Scores of students from Osmania University and English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad have been heading for the University of Hyderabad, on buses, autorickshaws and motorcycles, to join the protests over Rohith Vemula’s suicide.
K Kiran, who is doing PhD in Law at Osmania, asks why anyone is surprised. “We know what Dalit students go through. Why do you think so many students from other universities and colleges are coming to express solidarity with the protesting UoH Dalit students?”
Like UoH, EFLU and Osmania have a large number of students from Dalit and marginalised communities, as well as those belonging to minority groups. UoH and Osmania have always had poets and writers from Dalit and other backward classes, and Dalit activism first began with students raising their voice over the most visible form of discrimination — denial of guides to PhD students or inordinate delay in appointing guides or supervisors.
Dalit activism in UoH is generally traced back to 1993 when the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) was founded by 10 students in post-Mandal agitation time, in Osmania to the 1970s with the founding of the Progressive Democratic Students Union (PDSU), and at EFLU to 1995-96 when students from North India took on teachers alleging discrimination.
“The founding of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) triggered a small revolution at UoH,” says Dalit activist Kancha Ilaiah. Rohith was a member of the ASA.
“It was the turning point for Dalits on campus. It was the rise of Dalit intellect. There were Dalits who could match the upper-caste teaching staff and officers. That they did not like. They did not like anyone from among the Dalits matching their so-called intelligence. They got scared and a systematic crackdown started, which gave rise to Dalit activism there,” says Ilaiah.
A PhD student at Osmania’s History Department, a Dalit, traces the emergence of Dalit activism to an incident in 1972. “Have you heard of George Reddy? He was murdered by right-wing activists on April 14, 1972. He was experimenting with Left parties, fighting for equal status for Dalits and marginalised communities… Dalit activism has always been there because we have to fight for everything that upper castes take for granted. We have drawn inspiration from the Soweto student movement (of South Africa), Black Panthers of the US, French students’ revolt etc. All of them got their rights but Dalits have to still fight for them. Every moment, every day,” says the 27-year-old.
A Pradip, who is also doing PhD at Osmania, says almost every Dalit student admitted for doctoral work writes at least one letter in grief because he or she feels ignored or is not given proper guidance. “A faculty member who is your guide says he is running short of time. But he has enough time for others. You don’t read much into it the first time or the tenth, but when it happens all the time, you know what is going on,” Pradip says.
Dr Babu Rao is now Head of Department, Community Medicine, at Osmania, having made it to the post eight years ago. He will never forget how tough the journey has been. “I have had to fight the system throughout my career. In colleges and universities here, the moment you take admission, you are identified on the basis or your caste, whether you came through reservation or not, whatever your rank. On the first day itself, you are marked out. From the admission form, it percolates down to departments and hostels, and to faculty members and co-students. It is so well-oiled that they do not have to segregate you. The hints and indications are enough for you to self-segregate and form a group of your own people and be with them.”
Dr Rao calls what Dalits face now in educational institutions “worse than untouchability”. “Back then at least they told you, look you are a Dalit so stay away. Now, it is white collar discrimination. A majority of Dalit students who do well in written exams get very low marks in viva and practicals where they are easily identified by their upper-caste professors… After fighting through the system, if by some chance you survive and make it to a top post like I did, no one listens to you. It is like who is this low-class, second-rate citizen to tell me what to do. Your subordinates, your juniors do this, and you are forced to request or beg the help of some upper-caste people around you to get things done.”
Since 2012, Dalit students at EFLU and Osmania have been struggling to hold food festivals in which beef is served — the most glaring instance, the community feels, of having to fight for their basic rights on campuses in Hyderabad.
For Dalit and minority group students, it is one way of establishing their identity and asserting their presence in college. “Beef is part of Dalit diet. It is part of their food since ages. But at Osmania, beef instead of being seen as food is seen as a caste. In this age and in 2012, it should have been easy for us to assert our identity but in fact it has only become difficult for us since then,” says Nadda Krisha, a prominent student leader.
“Most people associate beef with religious feelings but not with some communities’ right to eat it as their staple food. In that way the rights of Dalits have always been infringed upon on the campus of EFLU and Osmania,” he adds.
Prof K Satyanarayana of EFLU feels caste discrimination is “omnipresent”. “Ten-twelve years ago, it was very overt, now it is invisible but omnipresent. For instance at EFLU, Dalit teachers and non-teaching staff face an unwritten threat of being transferred to Shillong campus if they stray out of line. Anyone who questions discrimination or rebels gets boycotted by the teaching staff; the students don’t get proper attention from the guide or supervisor. They sometimes give them low grades too,” the professor says.
Satyanarayana questions the structure of Central universities. “You give them autonomy, they turn into landlords. When the Centre intervenes, like it is doing now, they turn into Hindutva centres, and rights and voices of Dalits, minorities are the first to be suppressed.”
Ilaiah also sees a continuing if slightly altered fight. “The fight for rights and assertion is almost over. Now the fight is for intellectual equality, and that is where everything becomes controversial or problematic for upper castes. All these three universities are in a phase of transition where SCs, STs and backward classes are becoming more and more visible and assertive purely on the basis of intellect. In fact, it is the intellectual power of students from Dalit and other marginalised communities that gives support to SC/ST teaching and non-teaching staff who, due to personal and family reasons, do not protest and continue to suffer at the hands of upper castes,” says Ilaiah.