is also a form of protest against those who believe in the law of Manusmriti that says, “Shudras do not have the right to education”. Another key reason I keep protest as a last option is that most of us who come from socially and economically weaker and vernacular backgrounds need to spend more time in the classroom and library. To compete with those who have taken their education in English medium, good schools and metropolitan cities. If I ask my sisters and brothers to close their books and participate in protests on the road I think I am doing something wrong. But when there is no option, we have to close our books for the future generation, and we will do that as well, but at the same time we will also make sure that we are not used by those who have vested interests in our struggle.
How you see the campus politics now?
See, there are two sides. One is positive and the other is negative. I choose to talk on positive side and don’t prefer to talk negative about any individual or group existing in the campus. In the past we as Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan Students worked collectively since we come form similar pain and we had bounding togetherness for many years in campus social and political spaces. This continued until last to last year. But, this year the situation is quite different. A few of them have joined hands with the Left for the interest of some individuals may be, otherwise the left parties working method is to use and throw the Dalits and Adivasi or in national canvas Shudras that includes OBC too.
I will give a classic example from a couple of days back: Mr. D. Raja became General Secretary of Communist Party of India (CPI). The news was projected as, “For the first time in the history of the Communist Party of India (CPI), a ‘Dalit’ became the head of the party”. No matter that he is the General Secretary of the party, he will still be identified as the Dalit president of that party. Similarly, no matter that a Dalit, Adivasi or even OBC joins the Left or Right-wing parties, their identity will first be Dalit, Adivasi and Pichhda (Backward) etc.
What happened with the President of our country at Puri and at the temple in Rajasthan? It is in the news, you can google it. He was manhandled during the pooja in the Jagannath temple and denied entry to one of the temples in Rajasthan just because he is Dalit. However, later it was reported that, as his schedule did not allow him to go inside the temple, he performed pooja outside the temple. A similar statement was also issued by his office. I think this would only stop when we have the power to run such institutions, and do what Shahu Maharaj, the Maratha King in Maharashtra, did. He trained and appointed Bahujan priests for the first time in the history of India. How could do he it? Just because he had the decision-making power backed by his strong will. In our contemporary democracy, we should get such decision-making power that would make the actors in the system act in favour of Equality, Fraternity and Justice (social, economic and political). Therefore, I have hope that they will realise this and we will be together in the future for the larger cause.
In conclusion, I would say that the role of the Students’ Union is very crucial in the interest of the student community and the institute. We have to place emphasis on finding possible solutions to problems and make sure that justice is ensured by the institute. I am confident that I can do this both in my personal and professional capacities for the student community. My pain is my strength that gives me more power to fight for the justice of the larger community, especially those oppressed for thousands of years!
Nitin Dhaktode is currently pursuing PhD in Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.