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A Brief History of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA)

By Munna Sannaki

History of UoH

The University of Hyderabad (UoH), also called the Central University of Hyderabad (CUoH), was established by an Act of Parliament that was passed in 1974; an institution which was started at Sarojini Naidu’s gifted house – ‘Golden Threshold’ – located in the center of Hyderabad city. The formation of UoH has its own significant history in connection with the 1969 Telangana agitation. After the linguistic bifurcation, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh (AP) had a ‘Gentleman Agreement’ (GA) to be called as a new State of AP on 20 February, 1956. In 1968, a person named Ravindranath called for an indefinite hunger strike in Khammam for the implementation of the Telangana safeguards which were agreed in GA 1956. Later, it got transformed into a Separate Telangana agitation and cost 369 Telangana students’ lives (Avinash, 2018).

One of the highlights of the Gentleman Agreement was to create equal development and opportunities. But that continued as ‘a rhetorical flourish’ (Welch 1980:319) for the economically marginalized people of Telangana. Telangana was dominated by Andhra politics and culture in the spectrum of political, socio and economic life of the AP state. In addition, many Telangana activists and people from Telangana expressed grievances about the unwillingness of Andhra to share equal opportunities in jobs, industry and politics. Injustice and partiality continued in all the spaces until and unless someone stood or spoke about it. In the same way, the ill-treatment against the most marginalized continued in UoH until they agitated.

The UoH had existing student’s cultural and ethnic groups for various general causes. But these causes had deep disagreement and insensitivity in dealing with the grievances of SCs and STs within the campus. Progressive Students Forum (PSF) was created in 1990 to go beyond the cultural organizations run by students from the dominant community. PSF’s primary focus was to advocate for the enforcement of Mandal Commission’s directives. Within a short period of time, PSF observed a countermovement by students, who were backed by teachers and non-teaching staff. The Scheduled Castes and the Upper Castes comprised the majority of those who joined this countermovement. The OBC students had lower numbers of participation. SC students were on the brink of becoming foot soldiers and, as a result, scapegoats. To reduce the danger of misappropriation, the Dalits inside PSF and other groups decided to form their own organization where their issues could be voiced independently. 

Emergence of ASA

Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) was established in 1993. The formation was midwifed by a long confrontation and struggle with the administration and its caste operations at the university. The inspiration came particularly from the anti-caste forces across the country who fought against casteism and discrimination against the marginalized. Most prominently, the caste massacres of SC-Madhiga community by the dominant caste Kammas in Karamchedu and of SC-Mala community by the dominant caste Reddys in Tsunduru. Similarly, within the university space, both these communities showed casteism and discrimination against Dalit students from the admission process to the completion of courses. The Andhra administrator initially came from the Reddy caste, and later from the Kamma, both dominant landowning castes. The community did not just incline towards favoring the upper castes but also discriminated against the Telangana Dalits and other backward caste communities. To maintain their regional dominance, they projected themselves to be favoring Andhra majority Christian Dalits and other backward castes during admission to the University. But their favoritism never fulfilled 100% reservation for the SC, ST and OBC.

After the admissions, the non-Dalits harassed Dalits by strategically branding them as “quota students”, thus, creating a narrative that Dalits are not equal contestants. This has resulted in the construction of unjustifiable notions about Dalits being “Government’s son/daughters-in-law, bastards’ children, beggars who need free help or son of god for having special treatment” (Sukumar 2008:17). The irony is, many OBCs who entered the university with the same reservation maintained the same opinion as well. The mental harassment against Dalits was an evident agony of students and administrators from the dominant castes who were unable to digest that the children of their laborers or slaves were now availing the same facilities to compete with them. Their hatred was with accessibility to equal opportunities and facilities. For example, in a common mess it was a rare instance to witness a non-Dalit sitting with a Dalit student. This resulted in their isolation. Since the majority of Dalits come from rural India who experienced serious poverty, their eating habits were distinct from that of non-Dalits. For which, Dalits were abused as “bakasura, kumbhakarna,[1] pigs or beggars” (Sukumar 2008:17).

This contempt was not just restricted to admission or food, but to every symbol that asserted Dalit mobility. Dalits were derided when they spoke English, wore nice clothes or even used better pens to write. If any Dalit tried pasting campaign posters, the upper castes would write vulgar comments on it as an insult. If Dalit Christians or non-Hindus gathered for their faith rituals, they were complained against and mistreated by caste Hindu administrators. There were very few faculty members from low-caste background who were willing to encourage Dalit students or oppose the institutional discrimination. In the hostel, mess, class, sports arena, peer group, canteens, and many more domains, Dalit students used to experience persistent discrimination. When it came to grading, guiding, presentations, appointments, and seminars, the faculty would often target Dalit and other reserved category students. Only a few Dalit students were able to graduate with honors from the university. There were also major concerns with ragging that the Dalits had to deal with, mainly in the science stream. The ASA established a group to develop strength, organize, and resist such inhumane practice. The ASA followed the writings and work of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, one of India’s most prominent anti-caste national leaders.

The ASA does not have any affiliation with any political parties or organizations outside the campus. The motive is not to link up with any organization or parties, especially since students’ organizations are constantly surveilled and suppressed by the state mechanism in in the name of controlling the Naxalite or Maoist movements. The ASA founders have witnessed how Dalit students were targeted, jailed and also subjected to state victimization through fictitious traps. It was the core principle that ASA adopts political consciousness through the ideology of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and only engage in propagating his thoughts and ideals along with iconic social revolutionaries, such as Mahatma Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, Ayyankali, Sree Narayana Guru, Birsa Munda, Komaram Bheem, Shahuji Maharaj, Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy, Gurram Jashua, and many other Bahujan leaders across the sub-continent. Since then, the ASA’s vision has been to promote education, transform experiences, and meaningfully increase the social empowerment of the community within UoH and beyond. The organization’s mission is to serve as a social, intellectual and cultural community for students at the University and work through awareness, education, and action. To bring all the marginalized students and their sufferings under one umbrella, the ASA took Dr. B R Ambedkar’s slogan as its motto: ‘Educate, Agitate & Organize’ (Kumar, Bapuji & Mir, 2021: 3). The ASA conceptually believes in working politically to achieve what Ambedkar envisioned, ‘Equality, Liberty and Fraternity’.

Initially, while the ASA was meticulously involved in forming organizational standards and establishing its ideology. It did not have any direct electoral interests and only supported the anti-rightwing contestants. Almost for 13 years, the organization was being constructed for the welfare of the most deserving economically marginalized in the campus. In 2007, the ASA, owing to its growing importance, was approached for the political support in order to defeat rightwing fundamentalist groups. The organization, hence, demanded an executive position for that year and it was rejected by the Left alliance. The seniors of the ASA then decided to contest alone. The progressive groups, which used to sweep all the positions till then, lost certain positions that year. Consequently, the ASA understood its electoral significance and began shaping the Dalit voices into a formidable political power on the campus. Thus, the University of Hyderabad saw a Students’ Union President, the ASA candidate, from a Dalit community for the first time in 2011.

The ASA worked to be an inclusive organization for all the marginalized groups within the campus. Though students from different castes and ethnicity joined the organization, it was reluctant in accepting a non-Dalit leadership, since ASA had been concerned with resolving the day-to-day problems of Dalit students which were distinct and immense compared to other students. In addition, the leadership tried to genuinely act upon the issues and resolve them with proper steps. The ASA also worked, helped, and expressed solidarity to other non-electoral groups and their issues when needed. More importantly, the ASA is also politically conscious of the venomous and casteist politics inside campus, even when propagated by Dalits from other groups. These are nothing but uncompromising political actions taken forward by the ASA.

The ASA played a crucial role in creating debates and academic discourses within the campus. Apart from discussion, it has played a main lead in bringing many policies. All this was possible because of the conviction and commitment of the organization leadership. From 1993, there were many sacrifices of students from the ASA. In 2002, ten Dalit students were rusticated for protesting against the casteist attitude of the administration and the corruption of the Central Purchasing Committee, set up by Prof. Podile Apparao, Ex Vice Chancellor and the then Chief Warden. And later, as a consequence of the assertive voices against Hindutva and RSS ideology, five Dalit Research Scholars, including Rohith Vemula belonging to the ASA, were targeted and socially boycotted. The struggle continues.

ASA’s activities and viewpoints

The ASA marks its more than two-and-a-half-decade old journey. It has accomplished much since 1993. But it has also lost many lives to suppression and conflict. To begin with, a Dalit girl who was betrayed in a relationship by an upper caste AP politician’s relative was forced to take her life. It erupted into a protest for justice. Finally, the upper caste boy was forced to come to the campus and had to apologize publicly.

A grand Ambedkar Birthday celebration is organized every year to assert our politics and identity that remain marginalized in the campus. It creates a festive spirit among all the marginalized and arouses fear in the minds of perpetrators in the campus. The ASA was the first organization to set up a ‘Help Desk’ at the time of admission to facilitate new students from remote and rural regions joining the university. All minority religions and ethnic groups were able to conduct and celebrate their cultural events. The anti-ragging squads from the ASA were instrumental in making UoH a ragging free campus, assuring the safety of its juniors.

ASA not only connects with the emotional and cultural problems but also fights against the anti-student policies of the university and state machineries. The ASA led a massive fight for the implementation of reservation policy in M.Phil. and PhD courses in 2013. The organization ensured that the students from the SC/ST/OBC and Economically Backward Sections (EBS) avail two fellowships on account of their right and poverty. Through its effort, it could secure BBL fellowships that ensures financial aid to the marginalized students pursuing master’s program. Also, it ensured that the students get considerable time for paying the mess dues and other fees. The organization made efforts and conducted various kinds of agitations to remove cut-off marks in the admission process. This enabled more OBC students to enter the campus by assuring 27% of their reservation. Whenever the UoH administration was reluctant and adamant towards ASA’s representations and demands, the organization even fought legally in the High Court (HC) for the implementation of constitutional reservation policies. In response to the legal fight, the university was compelled to call for the third round of counseling to fulfill the reservation policy. The ASA made sure to fulfill 50 to 95 percent reservation. In many instances, the university was made answerable to the HC for their arbitrary and unlawful policies against violation of reservation policy.

The ASA conducted various development activities for SC/ST and OBC students, such as conducting English courses, National Fellowship, State and Central Service competitive exam coaching on campus. As an organization, it has repeatedly followed up on the delay/reimbursement of fellowships and social welfare scholarships for SC/ST/OBC/EBS from the state and central government. The ASA joined the social justice fight for categorization of Scheduled Castes in accordance with their population. The ASA also supported the formation a separate Telangana state, embedded with the principle of social justice on the ideals of Dr. B R Ambedkar. The ASA represented, protested, and raised its voice and created awareness against the atrocities committed on Dalits, Tribes and other religious minorities in India. With its determination for social justice, the ASA has been instrumental in raising issues of gender minorities and has been vocal against the discrimination imposed on them by the caste society on campus and outside.

Conclusion

“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty” (Weaver, E. 2018:9) can be a surviving motto seen throughout the journey of the ASA and through the struggle of its members. To recollect the incidents and to give it the form of an academic discourse might appear simple, but the sacrifices and contributions towards such a history is immense. Many a time, the ASA was forced to fight over the same issues again and again. This shows how the caste mindset in politics works towards marginalized sections. For example, the state and central governments announce welfare schemes for their political gains. But when it comes to the implementation, it fails or intentionally delays such schemes. What purpose do these welfare schemes serve if they are released after the completion of the course? That benefit is simply wasted, and welfare remains a distant dream.

Does anyone understand the mental trauma of a person who joins an institution with faith in the Indian government? Coming from a deprived background, fighting against discriminations and ill-treatment, and being forced to academically compete with the elite class, caste crimes make the journey of these students harder. The fight against caste is a long one, but the ASA so far is determined not to give up the struggle for the marginalized and protect their aspirations across the universities in India.

Note: Paper is written by a member (2008-2021) of the ASA who worked as a president (2017-18) and convener (2015-2017).

Photo: Andhra and Telangana Wishes 

[1] In Hindu epic Mahabharata, Bakasura is characterized as a maneater. In Ramayana, Kumbhakarna is characterized as lazy and heavy eater.

Bibliography

Avinash, P. (2018). “Remembering the Un-Sung Heroes of Telangana-Reminiscing the Safeguards Movement of 1968 and Separate Telangana Movement of 1969.” The Hans India, Retrieved on 26 July, 2021. <https://www.thehansindia.com/posts/index/Telangana/2018-09-05/Remembering-the-Un-Sung-Heroes-of-Telangana-Reminiscing-the-Safeguards-Movement-of-1968-and-Separate-Telangana-Movement-of-1969/409934&gt;

Kumar, A., Bapuji, H., & Mir, R. (2021). ““Educate, Agitate, Organize”: Inequality and Ethics in the Writings of Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.” Journal of Business Ethics, 1-14.

Sukumar, N. (2008). “Living a concept: Semiotics of everyday exclusion.” Economic and Political Weekly, 14-17.

Weaver, E. When Resistance Becomes Duty. ABOUT THE AUSCHWITZ JEWISH CENTER, 8.

Bio:
Munna Sannaki
is a PhD Research Scholar, Center for Study of Social Exclusion & Inclusive Policy, University of Hyderabad. He is a former president of the ASA and has led the Justice For Rohith Vemula Movement. Email: 15siph09@uohyd.ac.in

***

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

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Sandeep Bhagat #

    Munna bhai Jai Bhim, ASA Zindabad🙏
    proud history of ASA thanks bhai

    September 24, 2021

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