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A Report on the Asura Week: Marginalized Politics on a University Campus

By Ria De

On September 9, 2013, students of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) announced the celebration of the Asura Week. This was meant to not only coincide with the ongoing festival of Vinayaka Chaturthi but also as a political response to a Hindu majoritarian festival that has historically become an occasion for right-wing Hindutva forces to occupy public spaces in universities and across the city of Hyderabad. Prior to 2013, university authorities or the students neither encouraged nor were interested in public events of religious worship. On occasions, some members of the staff celebrated Durga Puja and Holi as a personal or group prerogative, but that did not involve university resources, space or endorsement. Some of the faculty and staff were also known to put up images of Hindu gods and goddesses in their offices. Many of these practices were regularly debated and critiqued, especially at the student body that had had a vibrant history of engaging with Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, and minority politics.

In 2013, when students of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) set up a pandal right in front of the university administrative building, students belonging to the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students’ Association (DABMSA), Students’ Islamic Organisation (SIO), and the Telangana Students’ Association (TSA) objected to the installation as an obvious means to Hinduise an academic space that belonged to students from diverse backgrounds and affiliations. The pandal was eventually shifted to the back of the campus but the reluctance of the administration (without whose permission and endorsement ABVP would not have been able to put up the pandal right in the middle of the campus) to intervene on behalf of the protesting students was clear. This meant a temporary set-back for the organizers, but the occasion of the Vinayaka Chaturthi Visarjan has, since then, been one of the loudest and the most spectacular displays of patriarchal machismo on the EFLU campus.

It is in response to this immediate provocation that a group of students decided to organize the Asura Week as an expression of resistance against the increasing efforts at Hindutvization of campuses. It was also meant to create the circumstances for the university community to participate in debates and discussions on the ways in which majoritarian Hindu festivals such as the Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Holi, Onam, and others have historically been produced as secular and national festivals by marking Dalit Bahujan festivals and icons as communal, sectarian, and primitive. The description of the EFLU Asura Community page on facebook that was put up by the organizers says:

“The Asuras like the Dalits and Adivasis have long been demonized by the hegemonic Hindu religion with festivals celebrating their murder. It’s time the Asuras offer their versions, strike back, and reclaim their spaces as icons of Dalit identity.”

It was a week-long, carefully deliberated programme, organized with the aim of ensuring student participation and debates through events such as art installation, face painting, canvas painting, and a student seminar.

Poster for the Asura Week

Poster for the Asura Week

Each day was dedicated to a different Asura icon and detailed pamphlets were distributed that called for “…the revival of other mythical women figures who have been derided and ridiculed in the cultural mainstream as immoral…diseased, hyper-sexual, etc.”

Day dedicated to Surpnanakha, Ravana’s sister, who was punished by Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, for proposing to Rama

Day dedicated to Surpnanakha, Ravana’s sister, who was punished by Lakshmana, Rama’s brother, for proposing to Rama

Organizers wrote extensively about how of the figure of the secular-national woman has been historically constructed through a “Manuvadi upper-class patriarchal imagination of the model woman as maternal, sexually demure, contemplative, interiorized, commodity, etc.” and how, on the other hand, this “national configuration silenced the lives of the large number of women who conducted their lives in public spaces.” The Asura Week was meant to be a political, cultural, and intellectual intervention that would compel the students and other members of the university to question their own engagements with normative ideas of caste, gender, race, sexuality, religious identities, and practices, etc.

Poster at EFLU

Poster at EFLU

Through the Asura Week, the organisers endeavoured to understand how the crisis faced by the upper-caste Hindu hegemony has historically been displaced on to a Muslim ‘other’, while erasing its own continuous suppression and violence against the different marginalized identities of caste, gender, sexuality, and region.

Procession with posters during the Asura Week

Procession with posters during the Asura Week

The programme drew on the history of Asura worship by lower caste and tribal communities in India, thereby upholding practices and cultures that have been systemically derogated and denied ‘respectability’ for centuries. Recently, during the 2016 Parliament debates, Smriti Irani’s speech reflected the Hindutva’s ideological position against any subversive readings of the Durga-Mahishasura narrative and what implications it would have for communities that have historically worshipped the Asura king and for whom he is a historical and heroic figure.

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Poster in West Bengal

In 2013, Dalit Camera documented a two day Asur Utsav, organized by various branch offices of the Majhi Pargana Gaonta at Malda, West Bengal, which involved commemorating the “Asur Samrat Hudur Durga, the aboriginal king, who had been duped and killed by the Aryans…”

The Banner for Asur Utsav at Majhi Pargana Gaonta, Malda, West Bengal

The Banner for Asur Utsav at Majhi Pargana Gaonta, Malda, West Bengal

Newspaper reports rarely acknowledge the political or historical charge of such lower-caste practices, whether they are undertaken as ‘worship’ or as assertion (although it is often impossible to distinguish one from the other). The more immediate inspiration for the Asura Week was the annual Asura celebrations conducted by the students of Osmania for whom it has also been an occasion to assert the politics of food and culture against fascist Hindu assertions. With these developments over the past few years, it has become apparent that while Asura worship or festivals in marginalized spaces, that do not threaten the dominance of space by a Durga Puja or a Vinayaka Chaturthi, may be grudgingly tolerated, for ‘Asuras’ to emerge in a University campus and challenge the Hindutva in more public spaces is quite another matter.

Posters with the traditional bow and arrow atop on a handmade tent

Posters with the traditional bow and arrow atop on a handmade tent

The Asura Week saw enthusiastic participation from the students and received wide media coverage. The media remained oblivious to the lone Vinayaka Chaturthi pandal at the back of the campus, which many knew was being regularly visited by important members of the university administration. On the day of the canvas painting, the university called the police at the behest of members of the ABVP, which claimed that the events of the day were a threat to communal harmony on campus. Later, six students (four Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan students and two women students) were served notices by the Osmania police for allegedly “promoting enmity between classes.” They had been booked under a non-bailable offence under section 153 (A) of the IPC.

Posters at EFLU

Posters in West Bengal

The incidents around the Asura Week in 2013 told us a lot of things about how the Hindutva could penetrate university spaces, the kinds of nexus that could exist between the police and the administration, and how they could collaborate to suppress marginalized identities and assertions. With the police case, the usual distinctions between the secular and the communal were made redundant. It wasn’t even a question of masking the Hindu as secular. It was the proclamation of a new distinction between that of the Hindu nation and those who did not belong to it. Since then, the police have been an integral part of the EFLU. The most number of cases have been filed against Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan students and student leaders. Muslim minority students have been targeted and profiled. Many have been denied entry and admission to the campus space. Students have been severely penalized for writing on social media against the administration.

A statue of Mahisasura with a picture of B. R. Ambedkar

A statue of Mahisasura with a picture of B. R. Ambedkar

We have learnt how student organizations such as the DABMSA, SIO, and the TSA, who made it possible for EFLU students to openly engage with political questions of caste and religious identity, could be systematically delegitimized and erased from existence. Although, categories such as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-university’ were not so much in vogue in 2013, the active involvement of a Muslim minority students’ organization and its leadership had to be ‘invisiblised’ for the movement to retain its ‘legitimacy’ before the Indian nation. It appeared as if the very existence of marginalized students and their political and cultural articulations created the conditions for, what the state calls, radical politics. With such attempts at erasures, the very public-ness of the university space and its logic have been compromised. Mechanisms of surveillance and protectionism have almost entirely consumed the spirit of the campus, as the CCTV cameras have been installed to survey every imaginable space open to a student, hostels have been locked out to opposite genders, and gates have been closed to ‘outsiders’. The politics and the practices of the elite, upper caste patriarchy dominate the university space, determining the norms and disempowering others from the margins of the nation.

Photo-courtesy: Dalit Camera

Bio:
Ria De is a PhD student at the Department of Film Studies in the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India. She is working on stardom in popular Hindi cinema in the 1990s with special focus on Shahrukh Khan.

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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