Freedom Square is empty

How Dalit-Bahujan students know no solidarity – Dhrubo Jyoti reports from JNU

Jawaharlal Nehru University’s so-called freedom square is always packed with people every time a protest is called in the avowedly progressive institution –the crush of people at midnight last March spilling onto the roads to hear Kanhaiya Kumar speak is still seared in popular memory.

But when I walked in for a series of public talks last Thursday, none of that spontaneous mobilization was visible. A group of 11 students had been suspended and thrown out of the hostel hours before and they had called the protest. Only a few people ambled about as anxious students called in support and there were few representatives from either the union or the teachers. Although the attendance has picked in recent days, the crowds are missing.

The students union – which was behind the massive gatherings last year – had called a separate march later in the evening, I was told. “Everyone is waiting for one of the students to commit suicide, it seems,” says a protester.

The JNU’s half-a-century of existence has always been a contentious space for marginalized communities, even for a campus that hollers progressivism and has been known for its Left-oriented activism. Visit any Dalit, bahujan, adivasi, queer, minority or disabled student at the university and you’ll hear tales of marginalization, of being thrown out of class, of being left out of spaces, reduced to a token sentence in an election speech and constantly erased.

But this time is different. At the heart of the protests are demands to reduce the weightage given to viva-voce marks in examinations, expansion of reservations at the faculty and doctoral levels and arresting a fee spike – all tactics used throughout the university’s history to keep out Dalit, bahujan students.

The students union that is dominated by left-leaning groups continues to stay away from protests called by the students and organize their own events – a reminder that those who speak for the margninalised often want nothing to do with the marginalized.

The university says these students were undisciplined and engaged in violence but the struggle is really against the laws of sanatana dharma that our universities continue to uncritically replicate. Many of the suspended students come from marginalised backgrounds and the attack on their education and places to stay only remind us of how the Vedas exhort the guardians of knowledge to punish Dalits who dare to study.

The protests also come at a time the university has decided to walk in a different direction and make interviews the sole criterion for admission.

Why is this a blow? Because the campus – and indeed, educational institutions across India – are replete with stories of broken dreams of Dalit Bahujan students who score impressively in written examinations but flunk interviews.

In entrance examinations, in annual tests and continuous assessments, Dalit bahujan adivasi students are often not taken seriously, marked as quota students, let off with a few cursory questions and always awarded single-digit marks.

As a consequence, students from dominant communities who have cultural and social capital sail through examinations while pupils trying to defy the laws of Manu are given 3 out of 30 viva marks.

Many of them are forced to drop out of school because of a lack of institutional support, and are quickly dismissed as unmeritorious and ill-deserving of a seat in JNU. They never make the honour rolls. They are never remembered when progressives fondly remember the former glory of JNU.

This has been the hallowed history of one of India’s best universities. This has been the history of merit.

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Dhrubo Jyoti Written by:

I am a 26-year-old journalist who works and lives in New Delhi. I identify as a Dalit, genderqueer person and work on issues of caste, gender, sexuality.

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