I joined JNU in 2002, as a language student. It would later dawn upon me that it must have marked me, like all of us who completed their graduation from the School of Languages, in the eyes of students pursuing Masters and beyond as less-than-deserving of claiming JNU’s legacy. Many of us came from Bihar and UP, and were seen as the Great Unwashed by the rest of the campus which included students who had done their graduation from fancier places and were studying more cerebral subjects under illustrious professors.
It was intimidating. Even when you joined a political organisation which followed the ideals of Marx and Lenin, hierarchy based on social status continued to be operational. The economics students were the real upper-caste Marxists by default because economics was considered much more difficult – it involved maths and concerned itself with Marx’s theories directly. So even if you were an upper-caste – like me – you still had to face subtle discrimination if you did not do your graduation from the right place or if your father was not a politician or senior bureaucrat or if you were not from any metro or if you did not study the right subject. For the outsiders, this may come as a surprise, but I assure you that if you will dig deep, you will find it to be true.
One can only imagine how difficult must it be for the lower castes to survive in this so-called bastion of progressive politics. As it is, it has been well-established that candidates from lower castes have generally been given less marks in viva-voce and thus denied admission to the university despite scoring well in the written test. The university has lagged behind in fulfilling the quota for OBC and Dalit faculty.
Clearly, something is rotten in the state of JNU, when it comes to the caste question. (And gender too, but that is for another day. Yes, some may ask, how did JNU manage to fight back when targeted by RSS and its cronies earlier this year? Well, I believe it was possible due to larger unity among the students, regardless of the leadership which remained split under different factions and could not come to a joint understanding on any issue. It was a face-saving miracle for which these organisations should thank the ordinary students and not seek credit instead for any leadership).
Some of these issues were raised by the presidential candidate for BAPSA – Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association – Rahul Sonpimple in the presidential debate on September 7. Without mincing words, Sonpimple exposed the so-called Left unity being bandied about in the shape of the AISA and SFI alliance. (Disclosure: I was with SFI in my initial student days at JNU. After the incidents that occurred in Nandigram and Singur, I stopped participating in its activities in anyway. Nevertheless, I have maintained contacts with some of my ex-comrades whom I still admire for their uprightness).
To start with, the alliance of AISA and SFI was quite shocking for most people who have observed or participated in JNU’s politics in anyway. A former SFI activist who is now with DSF said to me: ‘if they are together, who is the Opposition? Our entire politics was based on opposing each-other.’
Even if one were to grant the plea that the association is necessary for defeating the ABVP, it does not detract from the criticism Sonpimple made in his speech on Wednesday. AISA’s position is further weakened by the fact that one of its senior activists, Anmol Ratan (Disclosure: I knew him as a source for some of the articles I have written on JNU for different publications) has been accused of rape recently. Not surprisingly, Sonpimple was shouted down when he repeated the allegation towards the end of his speech about AISA defending Ratan. You can watch the speech here
What was most instructive was the way the AISA-SFI combine’s presidential candidate Mohit Pandey mocked Sonpimple and called shame on BAPSA politics in the most tone-deaf and egregious manner. This was in tune with the general blindness displayed by the Left parties when it comes to caste, a long standing fault-line of progressive politics. The Left has always termed politics based on caste as Identity Politics, something that does not fit in with their emphasis on class. Although some conciliatory, and even condescending noises have been made lately about how it could still be accommodated when it came to the cultural arena, it still remains anathema to the Left. Mohit noted that the Left too has Dalits in its ranks, as if that absolved them of everything Sonpimple brought up.
Not surprisingly, Pandey accused BAPSA of helping the ABVP, and weakening Left unity. This has been an age-old accusation by Left when facing criticism. Sonpimple tackled it in his speech by pointing out that ABVP was like Gabbar Singh from the film Sholay whose bogey was raised often by the comrades to keep their flock together. “This time, Kabali will come,” he jokingly added in his speech, referring to the latest Rajnikanth film which has been praised for its caste-consciousness.
There were three other candidates who spoke – from Swaraj Abhiyan, ABVP and NSUI. The last two candidates were mostly heckled, so one could not make out much of what they said. The Swaraj Abhiyan candidate got to speak but did not say anything particularly exceptional.
It must be remembered that JNU’s caste composition has undergone a radical shift, as a cover story in Forward Press by Pramod Ranjan pointed out: “it can be safely presumed that at least 70 per cent of the students in the university are non-Dwij.”
The story adds that except in 2015, when Kanhaiya Kumar from AISF, a Bhumihar, won as president, last three years saw non-upper castes taking up the mantle. It does note that Kumar has managed to include Ambedkarite thought in his worldview which comes across in his speeches.
All indications are thus pointing to the possibility that Rahul Sonpimple should emerge victorious in the JNU polls. Let us now wait and watch.