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Dalitbahujan Assertion In Red Soil: Recent Trends In JNU Student Politics

By Abhay Kumar

16 October, 2014

Till the last moment the result of 2014 Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) election remained unpredictable for most of political pundits. As many as four presidential candidates were locked in a close contest. On the second day of the counting when the lower rung of activists boosted up the morale of their supporters and sympathisers by raising air-rending slogans, the senior bosses, sipping tea and puffing on cigarettes after cigarettes, were busy persuading their flocks that their candidates would finally have the last laugh. But unlike many of these jittery faces, Dilip C Mandal, a senior journalist, author and keen observer of JNU politics, seemed relaxed, calm and confident when he forecast: ‘The result is going to turn in favour of Dalitbahujan candidates.’ The social category Dalitbahujan, according to subaltern ideologue Kancha Ilaiah (Why I am not a Hindu: 2012), denotes ‘people and castes who form the exploited and suppressed majority.’

In the middle of September every year when the scenery of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) covers itself in a green blanket, thousands of JNUites and non-JNUites gather at the lawn of School of International Studies (SIS). The annual three-day long “political pilgrimage” is held on the occasion of the counting of JNUSU election during which the crowd eagerly awaits the blaring of Election Commissioner’s loudspeakers that keep giving update about trends and results at a regular interval.

Dinesh Kumar Ahirwar, a Ph.D student of Chinese Studies, who contested for the post of president in 2011 JNUSU election under the banner of social justice, chipped in with his own observation. ‘Since a candidate can only contest for the central panel once, this has opened the avenues for lower castes students. Earlier upper castes students used to field themselves years after years, scuttling any scope for the newcomers.’ While Ahirwar, like Mandal, noticed the decline of upper caste dominated leadership in JNU, he attributed this to the Lyngdoh recommendations, which has been in forces since 2011. Such an open appreciation of the Lyngdoh recommendations is rare among left and democratic circles of JNU that considered the Lyngdoh document as a ruling classes’ attempt to take the wind out of student politics’ radicalism. For example, United Dalits Students Forum (UDSF), to which he is associated, has been the part of Joint Struggle Committee against Lyngdoh.

Next day when the national media were reporting All India Students’ Association (AISA)’s victory of all four central panel posts, another equally important aspect was mostly left untouched to which Mandal hinted the previous night. All four winners for central panel were from Dalitbahujan social background--Ashutosh Kumar, a Yadav, for president, Anant Prakash Narayan, a Dalit, for vice-president, Chintu Kumari, a Dalit, for general secretary and Shafqat Hussain, a Kashmiri Muslim, for joint secretary.

Sharing their views to media, Ashutosh Kumar and Chintu Kumar were absolutely unambiguous to call their victory as the victory of deprived section (vanchit tabqa). ‘We have been fighting for winning the claim (dawedari) of deprived section,’ Chintu said in a news pragramme on a TV channel.

It was not only the winners but also the runners-up and a large number of other contenders, who came from the below. For example, Rahila Perween of Left Progressive Front (LPF), who finished as a runner-up for the post of president, is a pasmanda (OBC) Muslim, Sourabh Kumar of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), who stood third, is a Kurmi and Pindiga Ambedkar of Students’ Federation of India (SFI), who stood fourth, is a Dalit.

Is the result of 2014 JNUSU election an assertion of Dalitbahujan in the Red Soil? If one looks at the recent trend of JNUSU politics, one is persuaded to call it a Dalitbahujan assertion. In what follows, I will briefly discuss these assertion in three spheres—(a) changing social composition of student leadership in JNU, (b) Dalitisation of public culture and (c) inclusion of Dalitbahujan agendas to political imaginary of JNU.

According to Philip G Altbach (Student Politics and Higher Education in India, Daedalus, 1968), student politics in India emerged in the early 20th century but the first mass mobilisation was seen during the Non-Cooperation Movement with the first annual All-India College Student Conference held in Nagpur in 1920 “to provide co-ordination for the growing student political movement.” Gradually regional students’ federations were established in Bengal, Punjab, Bombay and other parts of India. But despite the swelling of the numbers in student politics, it was, in both pre and post-Independence, dominated by upper caste, class, urban and male elites. The least represented was lower caste as there was very little educational avenue open for them. It was only in the post-1947 era that a slow entry of lower castes was made. But their admission to higher education and politics was nowhere near to challenge the domination of upper caste hegemony. Yet another major impediment to the emergence of lower caste student politics in the past was the lack of implementation of reservation for SCs, STs and OBCs.

Established in 1969, JNU, despite its claim to be based on the idea of social justice, remained for a long period upper castes and classes-dominated institution. JNU could provide reservations to students and faculty belonging to Dalitbahujan in the wake of years of sustained struggles. Umakant, noted human rights activist and former student of JNU, recalled that a sustained struggle had to be waged before the appointment of the first SC faculty member in the early 1990s. ‘When JNU was celebrating its silver jubilee celebration and then President of India Shankar Dayal Sharma was invited as the guest we protested and ensured that he should not reach the campus. Our protest was justified because Dalits, Adivasis, Backward castes were abysmally denied their rights in a so-called progressive university.’

Since the first JNUSU election in November 1971, most of JNUSU presidents came from the upper strata of society. For example the first president of JNU was a Brahmin, O N Shukla (1971-72, Independent). Even the most “popular” and “successful” student leaders were all from the top--CPM General Secretary Prakash Karat, a Nair, (1973-1974, SFI), Aam Aadmi Party leader Anand Kumar, a Bhumihar, (1974-75, Free Thinkers), D. P. Tripathi, a Brahmin, (1975-1976, SFI) and Sitaram Yechury, a Brahmin, (1976-1977, SFI) etc.

This process of assertion may be traced back to the implementation of Mandal reservation by the early 1990s. Chandrasekhar Prasad of AISA, a Koiri, and Battilal Bairwa of SFI, a Dalit, became presidents for two terms from 1994-96 and 1996-1998 respectively. Apart from them, there were also a few leaders from minority and women category, who got elected. Naseer Hussain (1999-2000, SFI), Albeena Shakil (2001-2002, SFI), Mona Das (2005-07, AISA) were the presidents of JNU.

But the major change to the social composition of JNUSU leadership was witnessed in post-Mandal II. With the implementation of 27% OBC reservation in this premier institution, the social demography began to shift in favour of Dalitbahujan. Today the percentage of non-upper caste students is roughly estimated to be around 50 per cent in JNU. If one includes other deprived social groups, minority and women, to this, the upper castes and classes will become a minuscule minority.

This change of social demography is seen as a major factor influencing the result of last three JNUSU elections (from 2012-14) during which all presidents were from marginalized identity—V Lenin Kumar (2012, SFI-JNU or DSF), an OBC from Tamil Nadu, Akbar Chawdhary (2013, AISA), a Muslim from UP and Ashutosh Kumar (2014, AISA), a Yadav from Bihar.

Yet another example of this assertion is the growth of a number of student organisations founded on the ideology of Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar in post-Mandal II phase. Some of them are All India Backward Students Forum, Untouchable India, Students for Social Justice, All India Backward Students’ Parliament etc.

Moreover, JNU has been undergoing Dalitisation of public culture. Over the years, the traditionally-strong left student organisations of JNU, which have been alleged to have ignored Dalit-Bahujan icons till recently, have now no hesitation in wearing Ambedkar, Periyar, Birsa Munda and Phule’s badge on their sleeves. The images, symbols and icons of subaltern are all over the place in JNU campus. Last year, the portraits of Phule, and Birsa Mudna were installed in JNUSU office. Unlike the past, recent wall posters, pamphlets and badges, carrying the slogans and images of Dalitbahujan heroes and heroines, seem to have “outshone” those of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao.

Apart from that the celebration of Durga Puja on the campus has also been questioned and instead of Durga, the icon of Mahisasur is being constructed as a subaltern hero. This has sparked off new debates on religion, culture and Marxism in JNU.

Two years back, JNU was in news over beef and pork festival controversy. Student organisations like The New Materialist (TNM), Naga Study Forum and Concerned Students (CS) came out in support. Public meetings were addressed by noted scholars like Prof Kancha Ilaiah, Prof Nivedita Menon, etc. on the democratic right to choice of food, inviting the wrath of the Hindu right.

Another manifestation of this assertion is the inclusion of subaltern agendas. For long the upper castes Marxists contended that any talk of caste and reservation would fracture the working class solidarity but now the ideologues of left parties have no hesitation in having their script and speech emblazoned with terms like “social justice”, “inclusion”, representation”, “reservation”, “dignity”, “annihilation of caste” etc. For example, AISA’s four-page “JNUSU Elections 2014: Our Perspective and Agenda” had a separate section for social justice and inclusion—(a) reduction of viva weightage, (b) expansion of the scope of fellowships for students from deprived backgrounds, (c) launching of new fellowships for OBCS students, (d) increase in the number of Maulana Azad National Fellowship’, (e) giving five deprivation points to Muslims, more recognition of Madrasa certificates, (f) reduction of eligibility criterion for OBCs students and the implementation of reservation for faculty position. Like other left-wing organisations, SFI also incorporated agendas for social justice. SFI’s 2014 manifesto similarly promised to wage struggle for reservation, fellowship, deprivation points, reduction in eligibility criteria and revitalization of remedial classes etc.

Before I close this discussion, I should also touch upon the critique of assertion thesis. The critics argued that the representation of deprived sections itself does not necessarily lead to their empowerment and end of structural inequalities. They contended that elected representatives sometimes privilege sectarian party interests or individual benefits over the rights to the toiling masses. ‘We have to see how far these elected leaders are able to raise the issues of deprived sections within the party and outside of it,’ said Chandrasen, a PhD student and 2013 presidential candidate for JNUSU. While this concern is a serious one and Dalitbahujan leaders must heed to this, this should not stop us from welcoming the dynamism on the campus.

Abhay Kumar (debatingissues@gmail.com) is a Ph.D student of Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.



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