Politics of Belonging in Indian Universities


On 13 March 2017 Muthukrishnan/Rajini Krish, a Dalit research scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, killed himself. Yet another suicide by a Dalit student, the latest in a long line. While Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad Central University in January of 2016 sparked off a massive anti-caste movement in HCU, with all classes remaining suspended for several days and more than once, JNU saw no such upsurge. While Rohith Vemula’s suicide was quickly declared an institutional murder, a phrase adopted by all democratic and progressive sections almost immediately, there is caution over terming Rajini Krish’s suicide an institutional murder. While Rohith’s suicide prompted the emergence of a demand for a Rohith Act that placed on the table the structural and systemic discrimination on the basis of caste meted out to Dalit students in institutions of higher education, a careful investigation into the reasons behind Rajini Krish’s suicide is being called for. There is a split, as is often the case, amongst students’ groups, as well as faculty. Ambedkarites have called it an institutional murder. Most others making up the large parts of the Left, liberals, progressive and democratic forces have remained more ‘cautious’, desisting as yet, from giving it this label.

Was there a difference between the two cases? Yes. Rohith, along with four other Dalit research scholars, part of a political organisation, were being targeted and hounded by the university administration on the insistence of the ruling party and the central government, due to their confrontation with students of ABVP. This targeting had dangerous consequences precisely because of the structural forms of discrimination and alienation that Dalit students face in institutions of higher education in India.Rajini Krish’s growing sense of unease, alienation, isolation and of being discriminated against has been brought out by more than one person with whom he shared his growing loneliness repeatedly. Rajini Krish was not targeted and hounded like Rohith was. But he was subject to the same systemic and structural marginalisation and discrimination that Rohith too faced, and that the large majority of Dalit students face. This sense of alienation takes on an even more salient character in institutions of higher education, in institutions of learning and knowledge production, in institutions that train us to think and theorise – an arena, pertaining to honing our mental faculties, that has historically been the prerogative of upper castes, and even of brahmins in particular, in this country.

Wait. Don’t stop reading. Read on a little more.

A political disclosure is necessary at this point. I am an ‘upper’ caste/’upper’ class urban English-speaking woman who comes from the Left. Ok let’s continue.

There is outrage pouring out from the Ambedkarites about the lack of outrage in JNU about the death of their peer. The absence of an anti-caste shriek at this moment in the one of the most progressive campuses in the country. About the numbing continuation of routine life in the University. The contrast with HCU is stark to say the least. They have amplified their critique of the left liberals/progressives. And why?

Because Rajini Krish had expressed his sense of isolation and alienation in the Centre for Historical Studies. He had spoken to his friends about how he had no friends in CHS. About how he was anxious about how everyone had found a supervisor and he didn’t still have one. He felt alone, he told his friends, and as though he was being discriminated against. Some faculties in the Centre have, I hear, gone on the defensive to state how many SC/ST students they have supervised. A couple of students from the Centre have, I hear, started a signature campaign trying to resist the ‘bad name’ this case is giving to the Centre. A little context for those who aren’t clued in. CHS is supposed to be one of the strongest departments in JNU, and amongst the social sciences particularly, also known to be one of the best history departments in the country. It has some of the country’s best-known historians who have published extensively, are known for their work across the world and have a record of high academic standard (meritorious?). Along with this reputation, it is also known, then, to be a hub of left liberals and progressives, from where strong voices of critique of the current regime emerge, a space where students are taught to ask difficult questions, engage in critical inquiry, and do the kind of freethinking and critical work that ABVP (and RSS) is threatened by and would like to silence shut.

At the heart of the rage of Dalit students speaking up against spaces that we, on the Left, have held dear is this – that they are spaces that alienate and marginalise their voices. Progressive politics in universities are dominated by social, cultural and liberal elites, people like me. Where students come from other sections – Hindi speaking, rural areas, etc – they come to be integrated into these spaces only by becoming a part of and adopting that same culture. So the presence of non-elites in these spaces is not an adequate defense. Despite being inhabited, possibly, by students coming from different walks of life, they are spaces that are defined by and belong to this liberal elite. The values, symbols, gestures, cultural paraphernalia are defined by this liberal elite. The arena of democratic student politics has always been dominated by this elite. To be sure it has played an important role in challenging anti-democratic forces in campuses. Yes these ‘democratic/progressive spaces’ are often breathing spaces for us, as a woman I can say this. However, it has remained non-self-reflexive in how it is itself structured. It is trained in Nehruvian modernity. It is sharp in its analytical skills and theoretical articulations – but it never asks how ‘skill’ comes to be, or how ‘theoretical’ is defined. By remaining a space that belongs to this elite, it marginalises, excludes and alienates voices that are not palpable to this elite.

The story of CHS and so many other spaces I myself am closely acquainted with (I went to LSR, TISS and then Delhi School of Economics) is this. They all have in common some elements as this – they are known to be some of our best institutions (again, merit?), they are dominated by liberal elites who are articulate, known for being a fountain of progressive, modern ideas, for being irreverent to our conservative societal norms and traditions and are hailed as spaces and legacies that need to be protected from reactionary forces. However, they remain elite. Until we recognise and acknowledge the elite character of the arena of progressive student politics, of renowned centres of critical social science research and teaching, of the faculties and students that inhabit these spaces and own it and belong to it, we will hit a wall. That wall will prevent us from ever changing the elite character of these spaces. We are reproducing a hierarchy, a deeply entrenched hierarchy over who can and may theorise, write, articulate, a hierarchy sanctified in our caste system and institutionalised in an academia and social sciences first established in the colonial period.

Why was it so hard for CHS to have urgently come together to release a statement that asks all members of the Centre as well as the rest of their colleagues and peers to introspect on why a fellow student felt the kind of alienation he did, felt like he was being discriminated against (even if no one in that Centre believes they specifically discriminated against him)? To reflect on the nature of the space that is CHS? To recognise its elite character? Why is it that when a student, a classmate, is dead, we cannot find it in ourselves to ask why he felt so alone as to to kill himself? The loneliness and alienation is not the product of CHS alone, and no one has in fact attempted to suggest this. The loneliness and alienation is a product of the structural nature of caste that shapes the everyday life of Dalits, and in a particularly sharp manner in educational institutions. This comes out time and time again in the testimonies of Dalit students. If we recognise that caste fundamentally shapes the experiences and identity of a Dalit student entering universities, then we must recognise that seemingly ‘personal’ emotions of loneliness are no longer the experience of an individual unable to socialise with his classmates, but structural, reinforcing the alienation that our casteist society thrusts on Dalit students. Coming forward to acknowledge the elite character of the spaces we inhabit, where we hone our mental faculties, will only lead to a move towards greater democratisation of these spaces. Else, we remain mere hypocrites.

There is a second crucial element that is specific to these liberal academic spaces of learning and knowledge production, and that is the arena of how knowledge itself is constructed. As a sociologist, if we were to take the example of the disciplinary history of sociology in this country, we would trace its establishment to the early twentieth century, at the insistence of colonial logic. We would find it was specifically established with the purpose of controlling academic spaces and intellectual development in order to drive it away from anti-colonial revolutionary activity. We would find that G.S. Ghurye, the founding father of Indian sociology, was handpicked by colonial administrators from Elphinstone College in Bombay for his “unusual lack of political concern in his college” (Savur 2011: 16) in order to be groomed to lead the discipline of Sociology. His Hindu nationalism sprinkled all over his work is well-known and I am not going to go into the details of his sociology here. We would read about his disowning A.R. Desai as his student who broke away from his framework to ask uncomfortable questions about the hierarchies present within Indian society. We would notice the shift in the centre of sociology from Bombay to Delhi, to be lead then by M.N. Srinivas.

Why is any of this relevant here? It is relevant because there is a second level to the alienation our thriving centres of social sciences create. And this is intellectual alienation. Dalit students talk not only of their social alienation in these elite spaces, but of their intellectual alienation. Why is it that we do not use moments like this to reflect on the very nature of our social sciences? Why is our academic and intellectual culture such that, despite writing of subaltern subjects, social stratification, caste, nationalism, resistance and oppression, it is not able to speak to a section of students in the class? Could it be that we need to think about how ‘doing academics’ is itself steeped in a history deeply scarred by unequal power relations such that it structures the very way in which we are taught to read, learn and think? Can we possibly use this moment to engage ourselves constructively in radically re-imagining what is considered ‘academic’, ‘theoretical’ or ‘critical’? Could we maybe push ourselves to recognise the gap, that we often blame on the poor state of primary education in this country, and open up spaces to think of new syllabuses, new sets of readings, new standards of assessment, and new ways of doing academics? The students’ movement in South Africa has raised a demand for free public decolonial socialist education. Is it not the time to rethink what kind of education we want, that begins to break away from the hierarchical structure we have inherited from a colonial-upper caste combine?

At the end I will return to the fraught distance between Ambedkarites and the Left. I do not believe the Left and Right are the same. As part of the Left, I believe these are moments to democratise the Left and to sharpen its fight for emancipation, not lose faith in it altogether. I do believe we are all products of this society and are part of the same structures of caste, class, patriarchy, race, ethnicity and other systems that structure our identities and lives, and so I don’t think any of us exist outside of these structures, within the Left and outside of it. At the same time the historical negligence of the Left on the issue of caste is something it cannot shy away from. The comfort with the elite character of progressive student politics, housed in these liberal faculties is something we cannot shy away from. You may say that this historical negligence has now been acknowledged by many, and you may be right. However, the deafening absence of that outraged anti-caste shriek that should have been heard when yet another Dalit scholar has died is conspicuous at this moment. In the absence of this shriek, left liberals have no merit in critiquing Ambedkarites for attacking them (instead of the Right?) while they have themselves gone on the defensive instead of strengthening the anti-caste movement and reinvigorating the demand for the annihilation of caste. It does not mean that one has to tow the line of the other. It does mean we continue to keep our eye on what is of primary concern – an emancipatory society that respects all and affords dignity and equality to all. And if we keep our eye on that, solidarities that must and will be forged will emerge organically.


Vasundhara is a member of New Socialist Initiative



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Vasundhara Jairath Written by:

Vasundhara is an activist associated with New Socialist Initiative

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