Anand Teltumbde on Current Student Struggles
The Malayalam weekly Madhyamam asked Anand Teltumbde, a writer, scholar of peoples’ movements, civil rights activist with CPDR Mumbai, inter alia, two questions relating to student movements. Here are his answers:
Your article in the Economic & Political Weekly in October 2015 has succinctly captured the perils of raising memorials of Dr B.R. Ambedkar while forgetting the principle aim of his life – the annihilation of caste. The Rohith Vemula incident at the University of Hyderabad and subsequent incidents across the country have proven beyond doubt that the annihilation of caste, the kernel of Ambedkar’s thought, remains an unfulfilled dream. What is your view on this?
Indeed. While Ambedkar had clearly seen annihilation of castes as the goal, his tactic relied on representation. I am deliberately calling it a tactic to dampen the intensity of contradiction between the two. Right from the beginning he saw, perhaps encouraged by his own example, that if a few Dalits are sent to legislature, they would take care of the interests of the Dalit masses. With this view, he struggled to get Dalits their political representation. It is a different matter that his victory was annulled by Gandhi’s blackmailing strategy that compelled him to sign the Poona Pact. But that very Poona Pact opened up avenues for other reservations, viz. in educational institutions and public employment. Initially they remained preferment policies, as it was thought that there were not enough Dalits to institute reservation for them. But when Ambedkar became a member of the Viceroy’s executive council, he wrote an innocuous note which was approved by the Viceroy, thereby instituting a quota system in 1943.
I may argue that there was no contradiction between the two as the castes were delinked from their Hindu parentage and had become an administrative category, the ‘Scheduled Castes’. Unfortunately, there was no articulation to that effect. In post-colonial India, the native elites who took over the reins of power, with their Brahmanic cunning overlain on the learning got from the colonial masters, could easily ensure that castes and religion (the other factor) were consecrated in the constitution, as weapons to divide people. Reservations based on castes became the contradiction with the annihilation of castes, inasmuch as they developed vested interests in a section of upwardly looking Dalits, that role-modelled for the masses. The other supplementing factor was the First-Past-the-Post type of election system – arguably the most unsuitable system for a country like India which was hopelessly fragmented into castes, communities, languages, ethnicities, etc. – which was adopted as an instrument for democratic governance. The combination of these two became a deadly fortification against the annihilation of castes.
The HCU episode and the unfortunate suicide of Rohith highlight rather the attitude of the ruling classes, which are desperate as never before to woo Dalits to their side. While they are pursuing it, staking everything in promoting Ambedkar as the icon, they will not tolerate the emergence of radical Dalit opinion. Rohith symbolized the latter. They will label them extremist, anti-national, etc., which is enough even for the Dalits to discard them. The Dalit masses under the influence of their middle class subtly supported by the state have simplified Ambedkar. One of the notions of this simplified Ambedkar is that he was against any type of extremism or radicalism. With this notion, they would also easily disown the Dalit youth who raise radical voices. Rohith’s death actually stirred up emotions, but still has not awakened Dalits to its radical content which points towards the annihilation of castes. Notwithstanding the massive support it received from all student organizations, which at one point completely isolated the ABVP, it is being steered along the lines of identity, sans radical possibilities.
The Rohith Vemula incident and the struggle at JNU have brought the possibility of alliance between Left and Ambedkarite movements, at least in the campuses. Do you think the newfound bonhomie between the two streams can be consolidated to make an effective challenge and counter to the communalism of BJP and Sangh Parivar?
I, for one, think that the youth in our campuses can be the only force who can clear the ideological mess in the politics of the oppressed masses. The signs emerging from our campuses are quite encouraging. The HCU episode was part of the BJP strategy to polarise students by raising the bogeys of anti-nationalism, extremism, etc. They chose HCU because it had become a centre for radical voices among Dalit students. If they succeeded there, it would be a cakewalk for their student wing to capture other campuses and, in particular, make inroads among Dalit students. But to their misfortune, the whole thing turned topsy-turvy with Rohith’s unfortunate death. Taking caution, they chose JNU and engineered a similar thing but without the Dalit factor. There it was pure anti-nationalism, patriotism, etc. But it created Kanhaiya there. The best thing the JNU students did is to claim continuity with Rohith’s struggle. It overwhelmed the ideological divisions (what I call mess) and oriented it towards the burning questions faced by the masses today. I will give full marks to Kanhaiya for doing so as I think that should be the approach of the peoples’ struggle today. Neither Marx nor Ambedkar, least anyone else, can provide you complete wherewithal to fight the ruling classes, who are unprecedentedly powerful, with their states laced with learning and modern technology. The world that we live in would not be recognized by either Marx or Ambedkar and hence we will have to configure strategies for our struggles ourselves. Marx, Ambedkar, and many such greats may guide us, inspire us, but they cannot provide us readymade tools and tackle for our battles.
There may be hiccups in this process. For instance, when all student organizations had come together at HCU, I had suggested some leading elements of students there to give it an organizational shape, isolating the ABVP. It could have been a Front against Hindutva or Communalism or any such name. It could have easily been done when things were hot at HCU, to be replicated elsewhere eaily, but unfortunately it did not happen. I kept following it in my own way but to no avail. Instead, the Joint Action Committees (JACs) formed for ‘Justice to Rohith’ began subtly deflecting along the old identity lines providing impetus to the reactionary elements who would identify Kanhaiya as Bhumihar. Nothing could be more unfortunate in the current context. But still I am confident that the students will overcome these hiccups. There will be many more hurdles in the way. For instance, the ruling classes have awarded harsh punishments to JNU students, against which they are currently on hunger strike. They will realize what best to do tomorrow. I am confident they will defeat the evil designs of BJP/ABVP combine. With regard to striking unity between Ambedkar and Marx, the JNU students are on absolutely the right path to do so. The approach they have adopted will render irrelevant the casteist arguments of Mayawati and her chelas. I am quite hopeful that these boys and girls will do what has not been done so far. For if they fail there, the hope itself would die for India!
First published in Hashiya; reposted here with minor changes.
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