A knock at the castle of knowledge

The road to social justice in the nation’s institutions of higher learning has been treacherous but we are closest yet to achieving Phule and Ambedkar’s dream

When, in the summer of 2006, then human resource development minister Arjun Singh announced reservations for OBCs in institutions of higher learning (Mandal II), there was a repeat of the anti-reservation drama that had rocked the nation when OBCs were given reservations in government jobs (Mandal I) in 1989, under the prime ministership of V.P. Singh. A few months earlier, on 25 November, a group of students of Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidhyalaya, Wardha – the only central university in Maharashtra – observed Manusmiriti Dahan Diwas by burning copies of the Manusmriti. This writer also CS1participated in the programme. Prior to that, the publication of a poem by Dalit poet Namdev Dhasal in Mooknayak, a wall magazine of the university, had stirred up the atmosphere. The poem was an expression of outrage against caste discrimination and declared that “A rod would be inserted into a particular organ of the person who asks another of his caste.” Dhasal was one of the founders of the militant Dalit Panthers movement, which had caused a stir on the university campuses of Maharashtra in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the forefront of the opposition to the poem were the Savarna postgraduate female students of the Women Studies department, some of whom went on to become professors in the same university. Their complaint went right up to the vice-chancellor, who coincidentally hailed from an OBC caste of south India. Even more important than what the VC ruled was that this protest reminded one of how girls put together a front against the historic initiative for ushering in social justice by providing reservations to OBCs in government jobs – an initiative that was to change the course of India’s future. At that time, female Savarna students of prestigious colleges of Delhi had come up with the slogan, “Don’t take away our husbands’ jobs”. This slogan was not only a casteist statement by educated, Savarna girls against inter-caste marriages but also exposed their male chauvinist and casteist outlook. They felt that only Savarna men had a right to government jobs. In the summer of 2006, too, a large number of Savarna girls studying engineering and medicine were up in arms against reservations for OBCs in higher education and adopted nauseatingly casteist methods of protest, such as sweeping the streets.

Dropping out no more

CS5But the arrow had been shot. This arrow of social justice was targeted on the Savarna domination of academic institutions and the protests referred to above were simply a manifestation of the pain of those pierced by the arrow. More bitter and cruel methods were subsequently used on university campuses to persecute the Dalit, Tribal, OBC and Pasmanda students. But history had changed its course and the presence of students of these communities on the university campuses grew stronger and more decisive by the day. Another important event took place parallel to Mandal-II. That was the appointment of Dalit economist Sukhdeo Thorat as the chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) – the apex higher education regulatory body of the country. He launched the Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship for Dalit students. That was followed by the Maulana Azad Fellowship for Muslim students, Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship for OBC students, special fellowships for female students and ultimately, a stipend for all research scholars in central universities. These fellowships provided a permanent solution to the problem of dropouts in higher education. Thus was inaugurated a new era in which the students of the socially deprived and ignored communities became a permanent feature of university campuses and began exerting positive pressure. Campuses changed, so did the issues on which students politics was centred. The orientation of teachers’ politics changed.

In this 69th year of independence, owing to the onward march of forces of social justice and opportunities made available to the deprived youths of the country, it is apparent that the achievements of this democratic nation are being set in concrete. Due to the constitutional provisions and their conscious implementation, the deprived youths are getting their space. The university campuses have been able to appreciate the Constitution-maker Dr Ambedkar’s call to get educated, get organized and struggle.

Atmosphere is changing

CS2The student union elections and political activities in the two leading universities of the national capital – Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University – draw nationwide attention. The changed political atmosphere on the campuses of these universities shows what the increased presence of Dalit, Tribal, OBC and Pasmanda students has done (See Abay Kumar’s report, “Assertion of Dalitbahujan discourse”). At the pan-India level, the activities of the students of these communities are serving the cause of social justice. (See Bahujan organizations keeping the flame aloft) But getting here wasn’t easy. Ratan Lal, an assistant professor of history in Delhi University’s prestigious Hindu College, recalls an incident from his student days. When he raised the issue of reservations for Dalit students in the university’s Jubilee Hall hostel, the Savarna students and the university administration, which was dominated by the Savarnas, turned against him. He was physically assaulted but this gritty young man was not one to give up. Born into a poor Dalit family in Bihar, he had reached this prestigious university battling against all odds, “The atmosphere has undergone a sea change. The impact of the rise in the number of teachers and students of the deprived communities is palpable.” Ratan Lal, who is now fighting for strict adherence to the rules of roster system in the recruitment of teachers in Hindu College, is the founder-convener of Youth For Social Justice.

In 2006, Youth For Equality performed spectacularly in the students’ union elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the bastion of left student politics. The unadulterated success of this anti-reservation group underscored the domination of the upper-caste students on campus. But the fact that the JNU campus has now turned “blue” will not be lost on even an outsider. Huge posters of Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule and Dr Ambedkar dot the campus and the walls are painted with their quotes. It is clear that the identity politics of the deprived communities is gaining ground. The functions organized by groups of Dalit, Tribal, OBC and Pasmanda students and their activities are increasingly finding place in the columns of newspapers. The insiders are well aware of the important role politics of identity plays in selection of candidates during elections.

Recently, IIT-Madras was forced to lift the ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle after bitter opposition from students’ organizations all over the country. This shows the influence the groups of students of deprived communities wield. It also shows that these groups now have a sizeable presence even in institutions that train technologists and are challenging the domination of the upper castes, being perpetuated in the garb of, among others, nationalism – an example being the Vivekananda Study Circle. Drawing inspiration from Ambedkar, Periyar and Phule, student groups also came out in protest against the ban on non-vegetarian dishes in the IIT mess (See Anand Teltumbde’s “Students teach RSS a lesson”). The growing number of Bahujan students on campuses has forced the Hindutavadi and nationalist Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) to adopt a more flexible attitude not only symbolically but also in terms of giving them representation.

This is the same organization that had launched an anti-reservation movement in Gujarat in 1981 (when reservations were in place only for Dalits and Tribals). This movement created the myth of “merit” and gave the BJP an opportunity to strike roots in the state. Twenty-five years later, the active workers of this organization did join the anti-Mandal II agitation under the aegis of Youth for Equality but the ABVP kept itself scrupulously away from the anti-reservation movement. And now the president of the political party that controls this organization is proclaiming from the rooftops that its prime minister comes from an OBC caste.

The retribution

CS3It would be naive to believe that this change has been quietly accepted by the groups it has hurt. The groups that were marching on the streets to protest the attempts by the state to give bigger representation to the deprived in jobs and universities during Mandal I and II are now active on campuses and are engaged in bloody retribution. According to a report published in The Hindu in 2011, 18 Dalit students had committed suicide in different universities of the country in the previous four years. These suicides tell the tale of discrimination practised on campuses. News of suicides still keep coming in (See A.K. Biswas’ “Dalit talent provokes jealousy”).

In 2006, after the suicide of a Dalit doctor working in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), a three-member panel headed by Prof Sukhdeo Thorat investigated the incident and, in its report, revealed sordid details of discrimination against and persecution of Dalit students in the prestigious institution. The AIIMS administration rejected the report. When yet another Dalit doctor ended his life, the administration came out with the clichéd theory of depression. In 2012, when a committee headed by Professor Bhalchandra Mungekar presented its report on the harassment of Dalit doctors in Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College (Safdarjung Hospital) – located just across the road from AIIMS – the administration’s response was the same. Gurinder Azad, national student co-ordinator of an organization called Insight, however, says that though the recommendations of the Thorat and Mungekar committees were not accepted, they did make the administration of these institutions more alert and sensitive towards the Dalit, Tribal and OBC students and their voice began to be heard. Gurinder was one of the key people involved in the making of an Insight documentary on the harassment of Dalit students in these institutions.

Be that as it may, an example of how institutions of higher learning discriminate against the deprived communities is the recent expulsion of 73 students from IIT-Roorkee for scoring low marks. Of them, 66 are Bahujans. They include 31 Tribals, 23 Dalits, eight OBCs and four Pasmanda Muslims.

Challenge of fulfilling expectations

CS4With the Bahujan students having started claiming their space on campuses, the expectations for them have also risen. Not all those cautioning them are their detractors. Aparajitha Raja of All India Students Federation, while welcoming the influx and growing influence of Bahujan students on campuses, hopes that their organizations would “address the complex reality of caste and class”. Bhagwan Thakur, a JNU student researching caste movement, says the “dominant caste-groups among the OBCs should protect the interests of the EBCs”.

In any case, this is only the first stage of representation. One can only hope that with the growing number of Dalit, Tribal, OBC and Pasmanda students, the space of Indian universities will become more and more democratic, ensuring social justice for these communities.

Published in the August 2015 issue of the FORWARD Press magazine

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