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In JNU, it’s politics of morals versus politics of pragmatism

Savarna leftists chose to attack Anbumani Ramadoss not for electoral gains but to break the unity among the exploited, deprived and backward classes. When Ramadoss had visited the JNU campus in 2011, the students and organizations that opposed him this time around had participated in his function

The panellists at the seminar: (From left) P.S. Krishnan, Sharad Yadav, Anbumani Ramadoss, Harish Wankhede

The United OBC Forum, which was launched in JNU, New Delhi, in 2015 and claims to represent the interests of the OBCs, held a national seminar on the “Marginalized Majority and Splintered Struggle for Social Justice” on 25 August 2016. Among the speakers were JDU Rajya Sabha member Sharad Yadav; former union health minister and PMK Lok Sabha member Anbumani Ramadoss; P.S. Krishnan, former IAS officer and former member, National Commission for Backward Classes; and Harish Wankhede, assistant professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU. The objective of the seminar was to highlight how the numerically biggest chunk of the Indian population has been marginalized in terms of its share in the national resources, positions of power and surplus due to a “splintered struggle for social justice”. The students of political science are taught that intra-societal struggles mainly emerge from the race to grab more and more resources, positions of power and surplus. The invitees at the seminar were supposed to speak on this premise from an OBC perspective.

According to American political scientist Harold Dwight Lasswell (1902-1978), “Politics is a study of who gets what, when and how.” The struggle in Indian society is the struggle for securing and sharing the surplus. This struggle is a universal phenomenon. Sharing of economic value is central to the doctrines of Karl Marx. It is economic value that determines social values. After reading Marx, my understanding is that for him, the main issue was not capitalism but the sharing of surplus. (Read Communist Manifesto, 1848).

The seminar might have been centred on assessing the status of OBC society with respect to the distribution of surplus but the fact is that this problem is plaguing all the non-Dwij/Savarna communities of India. This is not only a struggle for human dignity and rights; it is a struggle for securing the minimum standards and values of human civilization. The non-Savarna/Dwij communities of India are deprived of these minimum human values. Dignity and respect was the monopoly of Savarna/Dwij communities and still is. It is not without reason that Ramswaroop Verma (1923-1998), the founder of Arjak Sangh (founded 1 June 1968), had given the slogan of “Do batein moti-moti; sabko izzat, sabko roti” (Broadly speaking, there are two things: all should get bread, all should get respect). Education plays the key role in this struggle and that is why along with Rashtramata Savitribai Phule (1831-1897) and Rashtrapita Mahatma Phule (1827-1890), Ambedkar (1891-1956) laid great emphasis on education.

But instead of dwelling on these basic issues, the speakers at the seminar only concentrated on elaborating their respective views on casteist oppression. That was because of protests against one of the speakers. Students from Tamil Nadu had made their displeasure at inviting Ramadoss known couple of days before the event. The organizers knew very well that if Ramadoss came, he would face protests. A day before the event – on 24 August 2016 – students from Tamil Nadu had covered the entire campus with anti-Ramadoss posters. The posters said that Ramadoss and his party PMK were casteist and patriarchal and upholders of a divisive ideology. They alleged that the party’s founder, Anbumani’s father S. Ramadoss, was a staunch believer in purity of caste who campaigned against marital relations between Dalits and non-Dalits (mainly OBCs). They also alleged that Ramadoss had proved that he was no different from his father. A pamphlet with the same contents was also distributed at the venue on the day of the event. The posters and pamphlets, issued with the signatures of Algu, Arunkumar Guru, Harikrishna, Indubala, Muthuraman, Shibi and Venkateshwar, called for protests against Ramadoss.

On the day of the event, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) also issued a pamphlet titled “Murderers cannot be the upholders of social justice” and called for opposing Ramadoss. The pamphlet said, “The Self-respect Movement of Tamil Nadu had united non-Brahmin castes to wage a struggle against Brahmanism. But non-Brahmins have continued to discriminate against, oppress, assault, incapacitate and murder Dalits. That was why this movement became divided, with Dalits on one side and middle castes on the other. The Dalits realized that the movement had not brought about any change in their status and that they would continue to be discriminated against and exploited in the same way by these castes, as was being done by the Brahmins for hundreds of years.” In this first paragraph of the pamphlet, BAPSA made it clear that non-Brahmins (ie the OBCs) exploit the Dalits as much as the Brahmins did.

The pamphlet went on to say that there was not much difference in the social status of OBCs and Dalits in Tamil Nadu but due to their being higher up in the caste hierarchy and the brahmanical influence, the OBCs consider Dalits lower than them. Because of this mindset, many who opted for inter-caste marriage were killed. The pamphlet also quotes many such examples. It said that PMK is a Hindu fascist party like the RSS and the BJP. BAPSA alleged that the PMK founder had once said that non-Dalit girls fall into the trap of fashionable Dalit boys and end up with failed marriages. According to the pamphlet, PMK had launched a state-wide campaign in Tamil Nadu demanding abrogation of certain provisions of SC, ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. The PMK’s view was that these provisions of the Act could be used to frame innocent people. The pamphlet said that inviting Ramadoss meant insulting the women of OBC-Bahujan communities. Ramadoss was not coming to JNU for the first time, though. In 2011, he had attended a function on JNU campus organized jointly by AIBSF and United Dalit Students’ Forum. The United Dalit Students’ Forum is the oldest and the most important among JNU students’ organizations talking of protecting the interests of Dalits on the campus and outside it.

Sharad Yadav was the first to reach the function venue. There was no opposition to him. But as soon as Ramadoss arrived, slogan-shouting Tamil students and BAPSA supporters surrounded him and blocked his way. There were rumours that the students pushed him and his shirt was torn in the scuffle. None of these are true. The recording of the event is available on YouTube. The incident was publicized as an attempt by the Dalits to disrupt a programme organized by the OBCs. In a democracy, everyone is free to express his and to oppose others’ views. But the manner in which this was done raises many questions. Or maybe, I am not able to feel Tamil Nadu’s pain.

BAPSA could not have staged such a strong protest on its own strength. Most of the protesters were Tamil and leftist students. They included Savarna leftist students who were shouting “United OBC Forum murdabad”. The message they sought to send out was that the OBC students are against SC students and that is why the latter have launched a front against them. BAPSA pamphlet appeared to suggest that OBCs are the only enemies of Dalits. BAPSA, incidentally, is not the organization of any particular caste but a students’ political organization that is also contesting the JNUSU elections this year. Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar – which are part of its name – were representatives of the Tribals, the OBCs and the SCs, respectively.

The audience at the seminar

Harish Wankhede, who was the first to speak at the seminar, began by expressing his support for the students opposing Ramadoss. He said that the PMK had done many things against the Dalits in Tamil Nadu and that he condemned its actions. Sharad Yadav spoke of the ills of the Indian caste system. His speech seemed to be aimed at the students opposing Ramadoss. Had there been no protest, he would have spoken about something else. Ramadoss also spoke. Instead of speaking on the topic of the seminar, he chose to respond to the allegations of the protestors. He said that the first minister of his party was an SC. He also said that he had raised the issue of atrocities against SCs at AIIMS and other medical colleges and resolved it, and that he had appointed the Thorat committee and introduced reservations for SCs in PG courses in AIIMS. At the end, P.S. Krishnan spoke about the circumstances in which reservations were secured and the problems that came in the way.

The seminar sent out a clear message that the unity of different backward communities in JNU had collapsed. By and by, however, everyone came to realize that the Savarna/Dwij leftists had a role to play in breaking the unity of the Backwards. They made up a large number of the protestors. One reason for this was that BAPSA is in the fray for the 2016 JNUSU elections and is being supported by both the United Dalit Students’ Forum and United OBC Forum. The leadership of the organizations concerned also realized the damage that had been done and made efforts to mitigate it. Two days later, BAPSA invited Ali Anwar, a JDU Rajya Sabha member – who is an OBC – to a programme. Activists of United OBC Forum took part in the function.

On the other hand, the United OBC Forum issued a pamphlet on 28 August 2016 in which it sought to remind BAPSA of the alliance it had forged and of the people it had invited to its programmes but the pamphlet mainly targeted the Dwij/Savarna leftist students and their organizations for opposing Ramadoss for electoral gains. The pamphlet said that the CPI and the CPM were part of the AIADMK-led coalition in Tamil Nadu. It also said that those opposing Ramadoss had not objected to BJP’s Subramanian Swamy and Ranvir Sena’s Arun Kumar, an MP, visiting the JNU campus. AISA, the students’ arm of CPI (ML), has officially forgiven the culprits of Singur and Nandigram and has joined hands with CPM’s SFI to contest the JNUSU elections.

There is political and ideological common ground between the SCs and the OBCs in north India. That is why when the Left campaigned against Gujarat’s then Chief Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi all over the country, it did not oppose Sharad Yadav, who was then convener of the BJP-led NDA, when he visited the JNU campus. When a court let off Brahmeshwar Singh, an accused in many massacres of Bihar, on 8 July 2011, his effigy was burnt at JNU’s Ganga Dhaba. Mukhiya had committed all the massacres during the chief ministership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, who calls himself the custodian of social justice, and he was acquitted in the regime of Nitish Kumar. At that time, the Savarna/Dwij leftists had asked what the SCs had got from the caste-centric, backward politics of Bihar. We responded by asking what the courts were doing. Who are judges in the courts? I had also addressed that meeting. Lalu and Nitish have been working together since 2015.

An important question, however, still remains: Why was this opposition to Ramadoss’ visit on JNU campus? It will be wrong to simply dismiss everything as a conspiracy. Sometimes, by describing some incident as a conspiracy, we unwittingly ignore a crucial factor and ultimately harm ourselves. That is why this issue needs a deeper analysis.

It was VCK, a political party of Tamil Nadu, which had accused PMK and its leaders, including Ramadoss, of being anti-Dalit and participating in violence against the community. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) is also called the Liberation Panther Party. A study of its history, beliefs and activities reveals that it is the Tamil version of Maharashtra’s Dalit Panthers or UP’s BSP. Legally, constitutionally and theoretically, no political party can claim to represent any particular caste or group of castes. But in practice, in every political party, some caste/castes are dominant and that is why these parties are identified with those castes. In Tamil Nadu, PMK is considered a party of OBCs and VCK of SCs.

PMK leader Ramadoss said in an interview with the Hindu Centre of the The Hindu group on 28 May 2013 that he or his party was not against inter-caste marriages but that if they said something against the VCK, it was projected as if they were opposed to Dalits. “We are also not against the concept of ‘love marriages’,” he had said. “But what the VCK has been up to – we know it because we are in the field – as it happened in a village in Dharmapuri district last year, they have made love – not necessarily between a Dalit boy and an upper caste girl – into a business, allegedly extorting huge money from people depending on their social status to ‘get back’ their respective daughters home. It is such enacted love marriages that we oppose.” In the same interview he said that his party would continue to press for certain changes in the SC Atrocities Act and that in Tamil Nadu, his party was the only one making such a demand. Ramadoss had also said in an interview to the The Times of India on 15 March 2016 that his party was not against inter-caste marriages.

As far as the issues of inter-caste marriages and atrocities against SCs is concerned, morality and pragmatism both demand that one should support inter-caste marriages and oppose atrocities against the SCs. We cannot overlook anyone’s fault merely because he has done certain good things. But from the list of things Ramadoss and his party did in the interest of the SCs, which he presented in his speech, it is hard to believe that he would have spread hatred against the SCs.

Italian thinker Machiavelli (1469-1527) had declared that politics has nothing to do with morality. But this cannot be accepted as a practical or correct approach. That is why the United OBC Forum, in its pamphlet issued on 28 August 2016, had criticized the anti-Dalit statements and actions of Ramadoss and his party while underlining his contribution to the cause of social justice.

I am aware that both the groups – while doing their own politics – had consensus on a wide range of issues. But once the Savarna/Dwij leftists appeared on the stage, the situation slipped out of the hands of both. However, the subsequent damage control only exposed the true face of the leftists. What is noteworthy is that neither any OBC student opposed the demonstration of Tamil students and BAPSA nor did the organizers issue any appeal to them. On the other hand, many OBC students joined the anti-Ramadoss protests. The JNU OBCs allowed the SCs to protest against them at their programme venue and did not resist them.

There have been no major differences between the leaders/leadership of the OBCs, SCs and STs on JNU campus. It might be argued that the atrocities against Dalits at Una in BJP-ruled Gujarat in July and Ambedkar’s press being bulldozed in BJP-ruled Maharashtra might have led to the explosion of anger against Ramadoss. There can be no denying the fact that the SCs in Tamil Nadu have been facing atrocities, whosoever might be responsible for them. But the JNU students are not so immature to construe one demonstration as a clash between the SCs and OBCs. There was an attempt to portray the demonstration as such but those who made the attempt were not allowed to succeed.

My belief is that Savarna leftists chose to attack Ramadoss not for electoral gains but to break the unity among the exploited, deprived and backward classes. When Ramadoss had visited the JNU campus in 2011, the students and organizations that opposed him this time around had participated in his function. But at that time, they were not aware that this small movement would spread so fast among the deprived, exploited and weaker sections. Ramadoss was put in the dock for the events in Tamil Nadu in 2013, but charges were hurled at his father and his party too and those would have been valid even in 2011. I had begun with a quote of Harold Lasswell. I can end with the same quote. If we want to understand this shrewd move of Savarna/Dwij leftists, we will have to understand Lasswell’s model of political communications, which is centred on “who, to whom, through which medium and under whose influence”.


  1. “‘It’s social engineering, not caste politics’, asserts Anbumani Ramadoss” in, The Hindu Centre, 28 May 2013
  2. “Dharmpuri Inter-Caste Marriage: Dalit Youth Ilavarasan Found Dead” in The Hindu, 4 July 2013
  3. “PMK not against inter-caste marriage: S. Ramadoss” in The Times of India, 15 March 2016 
  4. “Jeans, ‘Love Drama’ and the Electoral Spoils of Tamil Nadu’s Hidden Caste Wars” in The Wire, 6 May 2016

About The Author

Anil Kumar

Anil Kumar has a Phd in sociology from JNU. His dissertation was titled “The Politics of Identity”.

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