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
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
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
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.
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
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