Freedom essentially means dignity. It is a collective power to have a sense of self and a legitimate claim to recognition. In a society such as India that is fraught with social hierarchies and everyday prejudices, what does it mean to lay a claim to freedom? I will attempt to narrate what is happening at the university I am currently working in, and how Dalit-Bahujan colleagues of mine are laying new grounds for collective freedom.
It is no secret that JNU is going through its most challenging times. Ever since M Jagadesh Kumar has been appointed as the Vice-Chancellor, there has been vitriolic witch-hunts against every faculty who dared to express an opinion contrary to what the Vice-Chancellor thinks. The latest has been a case against 48 teachers for taking part in a demonstration. But many of the colleagues in JNU have remained uncompromised in their struggle to save the university from becoming a bureaucratic cul de sac.
But within this sordid story of intimidation, threat, anti-research assault on academics is a great story of many of my Dalit-Bahujan colleagues who have been in the forefront of this struggle to save a space that has come to represent not just freedom of expression but a flicker of hope for many of the first-generation learners.
In a recent personal conversation with a colleague who belongs to a tribal community from the South, I was sharing the experience of reading about abject poverty and squalor that Dalits have to still put up with in Suraj Yende’s recent book Caste Matters. My colleague and a good friend of mine simply replied by saying “My life was no different”.
He shared the struggle to reach where he is today in JNU. Many of such colleagues, first generation learners, continue to share the burden and responsibilities of financing extended families, have little social capital outside of JNU, continue to face the challenges of excelling in academics, and have very little to fall back on, unlike many of us who have had reasonably privileged upbringing and some security to fall back on.
It has not been easy for many of us either in facing a rather acrimonious and intimidating administration that takes pride in threatening its ‘own’ faculty with serious disciplinary action, and retributive and predatory behaviour. But the contribution of the Dalit-Bahujan academics in JNU has been exemplary and nothing short of heroic.
They are staking everything they earned to protect a space that they collectively built by organising debates, discussions, after dinner talks, introducing new courses sensitive to the question of caste, reading and re-reading Ambedkar, challenging the non-Dalit-Bahujan academics like myself to rethink many of our self-assured academic positions. Without the Dalit-Bahujan students and the colleagues, JNU wouldn’t be what it is.
A retinue of very talented professionals and confident academics, including Ajith Kanna, Harish Whankhede, Milind Awadh, YK Alone, Pradeep Shinde, Chitti Babu, Sudhir Suthur, Sonajaharia Minz, DK Lobiyal, Ramchander, Varaprasad, Suresh Babu, just to name a few, have been the spirit behind the struggle to reclaim JNU. The choice they made is deeply political and carries with it a sense of history and a concern for the future. Theirs is a story that has extended unflinching solidarity with the rest of the faculty in the most trying of time. In the silent streets of JNU, they are making history by redefining what Dalit-Bahujan politics is to look like in times to come.
Many of them were denied rightful promotions, unjustly denied being made chairpersons of the centres, from applying for fellowships, and more but none recused and resisted with quiet dignity.
They led JNU Teachers’ Association when the administration was trying to be ruthless to anyone who it thought stood in its way of converting JNU into a ‘silent zone’. Many of them quietly worked, with no expectations, making powerful speeches, offering suggestions in the GBM, distributing pamphlets, doing mundane organisational activities that would have otherwise looked sensitive from a caste-lens.
But they defied all those imposed categories and challenged with their very being that caste cannot block from rising beyond narrow alleys. This show of solidarity, compassion and claim to dignity stands in complete contrast to the way the administration has been attempting to create as many differences as possible across caste, religion, by selectively penalising some and showing leniency to others, by offering out of turn promotions, creating an atmosphere of Orwellian dystopia.
The methods the JNU administration adopted has ripped open every possible human vulnerability and exposed every tiny difference in social location. Not to falter continues to be a saga that will be narrated as history in times to come. Without the moral strength of the Dalit-Bahujan friends, I doubt, JNUTA could have resisted this long!
Times to come in JNU are not going to be easy but moral victory has already been won by the vanquished! This is the best of the Ambedkarite tradition we have witnessed in the recent past. Ambedkar defied caste not simply when he drafted the Constitution or converted to Buddhism but in claiming dignity. His dignity was drafting a vision that was more universal than we have yet to fully realise. The struggles of Dalit-Bahujan scholars in JNU too belong to such universal registers that defied every attempt to beat it down to its social location.
It is time to take inspiration from strident history being made. Cutting across ideological lines Dalit-Bahujan students need to take a cue of what is to be Done. How do we save a space that has offered a flicker of hope from saving one’s self from everyday indignity, humiliation and prejudice that routinised life offers outside the lush green openness of JNU?