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India: Class, caste politics finally coming together in campus politics

Friday 11 March 2016, by siawi3

Economic Times

March 10, 2016, 6:14 am IST

By Ajoy Bose

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati rarely speaks out on any topic other than those directly concerning her own party, the Dalit community or her home state of Uttar Pradesh. So, last month, when the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested by the Delhi Police on the charges of sedition, it was most unusual for Behenji to go ballistic.

Describing the arrest as a “political conspiracy”, she accused the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) of trying to impose “its fascist agenda on a reputable national university” like JNU. “It seems that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now starting to use the sedition law as a tool to attack people who are opposed to him and his government,” Mayawati fumed in a detailed press statement within 48 hours of Kumar’s arrest.

So what has made Mayawati so concerned about the incarceration of a student’s union president in Delhi considering that she, when chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, had banned students’ union elections on the grounds that they led to needless campus violence and disrupted studies? There is little doubt that Mayawati has been influenced by the nationwide controversy about the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad University. Vemula was reportedly being persecuted after coming under pressure from central BJP ministers accusing him of being ‘antinational’, just like Kanhaiya.

Mayawati could not care less about Kanhaiya being a Bhumihar Brahmin and belonging to the All India Student’s Federation (AISF), the student faction of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Campus politics had never been her concern.

Mayawati’s political radar had accurately picked up the connection between the two parallel developments in Hyderabad University and JNU and its potential impact on mainstream Dalit politics.

Interestingly, the traditional dichotomy between caste and class politics has been rapidly diminishing, at least among students in the face of the Sangh Parivar’s concerted campaign to thrust its student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), on campuses across the country after the BJP came to power two years ago.

Shared Icons

Radical Ambedkarite student groups have increasingly looked to embrace ‘Left-liberal’ causes even as Leftist student leaders like Kanhaiya have started invoking B R Ambedkar, seeking to engage with the politics of identity that earlier the communists had failed to do in India.

It is significant that in January this year, for the first time, a Dalit was elected as the national joint secretary of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

In a relatively brief period, the national outcry about Vemula’s suicide and the dramatic assault soon after on JNU, a citadel of left-wing student politics, has propelled a coalition of interests between Dalit and left-wing politics on the campus. These trends may have already been there.

In a telling coincidence, several months before he took his life, Vemula had posted on his Facebook page the speech of Kanhaiya after he was elected president of JNUSU who now sees the Dalit research scholar as his own inspiration.

But what was before a tenuous Rohith-Kanhaiya link has become a potent symbol synchronising caste and class politics among student activists — an unprecedented development that can hardly be ignored by regional as well as national parties.

The emerging alliance between left-wing student politics and that of Dalit identity has also incorporated two other issues of the day: the plight of the adivasis, and the fear of persecution among religious minorities in the country. Brutalised adivasi leader Soni Sori, who was arrested in 2011for her ‘Maoist connections’, got a rapturous welcome when she visited JNU this week.

It is also significant that both Vemula and Kanhaiya have earned the wrath of the authorities, for ‘supporting’ two people, Yaqub Memon and Afzal Guru, executed on charges of terrorist acts against India.

Strong-arm tactics by Sangh groups and leaders to impose a Hindutva agenda across universities and colleges may well have boomeranged, resulting in a broad alliance seeking to speak on behalf of an array of variegated politically under-represented groups: Dalits, adivasis, religious minorities and the poor cutting across caste and religion.

A mainstream Dalit political leader like Mayawati, who has so far not dabbled much in student politics, would be nevertheless acutely aware of the changing mood among the youth of this country, particularly those belonging to constituencies of the oppressed and marginalised who have traditionally voted for her.

Students as a Catalyst

At the moment, as campuses brace themselves for more confrontations with the BJP establishment, the unfolding scenario presents a political googly for Mayawati. She will be tempted to tap into student power and yet avoid diluting her image of a Dalit leader at a time when the BJP is trying to snatch away both Ambedkar as an icon as well as her Dalit constituency. So far, she has played it well in Parliament, neatly sidestepping the debate on nationalism by demanding a separate discussion on Vemula and Kanhaiya, cornering HRD minister Smriti Irani in a one-on-one duel by tagging her as ‘anti-Dalit’. This, even as she lent her voice to the Opposition chorus that the government was against the poor, oppressed and the young.