Written by Aranya Shankar in Delhi, Sreenivas Janyala in Hyderabad, Chandan Haygunde in Pune, Johnson T A in Bangalore, Dipti Singh in Mumbai and Arun Janardhanan in Chennai
#castoutcaste”, reads a blue band pinned to the wall in Sooraj Malayattil’s room at Sutlej Hostel in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The band and two flags — one the deep red of the All India Students’ Association (AISA) and the other the blue associated with Dalit groups — have been in his room since January 18, the day JNU students took out their first march for Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad University student who committed suicide on January 17.
Sooraj’s wall offers a new campus vocabulary, one that talks of the coming together of Dalit groups and traditional Left parties. It’s a union that first caught attention during student marches that were taken out after Rohith’s suicide and later during the JNU protests, when student union president Kanhaiya Kumar would end almost every speech of his with ‘Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam’, a double-barrelled slogan that brought together the war cries of the Dalit and Left movements.
“At the first Rohith Vemula solidarity march that JNU students went on, the slogans were predominantly ‘Jai Bhim’ and ‘Neela Salaam’ (both associated with the Dalit movement). It was at the second march that slogans of ‘Jai Bhim, Laal Salaam’ were first chanted,” Sooraj says.
This then is an alliance that’s taking shape in campuses across the country — from Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in Aurangabad to Hyderabad Central University, from Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences to even the largely apolitical IITs.
On January 20, over 200 students of Left student groups such as AISF, AISA and SFI, and Dalit groups such as Republican Panthers, gathered outside Mumbai University’s Kalina campus, where the red and blue flags flew together. The protests and rallies continued throughout February, with more organisations joining in. On March 2, around 10,000 students from across Maharashtra went to Delhi to participate in a march to Parliament. At each of these protests, students flashed placards and shouted slogans such as ‘Bhim shakti, laal salam…chalenge saath saath (The blue and red movement will march together).’
At Savitribai Phule Pune University on February 12, 13 Ambedkarite and Communist groups, including the SFI and the Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan, came together under the banner ‘Phule Shahu Ambedkar Vidyarthi Kruti Samiti’ and shouted slogans of ‘Awaz do… hum ek hain’, ‘Jai Bhim, Laal Salaam’ and “Jai jai jai jai Bhim… Phule Shahu Bhagat Singh’.
Even in Karnataka, where a decade-old ban has left campuses largely depoliticised, the SFI, the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and the Congress’s NSUI put together their motley numbers on February 16 and organised a “partially successful” bandh to protest against Rohith’s death.
IIT Madras too joined the chorus, when around 200 students marched and raised slogans in solidarity with the students of JNU. Considered largely apolitical and part of an elite group of institutions that see meritocracy as their hallmark, the protests at IIT Madras, which came a year after the brief banning of its Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, signalled change.
Anant Prakash Narayan, a Dalit student from AISA at JNU, says, “The Rohith Vemula incident changed the Left’s rigidity towards the slogans that were being raised. I think there was a realisation that these symbols could be incorporated without letting go of the ideology which has anyway always been supportive of Dalit issues,” he says.
A new icon?
As these student groups came together in their “fight for the marginalised”, they didn’t have to go far searching for a symbol — he was there on every campus, in his mandatory suit and and dark-rimmed glasses. One hundred and twenty five years after Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was born on April 14, 1891, the Dalit leader has seemingly given campus politics a new spin.
At JNU’s administrative block, the nerve centre of the recent protests, is a large hand-painted SFI poster that features Ambedkar and his quote: “The world owes much to rebels who would dare to argue in the face of pontiff and insist that he is not infallible”. A couple of metres away is another Ambedkar poster by the ABVP, the RSS’s student wing.
Every student group in JNU — Ambedkar groups such as the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) and the United Dalit Students’ Forum (UDSF); Left groups such as AISA, AISF, SFI and DSF; the Congress’s NSUI and even the ABVP — has its own understanding of Ambedkar and what the man stands for.
“For us, Ambedkarite ideology is about the struggle against Brahminical hegemony and annihilation of caste, and for this, we believe that Hindu traditions have to be renounced. Ambedkar was not a reformer within the Hindu fold as is being projected today; he was very much outside the fold,” says BAPSA’s Manikanta, a first year MPhil student at JNU.
Ambedkar’s works, he says, are mandatory reading for every BAPSA member. “New members get a 17-volume collection of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches along with Jyotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri. It’s an expensive collection, costs Rs 3,000, but how can one understand Ambedkar without reading him?” says Manikanta. In his room at JNU’s Periyar Hostel is a black and white photograph of Ambedkar, large enough to cover almost an entire side of the pale green wall.
Ambedkar is on another wall, in another room, at JNU’s Kaveri hostel. Ishan Anand, secretary of the DSF, a breakaway group of the SFI, has a similar poster in his room with Ambedkar’s quotes written in Hindi: ‘Shikshit bano (educate), Sangathit bano (organise), Sangharsh karo (agitate)’.
“Without understanding caste, it is not possible to be a part of the Left in India. The relevance of Ambedkar is not only that he helps understand caste-ridden societies better, but also to question the status quo,” Anand says.
After his graduation from Delhi University, where he was with the SFI, Anand went to the University of Hyderabad (UoH) for his post graduation. “It was there that I was introduced to Dalit politics. Of the two years that I spent there, the first year the SFI and ASA contested separately. The ABVP won and they indulged in violence. The next year, the ASA and SFI contested together. I left HCU on that note — an alliance between the Left and Ambedkarite organisations, directed against the right wing,” says Anand.
At UoH, that “alliance” has only been strengthened by the Rohith Vemula and JNU incidents. “Ambedkar has always been at the centre of activities of the ASA and SFI for many years, but it has come to the fore only recently,” says Sannaki Munna, a PhD scholar.
Meanwhile, the man himself is everywhere at UoH — on walls, cupboards, stray rocks and boulders, even in songs such as “Anduko dandalu Baba Ambedkara”, a Telugu song in honour of Ambedkar that is played in most hostel rooms on the campus. In room number 306, the walls are full of Ambedkar slogans: ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’; ‘Tell the slave he is slave and he will revolt’; ‘Men are mortal. So are ideas’.
“There is a resurgence of debates on Ambedkar on the campus, more so after Rohith’s death. I think all students, not just Dalits, should be taught Ambedkar’s philosophy and thoughts, and a reading of Ambedkar is a must for all students to understand true democracy,” says D Prashant, an ASA member at UoH.
He says the ASA regularly publishes pamphlets of Ambedkar’s works, besides promoting songs relating to the Dalit movement. However, the ASA’s “most important task”, Prashant says, is to “help freshers”, especially those from rural areas, find their way around the campus. “Most of them do not speak English and are not aware of the discrimination that takes place here. They come with a lot of excitement about having made it to the university but are soon confronted with the reality here. So we talk to them, make them feel at home, tell how things work,’’ says Munna of UoH.
At IIT-Madras, the only Ambedkar posters and slogans are in the hostels, none in public spaces. Students associated with the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle say that’s by design. They say that when the Study Circle was formed in 2014, they had decided against deifying Ambedkar. “The argument was that we need debates on Ambedkar and should not limit him to an icon,” says one of the students who was part of the 2015 protests and doesn’t want to be identified.
Behind the symbolism
So is this understanding between the Dalit and Left groups an unlikely one, even an ‘opportunistic’ coming together against the government of the day and its policies?
On campuses, at least, there are many who believe that this is a logical partnership. “For too long, the Left had not been able to understand or take up the caste question seriously. A section of the Dalit movement too has taken an anti-Left stance. There is a need for a synthesis, more so today as the main enemy for both is the current government,” says Ishan Anand, secretary of the DSF at JNU.
“We need not be suspicious of the emerging solidarity of Dalit and Left students, because that is the need of the hour,” says Veena Vimala Mani, a PhD scholar in the humanities and social sciences department of IIT Madras. In June last year, as Veena stood on a kerb on the campus and read out from Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, it was a sign of defiance against the ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle. Barely a hundred students turned out to hear her and attend the march that day, but students say it was that what led to the lifting of the ban.
Abhilasha Harendra, all India joint secretary of the AISA and a student of Pune University, too says it’s “natural” for Left and Dalit groups to come together. “Yes, Ambedkar had some differences with communists, but not as much with communism. Looking at the goals of the two movements, it is quite natural that they will come together. The people of India face two challenges — Brahmanism and imperialism. I strongly believe we need Ambedkar’s ideology to fight Brahmanism and Marx to fight imperialism.”
Nitish Nawasagare, a professor at the Indian Law Society’s Law College in Pune, says the two movements have discovered each other, even if belated. “The communists have finally realised that caste discrimination is a bigger problem in India than class discrimination. Earlier, in cases of caste discrimination on college campuses, it was only Dalit students who raised their voices. But now, we find the communists too taking up these issues,” he says, adding that the Dalit movement too has witnessed change. “The first two generation of leaders in the Ambedkarite movement were rigid about their differences with communists. But the new Dalits, mainly the Ambedkarite youths and students, have broader views and do not mind joining hands with the Left,” says Nawasagare, who is also state executive member of the Dalit Adivasi Adhikar Andolan (DA3).
Professors and students who have been part of recent protests say it was the idea of a “common enemy” that brought together these two ideologies.
“Ambedkar is no longer just another Dalit leader or simply the Constitution maker. Today, the red and blue flags are coming together as a ‘progressive movement’ to take on right-wing politics. I look at it as a reaction to the government’s interference in campuses,” says Mridul Nile, who teaches political science at Mumbai University.
Ajmal Khan, a student and member of the Radical Study Circle at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who takes up Dalit issues, is sceptical of the ‘alliance’. “Historically, both liberal and radical Left student unions have never supported the Ambedkar movement. We have testimonies to show that Dalit students were beaten up by both these groups. Somewhere, we are still not able to resolve our differences because of this history of violence. For too long, the Left was busy with its class fight and left out caste. But now, the struggle against the RSS, BJP and ABVP has prompted them to stand together,” says Khan.
Manikanta, the JNU student who is a member of the Dalit group BAPSA, says the Left needs to introspect before it can claim to talk for Dalits. “Before talking of any alliance, the Left has to fight Brahmanism and end caste prejudice within its rank,” he says.
Prof Siddalingaiah, 62, one of the founders of the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti in Karnataka, says Dalit groups could do with some introspection too. He says that even among Dalit students on campuses across Karnataka, there is no proper understanding of what Ambedkar stood for and there is a tendency to view him as a “super hero”. “There is only a superficial understanding of Ambedkar even among Dalit students. Their understanding of Ambedkar is rooted in hatred for other communities because of all the suppression they suffered over the last 2,000 years. So there is a desire for revenge at the root of a lot of Dalit thinking. This is dangerous to Dalits, non-Dalits and the nation itself. Ambedkar had a positive approach. He did not look at Dalit issues through the prism of anger and revenge,’’ says Siddalingaiah, who is director of the Ambedkar Study and Research Centre at Bangalore University.
Siddalingaiah says Dalit politics propagated by groups like the Bahujan Vidyarthi Sangh (BVS, the BSP’s student wing) on campuses in Karnataka is very insular. “The BVS has become quite strong, but they keep doing things secretly, all focused on Dalits coming to power. Even in the Dalit youth movement, a sort of fanaticism has set in. Groups operate like a Dalit RSS. There is no great leaning on Ambedkar or Marxist ideology,’’ says the professor, who was associated with the SFI in his student days.
There is another group that is now “leaning” on Ambedkar and which believes there can be no real alliance between the Left and Dalit groups. “This is an opportunistic alliance. Ambedkar was against communism and had said that the country can never benefit from them. How can there be an alliance then?” asks ABVP’s JNU unit president Alok Singh. “For us,” he says, “Ambedkar is a nationalist icon, someone who believed in rashtrabhakti (patriotism).”
Everyone, it seems, has his own Ambedkar.