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Re-orienting ‘Student Politics’ in Kerala and Reading Vemula Beyond His Student Activism

By Mohammed Salih

“The shift of my political identity from Marxism to Ambedkarism is a conscious move into building a new future on the basis of more humane, more inclusive society. My core intention is to challenge and expose the upper-class hypocritical advocacy of progressiveness which shamelessly maintains its ties with the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender. To fight against the symbiosis of cultural chauvinism and communal politics, to popularise the subaltern, Dravidian history.” – Rohit Vemula

The politics of student movement and youth protests in Kerala is historically rooted in the subtle analytical lines of caste, class, community and religion. The category of caste has opened up new critical questions on everyday campus life and student politics in Kerala. Importantly, the post-Rohit Vemula agitations had triggered the complex layers of everyday narratives, experiences and engagements of Keralite students and youth. Here, someone might have asked: why does the Vemula incident become more particular to student politics in Kerala?  To answer for this, we could find some major factors that govern current campus politics in Kerala, are Vemula’s critique of left politics as well as BJP, similarities of caste-based institutional murders and discrimination that took place in Kerala despite its rhetoric of Kerala model development, theoretical and pragmatic exclusion of caste/religion-related issues from Left organizations and CPM(I), and emerging Dalit-Muslim alliances in student activism. Following these factors, the article seeks primarily to understand how Rohit Vemula, as the symbol of resistance, shapes and engages with Keralite students from central universities, especially with students who have met with Vemula and appropriated his ethos of resistance working through Dalit-Muslim organizations at the University of Hyderabad and other students/youths who become part of liberalized education system of Kerala. This understanding will lead our probe to unlearn the contemporary process of student politics/movement in Kerala and to reinvent unfound horizons of exclusion/inclusion in everyday campus politics.

Emerging ‘A New Subaltern Self’ in Campuses

One of the dilemmas that I have felt while writing on this topic was whether I can write about student politics in Kerala without problematising the preponderant left politics on campuses. Here, I didn’t mean to argue that left politics is totally dismissive of progressive or democratic values. Moreover, I attempt to bring Vemula’s critique of Indian left student’s organisation in the central universities into the Kerala student politics. It is intended to unravel the contested spaces of ‘secular-left campuses’ through “exclusions within so-called inclusions.” Ritty Lukose has admitted the truth during her ethnography in Kerala campuses that normative debate about limits and possibilities of secularism within India demands an exploration of the everyday politics in and through the institutional spaces of Indian modernity.

Based on the everyday campus experiences, Vemula’s prime concern was about casteism. Despite his admiration of Marxism, he could find salvation in contemporary left politics. In his online diary written on Aug 13, 2014, he had contributed a new paradigm of ‘self-declaration’ in the everyday campus through his words (as shown in the opening of this article). My main contention in taking up the Rohith issue is a superficial understanding of Vemula connecting with the campus resistance and student movements. Placing him intellectually in the current political scenario is a necessary condition for retelling the stories of Dalits and minorities in India. It is especially challenging in the campus spaces in Kerala where the SFI and the Hindutva forces have a dominant presence in a large sense. According to Dalit activist OP Raveendran, the left party is wary of Dalit-Adivasi movements in Kerala campuses. The journey of Dalit movements from the formation of Kerala Harijan Students Federation (1980s) to the establishment of Dalits Students Movement (2002) has developed counter-hegemonic practices through the assertation of self and mobilization of the resources via reservations. However, many of us fail to understand Vemula as a new proponent of subaltern theory and practice or Dalit intellectual, along with a Dalit student activist. Even he has not written volumes and books on the subject and his daily theoretical engagements have rarely been discussed so far. For me, that position gives a new paradigm of thinking and breaking boundaries in student politics. Last but not the least, in the article titled “Striking Similarities to Rohit Vemula’s case at the Central University of Kerala”, written by Aathira Konikkara, she remembers Akhil Thazhath, a former student of the Central University of Kerala, who attempted suicide due to sustained harassment by the university administration. The day before his suicide attempt, he talked about Rohit Vemula and shared a poem on Facebook:

”The ones who fought for a day are good people
The ones who fought for several days are very good people
The ones who protested all their life…they are the essence and the substance of the fight.
The ones who fought even in death…they are the time and the vision of the fight.”

This poem gives a cue on how Vemula becomes a symbolic representation of voice for ‘margins’ in different individual/collective life moments.

Reflections of Vemula on ‘Political Public’ of Kerala and Mapping Narratives of Students and Youth

After the Vemula issue, self-declarations of identity and open talks of Dalit, Muslim and gender discriminations have been a visible and sound marker of student and youth politics in Kerala.[1] In those times, Rohith was a reference point to open up a new avenue in the subaltern public sphere in which larger artistic, revolutionary and political expressions of Dalit-Muslims became evident for everyone. To name a few, the first Malayalam book titled Rohith Vemula: Nizhalukalil Ninnum Nakshathrangalilek (Rohith Vemula: From shadows to stars), published by Kozhikode-based Vidyarthi publications (March 2016) was a notable collection of translated pieces of Vemula, article of Dalit activists thinkers in Kerala and memoirs that were written by K.P. Praveena, Vaikhari Aaryat and Jobi Mathew, Vemula’s friends and students at HCU.

The books published on Rohith Vemula show how the Rohith issue made it easy to rethink and reorder the contemporary political public of Kerala to some extent.[2] In the two documentaries – Rohith Vemula: Ekalavya of the new Era, as part of the episode titled  “Choonduviral” (Pointing Finger), produced by Manorma (published, Jan 24, 2016) and Rohit Vemulaye enth Kond Vyavasthapitha idathupaksham Marakkunnu (Why the systemic left forgets about Rohith Vemula), produced by Manorma TV (published on April 29, 2018) – different testimonies and narratives of Keralite students have been incorporated as it is the symbol of ‘performative politics’ in the universities. Performativity opens to a different politics which can be developed through appropriation, reappropriation, and misappropriation (Butler & Athansiou, 2013, 126). In the words of Etienne Baliber, it is the democratisation of democracy in the struggles over democracy’s internal and external exclusions (Aradau, 72).

In the Kerala context, the performative struggle is exhibited in the words of Sreerag, President of Student Union (2018), HCU. He says, “Rohit was a political reminder on prevailing casteism across Indian universities.” Then he adds, “In most of the protests led by non-left student organisations in Kerala, SFI and their party had tried to block it at any cost. SFI has taken up double stands in each social issue; even the SFI wing of HCU claims that the Kerala version of SFI is different from the one in HCU. I don’t know how long that claim would be rationally convincing.” This narration alludes to two subtle points. First, Leftist organisations had arrived forcibly in a temporal position in which moving forward without celebrating Rohith Vemula or showing concerns on caste issues was impossible even though they are used to ‘dubious stance’ on identity/caste issues. Vemula’s FB post on Jul 23, 2015 was a scathing attack on the left regarding the incident that happened in Kerala. The post reads: “Who would explain to the progressives of our campus that Chithralekha [a Dalit auto driver of Kerala who was beaten by a CPIM cadre] is as courageous and as atrociously treated by the state machinery as Teesta Setalvad! Gross Double Standards.” However, the Left governments in Kerala had held initial protests and programmes in commemoration of Rohith Vemula. After one year (Jan 8, 2017), the CPI(M), in its session in Thiruvananthapuram, expressed solidarity with Dalit organisations and supported the demand for the passage of a “Rohit Act.”[3] Second, the left hasn’t shown any readiness to acknowledge caste/identity/minority issues as the central problem of contemporary India. In 2016, the victory of the left parties had been considered as the safeguard of the rights of Dalits and Muslims from the BJP rule. But the government kept its distance and failed to make an alliance with Muslim/Dalit organisations. In the human gathering against fascism held by the left in the aftermath of Dadri lynching, the left excluded Dalit and Muslim organisations. Albeit the left organisations claim that they are the guardians of Dalit rights, the party becomes a force that promotes anti-Dalit sentiment/consciousness among students and youth. Violence against the Chengara tribal struggle for land, burning of auto rickshaw of Dalit woman Chitralekha, attack against Dalit woman by CPM member K Baskaran, using the state violence against the protesting mother of Jishnu Pranoy, negligence of taking action against the police officers for the firing in Beemapalli are the major anti-Dalit-Muslim atrocities backed by the Kerala left.

Even in the everyday campus life of Kerala, Dalit-Muslim students have been relegated to an alienated corner whenever they endorsed non-left organisations. As Aneesh observes, “the left uses violence or force to oppress the Dalit movements. Left dominant campuses, left student wings, especially SFI, use violence to oppress the dissenters or new campus movements.” In Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala, a Dalit student, Vivek Kumaran, was bullied and hit by the members of the SFI. He remembers, “Some of my friends are strong Ambedkarites, and their presence in the campus might have worried the SFI. The attack was an eye-opener about the vulnerability of Dalit students in educational institutions in Kerala.”

As Lukose argues, the present-absence of caste within the secular modernity of the left is evident due to the marginalisation of lower caste members within the organisations of the communist left (Lukose, 44). The non-familiarity of the left with Dalit-Muslim living experiences and their failure to understand the mindset makes the student organisation and the party ‘undemocratic’. In a Malayalam article, “The caste of SFI” (SFIyude Jati), Arun A has explored the empirical realities of Dalits students (including Abhilash PT) in Kerala campuses. He asserts that Dalits have formulated their ‘political self’ through their bitter experiences with major student organizations such as SFI, ABVP and KSU (Arun, 75). Taking some of my auto ethnographical experiences when I was doing MA in Sociology in Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, Kerala, where SFI had the unprecedented dominance since its establishment, I have been put up in the so-called ‘alienated position’ of the campus because of my Muslim identity that comprises of a white shirt, white lungi and toppi. During that time, my friends and I had talked about the formation of a literary collective for reading articles, book review, topic analysis and other artistic expressions. Next day, the Left-affiliated studentsw formed another cultural body afraid that were invading their dominant position in the campus. Similarly, interrogations and doubtful advice from the leftist students were manifest when a Muslim woman student dressed in pardah or a Muslim male student with Islamic toppi (skull cap) came to the campus. Saleem, an MSF activist, recalls that the university administration would not give an easy permission to conduct any cultural-political programmes for minority or pro-minority student organisations such as MSF, Fraternity and KSU. On the other side, the authority allowed permission for the ABVP to conduct a strike in the wake of the Sabarimala issue. He says, “Once I was returning to the hostel after the university class with toppi on my head. One of the leftist friends commented jokingly to me, ‘Your face looks like Jihadi Fazal’.” These striking experiences show the reality behind the liberal-secular mindset of the left organisation and their soft mindedness towards Hindutva. Moreover, it makes clear the necessity for the coalition of Dalit-Muslim students who can deal with the issues of caste-religion-identity in academic spaces (empathetically).

From the ‘Suicide’ to the ‘Institutional Murder’: Situating Vemula’s Framework in Kerala

Generally, the suicide of a particular person could have major socio-political causes and impacts on the body politic. Rather than being confined to a normative understanding, suicide can be conceived as a ‘political’ (not being apolitical) event in the public/private setting of a democratic India, whether in school, home, factory, forest, political Sabha and courtroom. Considering that the term mirrors an ‘institutional murder’, it has gone through major sociological theorisations, especially in Durkheimian and Marxian tradition. Durkheim says that “the causes of death are outside (social) rather than within us (individual) and are effective only if we venture into their sphere of activity” (11). Engels talked about a social murder in which no one can see the murderer because the victim’s death seems a natural one, regarding the chronic diseases in England (202). Based on these two theoretical reflections, we can assume that some suicides cannot be dealt with in a normative sense. Moreover, a suicide has to be located in a more significant socio-political condition of human life. Thus, the suicide of Rohith Vemula has been pregnant with various political meanings such as exclusion, unlearning, revolutionary activism and critical pedagogy, while we take account of it as an institutional murder.

At this juncture, the similar institutional murders that have happened recently in Kerala political public, deserve a sociological analysis. After the left government came to power in Kerala, two major suicide cases have gotten much media attention and sparked long political agitations. First, Jishnu Pranoy, a B.Tech. Student of Nehru Engineering College at Pampadi, was found hanging in the campus hostel on January 6, 2017. The main reason behind this institutional murder was emotional harassment by the college authorities. After the Kerala Police arrested Jishnu’s mother, the issue caused massive protests on campuses and social media. Starting of a social media page with the name, “Justice for Jishnu”, statements of political-cultural figures such as Ashiq Abu and NS Madhavan, and agitations of student political bodies have exposed the dark faces of the left-led state government and police. The case has been discussed by non-left student wings to compare it with the death of Rohith Vemula. Some of the trending tweets were, “When Vemula died, Sitaram Yechury rushed to Hyderabad to ‘console’ d family. In Kerala, his party’s govt is dragging d victim’s mother on roads!” (Deepu, April 6, 2017) and “An old Facebook post from Jishnu Pranoy on Pinarayi, and today Jishnu’s mother was arrested in front of Kerala police headquarters” (Jikku Varghese, April 5, 2017). Second, Devika, a 10th class Dalit student who lived in the Mankeri Dalit colony in Malappuram, killed herself for not being able to attend online classes that began on June 1. The case raised questions on whether the Kerala government started the classes without proper concern over the digital divide and its social problems.

The nature of agitations over these two issues shows that the response of the state, police and political parties and their resistance and struggle for social justice are hierarchically predetermined, especially when such issues come from subaltern sections. In the case of left politics in Kerala, Dalit, Muslim, and other minority student bodies have criticised the exclusionary left politics and selective self-understanding of the SFI. Here, I don’t mean to underestimate the relevance and value of left politics in India. Moreover, I would like to trace back how the political issues addressed by the Left body are being embedded in exclusionary inclusion of Dalit, Muslim and other marginalized sections. Rohith Vemula was a staunch critic of left politics, and he had pinpointed the “soft Hindutva approach” of the SFI and the limitations of their emancipatory politics. When we browse through Rohith Vemula’s FB posts, it is apparent that his critical reflections on Hindutva and left politics were an outcome of his praxiological engagements with living Dalit-Muslim issues of the everyday campus politics.

Some major FB writings of Vemula must be mentioned here: “Individual freedom to follow an atrocious religion (to the minorities and Dalits of this nation at the least) cannot be called as secularism. Forget about trying to call it communism or Marxism. Anyways, this is not a big surprise to us. In Bengal, the houses of CPIM leaders are the venues for Durga pujas. In Kerala, comrades are obsessed with Krishna and Vivekananda. In Telugu states, they are the vanguards of Hindu mythical festivals. / Why does your “tolerance” only go in one way??? Why comrades celebrate only Durga Puja, Onam or Saraswathi Puja but not Christmas or Muharram? Is there an element of “Untouchability” with these non-Hindu religions? Or is it because their vote base is majorly by those Hindu populaces? If that is the case, isn’t it rational to call these parties as the other side of the Hindutva coin? / Hardcore Hindutva is burning Muslim, Christian and Dalit houses. Soft Hindutva is burning crackers in the name of God and performing pujas. Progressive Hindutva is criticizing Hindutva, on Diwali day, in online, while having head bath and wearing new Clothes (Sarees) and walking in campus roads proudly.”[4]

These engagements of Rohith Vemula call us to understand how the left movement/body tries to avoid or overlook the marginalized positionalities of contemporary society. Vemula asserts that the disability of the left politics to empathize with the lifeworld of Dalit-Muslim minorities makes the leftists confined to the “theoretical pot of class analysis” and the “cloak of obedient party worker.” This position that enables Rohith Vemula to become an inevitable element of discourse in the political public of Kerala, seems to be a ‘new subaltern alternative’. The partial shift of leftist organizations from rejecting the role of caste organizations to selective use of caste icons such as Sri Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Chattambi Swamy (Pathania,15) and the formation of counter-narratives like as neel salam (Blue salute) or jai bhim lal salam(Salute to Ambedkar & Marx) instead of using lal salam (Red salute), coming from Dalit-leftist organizations, has introduced new alternatives to the existing self-understanding of student politics (p.16). So, Vemula’s framework could help Dalit, left, and minority student organisations shape each other in its form and content or turn their political bodies into a self-critical position. If this were to happen, it would reorient the Kerala political public by embracing ‘new subaltern selves’ and listening to their stories and demands in everyday life.

Photo: PTI

[1] The testimony of Dr. Prasanna K Vijayan regarding Ambedkarite politics and her educational journey from Kerala to Hyderabad is quite noticeable here. See Rohith Vemula-Jathiyillatha Maranathilekku’, edited by Prameela KP (DC Books, 2016 November). Pp. 100-108.

[2] Following this text, there are other studies such as Rohiht Vemula, Indian Fasicsmthinte Era, edited by KT Rejikumar (Mythri Books, 2016) and Rohith Vemula-Jathiyillatha Maranathilekku, edited by Prameela KP (DC Books, 2016 November), and Caste is not a rumour: The online Diary of Rohiht Vemula, edited by Malayali journalist Nikhila Henry.

[3] In recent Kerala polls, Congress-led United Democratic Front had promised in its manifesto that ‘Rohith Vemula Act’ would be implemented if they come to power. Most ironic thing is that the Left party hasn’t taken any reasonable steps for the implementation of the act for the last two years while they demanded for it in initial days after Vemula’s death.

[4] Here, I add some other major FB writings: “We are also hearing the very same ‘secular’ comrades trying to campaign about Ambedkarite student’s relation with Christians and Muslims of campus, and this kind of silly, stupid argument only exposes your impairment of differentiating between ‘Majoritarian conscience’ and ‘Minority Rights’. I also would like to clearly assert that defending your mistakes might give you a name of ‘obedient party worker’ but you cannot become a ‘Marxist’ or a ‘scientific socialist’, if you desperately defend your ‘ruling’ leaders at every embarrassment.’ / “Tolerance”, “Working Class”, “Brahminical” “Marxism”, “Communism”. Dear comrade, jaane dho, thujse nahi ho payega. Why do you strain yourself and the students so much with your desperate attempts to defend yourself? Join ABVP if you can’t afford getting rid of your dominant caste, upper class privileges. Then no one would even waste their energy asking you questions.”


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Mohammed Salih is PhD scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, Delhi. His research interest is in the anthropological and sociological enquiries of everyday religion, education, and gender.


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

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Shahad #

    All the best

    September 25, 2021

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