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Converging Struggles and Diverging Interests: A look at the recent unrest in universities

By Hany Babu MT

Universities are often thought of as egalitarian spaces that foster free thought and expression, and our attention is being frequently drawn to the recent attacks on this freedom. The fact of the matter is that universities are hardly immune to the prejudices or free from the control of the dominant ideologies of society. This is evident if one tries to decipher the underlying pattern in the voices of protests and clamours for change that have recently emanated from university spaces. This piece tries to interrogate the recent unrest in the universities in the wake of the change in the composition of student communities.

If the adoption of the Mandal Commission Report by the VP Singh Government (often referred to as Mandal I) brought the spectre of caste into upper-caste discourses, as upper-caste locations suddenly became locations of disentitlement in terms of public employment, the 93rd Constitutional Amendment that allowed the government to make special provisions for the “advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens” in admission in aided or unaided private educational institutions threatened to erode the upper-caste hold on higher education. In both the instances, the upper-caste student groups took to the streets in protest, and mainstream media gave extensive coverage of the protests.

The years that followed brought into focus several stories of discrimination and suicides by Dalit students in higher educational institutions (see studies by Insight Foundation, Delhi). Discrimination in terms of violation of reservation policy seldom evoked any protest from the upper-caste dominated mainstream student groups. For instance, when the University of Delhi violated norms of OBC reservation and converted thousands of OBC seats to General Category seats in the initial years of OBC reservation in higher education, none of the student groups raised its voice. It was only small splinter groups that came together to fight for social justice that took up the issue and fought the battle in the streets and in the courts. Dalit suicides evoked the same kind of scant attention that instances of caste atrocities (like that of Khairlanji) had done. There was no sustained campaign of protests in any university against these instances. However, there have been two incidents in the recent past that have belied this pattern. In both these instances, the struggles initiated by the Dalit Bahujan student groups had created reverberations in larger circles.

The first of these was the controversy regarding de-recognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) in IIT Madras, for allegedly instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating hatred against Hindus. It not only captured widespread attention, but also triggered a series of protests against the action of the IIT authorities. An online petition regarding this was able to gather more than 7500 signatures in less than a week’s time and editorial pieces were written in many leading magazines. The events that unfurled in the University of Hyderabad following the hanging of Yakub Memon (who was sentenced to death for his role in the blasts in Mumbai) and in the Jawaharlal Nehru University following the protest against the hanging of Afzal Guru offer another interesting study.

The Ambedkar Students’ Association (a group of Dalit and Muslim students) organized a protest and the events that followed culminated in the suicide of Rohith Vemula, one of its active members. Unlike the earlier instances of Dalit suicide, the suicide of Rohith Vemula triggered a nation-wide outrage, which saw organizations of almost all hues (except the ruling saffron brigade) and their national leaders joining the campaign. The issue even rocked the Parliament with a histrionic HRD Minister trying to defend the ruling party.

The protest against Afzal Guru’s hanging in Jawaharlal Nehru University was almost an action replay of the happenings at the University of Hyderabad except for the fact that the main players in this action belonged to the left radical groups. Although one would think that this was the most opportune time for alliances to be built between two divergent groups that fought against the hegemony of the upper-caste State, fissures were soon visible when accusations were hurled about JNU hogging the limelight and the Rohith Vemula issue getting sidelined. A meeting announced by the JNU Students’ Union to draft an anti-discrimination bill (labeled the “Rohith Act”) had to be called off in the wake of allegations that the main stakeholders (i.e. the Dalit Bahujans) were not involved in the process.

The failure of a larger alliance is attributable to the lack of ground level unity in terms of the struggles at various levels. I would like to argue that the struggle of Dalit Bahujan groups at a fundamental level is the struggle to attain the right to equality – equal opportunity in education and employment through reservation. Statistics shows that in spite of the Constitutional provision of reservation, the representation of the Dalit, Bahujan, and Minorities in education and public employment is nowhere near their proportion in the population. (Not surprisingly, they are more than adequately “represented” when it comes to convicts and undertrials.) And never have we heard of any large-scale protest against the systematic exclusion of SC, ST, and OBCs from higher education. On the contrary, the protests have been against the move to introduce reservations in higher education.

In a way, the struggle of APSC at IIT Madras and ASA at University of Hyderabad has to do with the coming of age of Dalit Bahujan student politics in our universities. While most of the earlier struggles were to attain equality – be it to implement reservation or end discrimination – the struggle against the banning of APSC at IIT Madras and that of ASA at University of Hyderabad involved issues that had to do with freedom of speech and expression. This shift indicates the readiness of these Associations to take up issues that affect ‘citizens’ at large as opposed to classes of citizens (say, the SC, ST, or OBCs). Interestingly, such a distinction is made in the legal discourse between the right to equality and right to freedom of expression.

The Constitutional scheme makes a distinction between rights that are available to the “citizens” as opposed to rights that are available to “persons”. While equality before law is guaranteed to all persons vide Article 14, the freedoms granted by Article 19 (which includes freedom of speech and expression) is guaranteed only to “citizens”. Although such discrimination between citizens and non-citizens in terms of rights is a well-established practice, countries differ with respect to what rights are guaranteed to the citizen and what rights to the non-citizen. For instance, freedom of speech and expression is granted even to non-citizens in the United States. Unarguably, freedom of speech and expression are viewed as political rights and the Indian Constitutional scheme does not grant such political rights to non-citizens.

Dalit Bahujans, who are the victims of discrimination in all walks of life, are still struggling for ‘equality’, and the dominant student groups do not participate in these struggles as discrimination in terms of identity is not something they have to be wary about. However, once the question is about freedom of speech and expression, they sense a danger. As equal citizens, they are extremely vigilant about their right to freedom. This is not to say that freedoms of speech and expression are not issues that affect Dalit Bahujans. It is just that winning more basic fights is what they are largely occupied with. The same kind of apathy can be seen towards the struggles of the religious minorities and tribals against illegal arrests and prolonged incarceration in the name of terrorism and state security.

The controversy regarding the Ambedkar cartoon in the NCERT textbook (that happened before the IIT Madras and University of Hyderabad incidents) offers a study in contrast, as in that case it was the Dalit Bahujan groups who wanted the cartoon to be removed as it was alleged to insult Ambedkar. The liberal upper-caste discourse in this instance did not come to the support of the Dalit Bahujan groups. On the contrary, they held the view that freedom of expression was paramount and it should not be compromised. It was beyond them to imagine that curbing certain kinds of freedom may be necessary to protect groups that are vulnerable, just as equality involves unequal treatment to different social segments in terms of protection for the socially and educationally backward groups. Such a lack of imagination is not unexpected from privileged groups who, due to their location, are immune to the threat posed by free speech or expression.

In a more recent development, Human Rights Watch, an NGO that conducts research and advocacy on human rights, in its 2016 report has classified the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as a law that restricts freedom of expression. The report holds as problematic the 2015 amendments in the Act that ban an expression that “promotes or attempts to promote feelings of enmity, hatred or ill will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes” and that “disrespects any late person held in high esteem by members of the Scheduled Castes or the Schedule Tribes.” It is interesting to note that this report puts the Prevention of Atrocities Act in the same basket along with draconian laws like the sedition law (section 124A of the Indian Penal Code). What is missed here is the obvious fact that while the former is meant to protect the vulnerable sections of society, the latter is intended to uphold the might of the State and is often used to further crush the vulnerable sections of society (given the large number of tribals and Muslims who are charged under the sedition law).

The crux of my argument is that the phenomenon that makes anti-reservation groups look at the provision of reservation as violating the principle of equality and liberals look at freedom of expression as a paramount principle stems from the same underlying inability to temper liberal principles with social realities. To the upper-caste mind, equality is a given phenomenon, as they never are discriminated by virtue of being member of a social group. Hence they not only fail to see the struggles of the unequal citizens to attain equality, but they also fail to see the need to curb freedom to protect historically oppressed sections of society from such discrimination. Thus, in a curious turn of events, when Dalit Bahujan student groups take up issues related to freedom of expression, the groups dominated by upper-castes flock in support. However, they remain half-hearted (if not totally apathetic) in the struggles of the Dalit Bahujan students to attain equality.

What I have been trying to show is that even while the struggles of various student groups seem to be converging, their basic interests still diverge. The dominant upper-caste-led groups are yet to take an active role in the struggle to make universities a more inclusive space. And till universities begin to represent social diversity proportionately in all the rungs of their hierarchy, they will continue to replicate social inequalities and prejudices.

Photo: Aljazeera

Hany Babu
teaches in the Department of English, University of Delhi. Apart from language and linguistics, he takes an active interest in issues related to social justice and law.


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

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