JNU : Quest for a Strong Dalit Student Politics

By: Anoop Kumar

The Dalit Students’ Movement in JNU has not been able to match its potential. Through this article, the author is trying to map its trajectory since its emergence. This article is in three parts.

Since its inception, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been synonymous with Left student politics. However, it has also had a tradition of Dalit students’ activism and has produced scholars, intellectuals and activists, who are still actively engaged with the Dalit movement.

However, despite tremendous potential, the output of the JNU Dalit students’ activism has been unsatisfactory, given the unique position enjoyed by this campus. Its contributions and influence appear even less, if one compares them with places like the Hyderabad Central University.

Jawaharlal Nehru University is considered as a vanguard of student politics, especially the left-liberal variety and is a considered as a training ground for leadership, organisation and articulation. It has provided youth leadership for most of the major political groups in the country. In such a scenario, it is important for us to critically analyse the role, contributions and directions of Dalit student politics in JNU.

JNU was established in 1969 and since then has been dominated by left politics. The present environment and culture of the campus, which not many universities or institutions in India can boast of, have been nurtured through left politics. The campus is less violent and has a vibrant culture of debates, public talks and discussions on different national as well as international issues. Such an atmosphere could be conducive to the growth of articulation and mobilization for the issues concerning marginalized communities and with little efforts could faster strong leadership from within the community.

The campus has always been very responsive towards social causes and issues. However, on the issue of caste and caste-based social exclusion, this campus has taken much long to respond, than was expected. From a complete silence over the issue to active hostility to paying lip service, JNU has shown a wide range of responses to the question of caste. But it has consistently refused to critically engage with it and has always tried either to ignore or bypass this issue.

The reasons may be varied - the predominance of students from a particular segment of the society or the ‘party line’ with which the student activists are ideologically committed, or both. It took more than 20 years for caste to get some recognition as an issue in this campus. But this was not unique. It was, more or less, the same situation every where in the country.

Caste, for some, was an ‘archaic social stratification’ to be found only in rural areas and for some, it was part of the ‘superstructure’ and hence not worthy of much consideration. Many became aware of ‘caste’ only in the presence of Schedule Caste persons; otherwise they did not even know about their own caste origins!

However, the late 80’s and early 90’s of the 20th century saw developments that changed the campus dynamics forever. Caste suddenly became the most debated point and its presence was felt everywhere. The silence of Dalit students was broken and the tone and tenor of their speech horrified the liberals. Their anger and ‘hate’ filled language was a complete bewilderment for them. The assertion of their identity based on caste was considered blasphemous, as the caste problem was wiped away long back!

The most troubled lot were those who used to or wanted to ‘fight’ for the Dalits, against their poverty and social backwardness. No less troubled were those who wanted Dalits to forget their identity and become hindu, when Muslims or any other minorities were around. Both accused Dalit activists for dividing their respective constituencies.

In such a hostile environment, the seeds of Dalit students’ politics were laid in most of the Indian campuses. JNU also witnessed the same development. It was the period when the whole country was under turmoil due to various reasons that impacted Dalit students as well. The anti-Reservation stir against Mandal Commission and the ongoing Ram temple movement brought fore the brahminical dominance over the general society in open.

Dalit students suddenly became the ‘marked ones’ in the campuses and their merit and eligibility started being questioned in public spaces. Against this backdrop, some of the Dalit students rose in defense and started mobilizing the community. Two other factors also added fuel – the birth centenary of Babasaheb Ambedkar and some Dalit massacres, especially in South India. Above all, the emergence of Bahujan Samaj Party, signaling the rise of autonomous Dalit politics, charged up the atmosphere.

In 1991, 8 Dalits were massacred in Tsunduru, Andhra Pradesh. It created a huge uproar in AP and some Dalit activists started mobilizing the community to fight for justice. For this, they also came to Delhi and organized a meeting. Some Dalit students from JNU joined the meeting to show their solidarity. There, they felt the need of an ideologically strong Dalit students’ organization in the campus. Some of them took lead and started interacting with the other students. Slowly, a consensus for a strong platform emerged.

However, JNU had many pocket-organizations run by certain Dalit students who mostly used the letter pads and seals of the organizations to get their petty work done. A meeting was organized and the students took the decision to form an organization which was named as the United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF). It was also decided that UDSF will be the sole representative of the JNU Dalit student community and all the other organizations were told to merge with UDSF.

Some agreed voluntarily, while others’ rooms were raided and their organizations’ pads and seals were confiscated. Another meeting was held to formalize the objectives, activities and structure of UDSF. This new organization got tremendous response from Dalit students and most of them actively participated in the meetings. It was decided that UDSF would not fight elections and would act as a socio-cultural organization, spreading awareness and sensitizing the student community on the caste problems faced by the Dalit community.

Simultaneously, it would also act as a pressure group, by mobilizing Dalit students to fight against any injustice meted to any Dalit student in the campus. Since the Dalit community was heavily divided on the lines of subcaste, religion, region, language, it was decided that UDSF would not have any posts and its activities would be carried out by various committees. The UDSF Central Committee (CC) would be the highest decision making body and its members would be nominated in the General Body Meetings.

However, the most interesting decision was that there would be no membership of UDSF as such. Every SC and ST student getting admission in JNU would automatically become the member of UDSF and could participate in all its activities.

So, UDSF made a grand entry in JNU students’ activism and every non- Dalit in the campus, irrespective of her/his ideology, appeared suspicious about this caste-based ‘socio-cultural organization’. UDSF started organizing public talks and discussions around Dalit issues in the campus. It took out protest marches against cases of injustice to Dalits both inside as well as outside the campus. It also issued pamphlets on different issues.

For many Dalit students, UDSF provided the first opportunity of catharses and their talk appeared too militant for caste-hindu students. Slowly, UDSF started taking up campus-specific issues related to Dalit students and started mobilizing the Dalit students. Simultaneously, they also started organizing study groups where Dr. Ambedkar’s literature was read and deliberated upon.

However, most interesting is to observe the reactions of the rest of the student groups in the campus.

The campus was, still dominated by the Left students groups, which were involved in posters and pamphlet wars on a daily basis, accusing each other of betraying the ‘Revolution’. On the one side, was the Student Federation of India (SFI) and on another, the newly formed All India Students’ Association (AISA). However, on the issue of Dalits, both of them had almost similar views that it is actually they who have been working towards the liberation of Dalits.

Both agreed that there was absolutely no need for Dalits to organize and fight themselves. And above all, Dr. Ambedkar was still anathema to all the leftist groups. They firmly believed that class struggle will eventually wither caste away and the rise of independent Dalit politics was divisive for class struggle. They tried to counter Dalit politics by saying that, “poor are poor, they have no caste and above all, aren’t there poor among the upper caste too”?

These groups, hence, were very hostile towards the rise of autonomous Dalit students’ group. They completely avoided interacting with Dalits who were actively engaged with UDSF.

However, being aware of the growing strength of UDSF, they made slight changes in their tactics, later. Their leaders started attending the public talks and other functions of UDSF regularly and made sure that they asked at least one question or make some comments in the meeting so that the Dalit students could see them. They also started coming to the protest marches organized by UDSF and without fail, raised the loudest slogans against brahmanism and casteism.

The second strategy which they used was that they started focusing much on Dalit students in their party and their special focus was reserved for the new Dalit students joining the campus. They tried to keep them involve in the party activities, handing them small responsibilities. They chose some Dalit students and forced them to attend each meeting of the UDSF, trying to sell him/her as the Dalit face of the party.

The leftist leaders also courted the members of the Central Committee and gave more than due respect to them. They never spoke ill of UDSF in public but continuously kept scheming about ways of sabotaging it. All of a sudden the word ‘caste’ started coming in their pamphlets and posters. The leftist groups were much adept in these gimmicks, as they had been employing the same techniques towards the Muslim students also.

SFI, being the big brother of the campus, was much successful in doing so. AISA, being more radical, did not stoop so low but made sure that each Dalit student was made aware of the fact that because of its parent organization CPI ML’s activities in Bihar, Dalits all over the country are having better lives !

AISA also claimed to fight against the feudal elements in Bihar, most of whom belonged to the Bhumihar caste. However, many in the campus noted that most of their hard-core cadres and rabble-rousers belonged to the same caste/class background.

However, the most deadly weapon used by the communist groups was to ‘brand’ UDSF. It prided itself to be an autonomous Dalit students’ group, firmly rooted inside the campus but a sustained campaign was launched to discredit its autonomy. The rumour was spread that Ram Vilas Paswan was supporting UDSF and pumping money.

Later it was branded as a ‘brain child of Congress to weaken the Left’ in the campus. It was a very deliberate attempt on their part, which did create some problems for UDSF. The more they tried to assert their autonomous nature, the more students grew suspicious about it.

Meanwhile, all was not well within UDSF also. The initial enthusiasm of the Dalit student community started waning soon. Rather than building on their strengths, the energy was drained in countering the Left. Dalit women participation was also very less. The difference between the North Indian and South Indian Dalits became sharp and then there were many structural problems plaguing UDSF.

To be continued…

(Anoop Kumar has completed his Post Graduation from JNU, New Delhi. He could be contacted at anoopkheri@gmail.com)

Courtesy: Khalid Anis Ansari


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