The University life of Dalit Students and the ASA
By Prajwal Gaikwad
Rohith was forced to commit suicide on 17 January, 2016 by hanging himself with the ASA banner. His aspiration to become a writer like Carl Sagan was brought to an end. However, it gave voice to the marginalised students across the country to resist the institutional caste discrimination against them. The imbibed exclusion and discrimination were now resisted through the language of “caste discrimination”, which till then was hardly a discourse in the educational spaces. His last words to many like me, became a source of power and brought us to university spaces with an assertion of our marginalised identities.
Dalits and the ‘caste’ campus
“May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident.” (From the last note of Rohith Vemula)
“We could not find a potential candidate with merit for the seat,” were the words I heard in my first ever protest gathering after joining the University of Hyderabad. It was one of a series of protests called by the ASA against the non-implementation of reservation policy, where the competent authority was continuously negating the entry of students from marginalised communities into university space. I am a second-generation learner from Maharashtra, the first in my family to have access to higher education and to enter the university space. With the economic security that my parents could avail, they raised me with an assurance of the most possible resources that they were deprived of to send me for higher education. I was the first kid in the house to go to an English medium school, to bring to the house the foreign language that for them was the path to an empowered future. Their entire resources were focused on my fluency in English. This language had a huge contribution in bringing me to the university; however, it was not sufficient to make me be treated as an equal human in that entire journey. The words from the authorities directed to speak their prejudices, were a personal comment. It was an erasure of the generational struggle of my family to send me to pursue higher education. Over the harnessed merit, where the upper caste pupils are manufactured in their generations of access to higher education, access to international schools and private coaching centers; this merit was sufficient to boycott the Dalit students from entering the university campuses.
In all, 71 PhD and MPhil reserved seats were vacant in the academic year of 2019-20 (RTI filed by the ASA). This is a result of the impunity granted to the academic units in the admission process, where the upper-caste faculties use this as an opportunity to do gatekeeping of Dalit students from entering the university. Access to higher education for Dalit students is a beginning of new life, a dignified life to the generations that were oppressed under caste system. However, when Dalit students with their struggle make it to the universities, the journey inside the university is a lonely battle against the discrimination within the classroom and outside. The classroom is often built with a thin wall, where students sit according to their caste groups. It is unspoken, but generally the first benchers, who are generally upper-castes, are regarded as ‘meritorious’, ‘the teachers’ who exercise the liberty of questioning and debating. When Dalit students in the classroom question the upper-caste faculties, they are ridiculed and answered arrogantly. Some of them, already considered to have bad English, never gather the strength to counter-question in the classroom. Eventually, the classroom turns into a space of one-sided discussion, a power relation of caste. There Dalit students are then turned to passive learners who are not supposed to question. Another power dynamic is visible in the extra-class interaction of students with the faculties. My upper-caste classmates always had access to the office of the faculties. It became a space of extra-class interaction and debate for most of them. After gathering huge courage, when I tried stepping into these spaces, the experience was often unwelcoming. After being recognised as a member of the ASA, these experiences became more stringent and the possibility of excommunication became more obvious. My debates around caste, around Ambedkar, in the classroom were met with anxious eyes, as if I was trying to provoke them. My caste assigned me a role, and this role in its modern disguise made me feel like I didn’t belong to that place unless and until I fulfilled the norms of their casteist expectations. This hostility makes many of the students from the marginalised communities to leave the universities and bring an end to their aspirations. According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), between the period of 2017 of 2019, in the premiere institutes of IIT, 1,171 (or 47.5 percent) of the 2,461 dropouts were from Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) (India, 2021). Therefore, the higher education spaces for students from marginalised communities are the stories of unending trauma and agony, which devise various means to seek their exclusion and expiration from the campuses.
Erasing the History
The institutional murder of Rohith had grabbed a huge attention in the media. It was for the first time that the death of a Dalit student in a university space was to grab a nationwide attention. However, most of them termed this act as an act of cowardice. Dalit students in the campuses were often confronted and ridiculed because the former regarded the suicide as the consequence of caste discrimination. What they saw was a dead Rohith, what they meant was the killed aspirations, his powerlessness to fight the systemic caste oppression. Rohith for them was to be erased from the memory, to hide the caste practice in India by the upper-castes, especially in modern spaces like universities. Hence, the Brahminical forces were concentrated in the narratives that feared a Rohith that took birth among the Dalit students across the country. Situated far from the site, the media hardly covered the struggle of the ASA to lead the battle. It was in the making of upper-caste leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar, and other left organisations portrayed as the bearers of the fight. The ASA never made the headlines. While the huge mass mobilisation and the agitation of Dalit leaders in the parliament was difficult enough to not to get into broadcast, the Bhraminical attitude of the media tried its best to divert the public attention from the issue.
This opportunity was utilised by the various progressive and left organisations in the University of Hyderabad to erase the history of Rohith. Distortion of Dalit histories has been a Brahminical attitude to secure their caste privilege and suppress the movement for self-respect. Various narratives of the movement are circulated to ensure that the ‘caste’ of progressive organisations remain unquestioned. The ranking list of the new coming students provides the organisations the data of the Dalit students entering the campuses. Their entire machineries henceforth are invested in grabbing the membership of Dalit bodies in their organisation to produce an image of an inclusive version of their Bhraminical intensions. The leadership in these organisations are clustered with the upper-caste students; Dalits here are to be ensured to maintain their ‘inclusive’ sanctity. For Dalit students, it is for the first time in the universities, where they are exposed to a diverse political environment. Limited access to resources makes these experiences threatening and intimidating. I was approached with various versions of the Rohith movement and the Dalit politics in large by upper caste comrades. Almost all of them drew a vilified picture of the ASA, often explaining to me that the organisation exhibited “rowdy and violent politics.” The story was stretched to the January 2002 protest, where 10 Dalit students were rusticated for resisting the castiest policy of the University. Near about 100 Dalit students attended the protest. The administration charged 10 students (some of them who were not even present in the protest) with cases and were sent to 6 days of incarceration in police custody. These narratives, however, never recognized the fact that this protest was called against Appa Rao, the then Chief Warden, for the implementation of the CPS (Central Purchasing System). The system was trying to privatize the mess and was to increase the mess bill by 50%, directly impacting the students from marginalised communities (Law Committee, 2002). It was the result of which Appa Rao nurtured the enmity against the ASA, and later took it as an opportunity to seek his revenge by institutionally murdering Rohith. In 2019, the Velivada, a space near the shopping complex where these five rusticated students took residence, was abolished by the university administration. It was one of the prominent symbols that witnessed the movement and established the memory of their suffering. While on the one hand, the administration was to erase the symbols of his struggle, the elective greed of the progressive organizations looked to dismantle the memory of the movement by distorting facts. These two agencies, which might appear often contesting each other in the sphere of the university, however, do not mark a distinct motive. The motive remains to disrupt the self-respect movement of marginalised students to bring them under the Brahmanical fold, either by excluding them or by creating them their scapegoats.
ASA as a Counter Space
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” (From the last note of Rohith)
Rohith with his associates had set up a velivada in the shopping complex, generally a space in a Caste village where Dalits are ghettoized. It not just meant an atypical symbol of caste in the villages but instituting velivada in a university space was the nature of the university itself (Sukumar, 2016). It is in this bifurcation that the ASA breaks the walls of caste and gives an identity to its members. Social media plays an important role in university politics. Having a social security system to call out culprits, the upper-caste students often use it as a platform to bring immediate justice to their experience of ill-treatment. It was a habit for the upper-caste seniors with the imbibed power to intrude in our personal space. This granted access later for me turned into a space of intimidation and threat. The effort was to pull my opinion towards their respective organisations without giving any leverage to Dalit students or to understand the nature of the university politics. Probably, this is because after staying on campus, it does not take much long for marginalised students to break the hypocrite bubble of these progressive and left organisations to their insensitivity towards Dalit students. When I reported one such incident on social media, the reaction was one which turned me more hostile. The organisations extended impunity to its cadres by protecting them against any accusations by Dalit students. This in return, makes Dalit students helpless and more hostile. Rather than bringing the accused to justice, I was pushed to isolation where my access to my seniors was restricted. My caste and gender location made the space more vulnerable, and I was forced to a state of constant insecurity. The relationship between a senior and a junior in a university plays an important role. It is often the seniors, who possess the experience of living in the university and facilitate access to academic resources. This expatriation from the classroom and other university spaces delegates the outcast(e)ing of the Dalit students, which curtails their experience in the process of acquiring education. Prabuddha Bharat is the study circle that is curated by the ASA. For me, this was the space where I could read Ambedkar, debate caste, and develop an academic language from which I was restricted and excluded. Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar, and all the anti-caste thinkers who are generally excluded from the classroom curriculum, were read and discussed. It provided access to seniors and gave an ideological consciousness for the battle against caste. It was here that education, which the Brahmanical nature of university frames toothless to silence our daily discrimination, was answering why we are treated differently. It was the space where the language of oppression turned into the language of empowerment and gave courage to many like me to assert our identities and break through the inferiority induced on us. It created a community of shared sufferings and common destiny.
Whether it was a protest call, or the ASA election campaign, the stigmatised and marginalised culture was a site of power exhibition. Being reduced to vote and representation, we now could negotiate with power. It was under the stereotypes of ‘rowdyism’, that a Dalit Queer person like me, standing in the lowest of the social hierarchy, could ensure security to avail their opportunity in the university. It was this counter-space of the ASA which gave me a voice, and ensured that I not just survived the ‘caste’ campus but became a tiger of Babasaheb, an ‘alive’ Rohith that caste never wanted us to be. This brings an inception to the various Dalit student organisations running across the country to not to be looked as mere political units. The ASA is a social movement, a journey from a shadow to a star, a movement that will not die until the caste Hindus stop practicing their inhuman, unjust practice of caste.
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Prajwal Gaikwad, MA in History, University of Hyderabad. Former Joint Secretary of ASA (2019-2021). Founder Member of Ambedkar Students Organisation (ASO), FC, Pune. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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