The Death of a Historian in Centre for Historical Studies, JNU


Jitendra Suna

Speech made at the protest by BAPSA on 16th March, 2017 against the Institutional Murder of Muthukrishnan (Rajini Krish)

jitendra sunaI am Jitendra Suna, and I am from a remote village named Pourkela in the District Kalahandi, Orissa. I completed my high school from B. R. Ambedkar Uchhavidyapitha Pourkela, but never really knew who Dr. Ambedkar was. When I was in 8th standard I lost my mother, she was the head of our family. My mother wanted to send us to a science school but she died and my family did not have enough money to send us to a science school. After completing my plus two (higher secondary) I came to Delhi for earning some money. I used to go to work with my brother. He was working in IGL (Indraprastha Gas Limited) as a helper, I also joined as helper. There was one fellow worker, I am unable to remember his name now, but his last name was Murari. He always used to ask my brother, 'what is the meaning of Suna'? My brother always tried to divert the issue and never mentioned his surname and caste. I saw this uneasiness throughout my stay in Delhi. After working for one year, I went back to my village and took admission for a BA degree.

Untouchability and caste practices are like a barbarous phenomena in my village as well as throughout Orissa. In my childhood I used to have a close friend who was from my village. I used to invite him to my home on special occasions and ask him to have food with us at my home. He would eat only after we requested him many times. Whenever I used to go to his home, I would be given some food outside the home, not even in the veranda. After having food I used to wash the utensils and give them back. This was because I was from a Dalit community. It was a day-to-day phenomenon; it was the 'commonsense' of our life. I could not think that it was wrong or right, because I have seen it since I was born. One day when talking to my friend I went near to the door, his mother suddenly got furious when she saw that I had touched the door. She suddenly shouted at me saying, "how dare you come inside my home, you are like fallen water of roof that cannot enter inside the room". I was shocked. I was not able to think what to say at that moment. I stood there like a statue for a minute. I sat down and after few minutes I was able to talk and asked my friend, "henta ken (is it so)?" Then he said 'yes, what will people say if you will come inside the room, it's not good'. After that incident I was not able to sleep, eat and talk properly, I was totally disturbed and depressed. I stopped going to his home. That time I did not know that there is an act called Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act or an act against the practice of untouchability. Even when Dalits knew about these acts, they could not do anything about those abhorrent, heinous, and degrading practices.

Link of the speech:

During the last year of my graduation I was told by one of my friends that there is a free coaching centre for Civil Services in Nagpur with free food and lodging. I made up my mind to go to Nagpur. After completing graduation my sister was sitting idle at home, she told me 'what will I do here. I will also go with you'. We both decided to go to Nagpur. Instead of Civil Service coaching it was an eight month course on Babasaheb Ambedkar and Buddhism. We were taught about Buddhism, along with Indian history, caste, untouchability and so on. During this time I got a chance to read some of Babasaheb Ambedkar's writings and other anti-caste thinkers. Some questions always came to my mind - why was there no Dalit history, why were we not taught Ambedkar, Phule and Buddha in the schools? Then I decided to be a historian to write our own history. I met many students who were studying in different central Universities in Nagarjun Training Institute, Nagloka, located in Nagpur. They helped me fill up the application forms for various universities including Jawaharlal Nehru University.

In 2012, I applied for MA in the Central University of Gujarat, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU) at Lucknow and Jawaharlal Nehru University. In my first attempt I was not able to crack the entrance exam for JNU in Centre for Historical Studies (CHS). I passed the entrance exams of Central University, Gujarat, and BBAU, Lucknow. I took admission in history centre at BBAU. Due to financial problems I could not afford to stay there. So I appeared a second time for the JNU CHS entrance in 2013. In the first attempt I was not able to write proper English and at the same time I was not able to make a strategy against Brahminical mind-set. This second time I applied a strategy, while writing the entrance exam- instead of critical analysis of different movements such as Congress, Gandhi, and other social reform movements, I presented a very conventional Pro-Gandhi, pro-Congress, Pro-Savarna view of all these movements. Subsequently, I cleared the entrance in modern history for the Master's programme in JNU.

The world of assignments, seminar papers and politics of silence was new to me at JNU. I started facing many problems in my initial days which lasted till the end of my Master's programme. In my first assignment, I was not able to give proper footnotes, because I had never heard what a footnote is all about and had no idea what assignment is all about in my previous school/college education. In other words, I was not trained in academic writing. But after seeing the writings of my classmates and with the help of friends I started improving my writing skills. There were series of instances where I faced humiliation, discrimination, and exclusion. Most of them I have forgotten now and some of them I couldn't identify as such. Here are some bitter and violent experiences which I went through in my two years of post-graduation at the Center for Historical Studies, where my beloved Thalaiva (Muthu Krishnan) was studying with a dream to be a historian, a storyteller for his community and now he is gone without telling the story of his experience of discrimination and atrocities in the CHS and in his whole life.

In one of the courses, I wrote an assignment with proper footnoting, quotation, citation and had given logical/critical as well as coherent arguments. The Professor in charge asked me in front of the whole class, in front of my fellow classmates regarding the assignment, he said: 'Is it really you who has written it or someone else has written it for you?' I was taken aback. I replied, 'sir, I have written it on my own'. Yet he insisted: 'tell me the truth I will not do anything'. I replied, "sir, I have learnt footnoting and improved my writing skills and I have written the assignment on my own'. Still he did not believe me. I could not make any further argument in my support as the professor did not want to believe that it was actually written by me. So I stopped arguing with him anymore. That day I realised even perseverance and mettle come with their share of humiliation and negation.

In another course on "National Movement" a professor taught us how Bal Gangadhar Tilak was a nationalist, great freedom fighter and a liberal thinker. Most of the students were silent in the class just because either they liked the teaching or wanted to get good grades without ruffling any feathers. I wrote an assignment on Tilak's writings to show how he was communal, casteist and his idea of swaraj was not for independence but rather to maintain the dominant status of some Indians. The professor got furious at me, her face became red. She said to me, "how could you say that he was not a great nationalist but casteist and communal?" Then I showed her the exact quotations and gave page numbers of Tilak's own writings which proved my points beyond any doubt and questioned her again. She dismissed my arguments and facts and jumped into another discussion. I was silenced once again.

In another course on "Partition of India", I did a book review of Babasaheb Ambedkar's Thoughts on Pakistan. It was a group discussion of around ten students. I wrote and asked some methodological questions on partition and nationalism. Instead of writing B. R. Ambedkar, I wrote Babasaheb Ambedkar in my book review. The Professor asked me to remove the word Babasaheb. She explained that in academic writing you cannot use such suffixes. I said 'ok ma'am I will change it'. After my turn, another student presented his paper on Nehru. Before presenting he said, 'sorry ma'am I have also made a similar mistake as Jitendra. I have used Pandit Nehru'. She smiled and said 'no it's not a problem you are giving respect to him'. I was shocked at the hypocrisy. Why is it so that if we are using suffixes to described anti-caste and Muslims thinkers or leaders, it becomes anti-academic or anti-thesis to academicians, on the other hand writing "pandit" as a suffix for a Brahmin is respectable and acceptable for academicians?

One of the prominent historians of modern India in JNU who happened to be the Dean of Social Sciences at that time used to teach by drawing a triangle. He used to draw a horizontal line and call it National Congress. He said that the Indian National Congress was not a party, it was movement against all kinds of oppressions. He then drew another vertical line to describe communal and casteist history of India. In this line he grouped together all the forces which were against Congress and did not agree with its politics, these were casteist and communal forces, according to him. In the schema, he mentioned that B. R. Ambedkar, Periyar Ramasamy were casteist. I got up and asked "if Periyar was a casteist and was not fighting against colonial oppression, then why did he join hands with Gandhi and work for the national movement for six years? Why did Periyar leave congress claiming that congress is a casteist and Brahmin dominated party?" My question was an 'attack' on the professor's Brahminical Ego and knowledge which jolted him, especially when I asked in front of almost fifty students in the class. He was totally confused with as to how to deal with the question. At last he said to me, 'I am not able to reply to your question right now'. He postponed the answer infinitely as he never replied. I am still waiting for the answer.

In another instance we were having an assignment discussion with around 15 students. While talking, the same professor mentioned that 'there is no caste system, and caste discrimination in India, there is no untouchability in India.' It was atrocious and violent to me. How can a professor of social sciences say like that? I had been a victim of caste system throughout my life and a Brahmin was telling me that there is no caste and untouchability in India. I was angry. I interjected the class and replied, "I am a Dalit student and I have experienced and seen what caste and untouchability is. I am a sufferer of untouchability and caste atrocity from my childhood." Then professor somehow managed to escape the situation and tried to patronize me by saying, "yes you may be right, we will talk about it. Please meet me after the class'. After the class as usual in every class neither he met me nor did he ask me about my experiences of caste humiliations.

I had opted for a course called "Tribe and Culture". Due to fever I was not able to submit an assignment on due date. I met the professor to inform her that I was having fever so I could not submit my assignment on time and requested as follows, "please ma'am give me some time to submit it". Then she said, "I cannot do anything right now, date is over". After requesting many times and producing medical certificates, she gave me her mobile number to call her regarding the assignment topic. She told me, "you call me, I will suggest you a topic on which you can write your assignment". When I called her, she told me that she was busy and would call me later. I awaited her call, but she did not call me. Then I called her again. She did not receive my call thereafter, lastly I met her in the centre. She told me, "I can't do anything now, date is over and it's not in my hand anymore". That is how I got a C- grade in the course finally.

With another professor, I did my seminar paper. I wanted to work on the Tribes. It is because I had seen only romanticised versions of Adivasis portrayed in history and other writings. I wanted to bring back the anti-caste and brahminical struggle of Adivasis in Orissa. I was told by my teacher that, 'there have been so many works already done on Adivasis why you want to do it again. Don't do intellectual exploitation of the exploited". Why is it so that if Brahmins are doing work on Dalit-Adivasis, it does not become intellectual exploitation? And if a Dalit or Adivasis want to work on their own communities they are said to be doing intellectual exploitation. This was the kind of discouragement I faced while studying in the CHS department.

Somehow, I finally managed to complete my Master of Arts in Modern History with such a percentage that I am not eligible to sit for NET. Then I started preparing for MPhil/PhD programme in History, Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion (CSDE) and one other centre. I was quite confident that I will get through the entrance test. That's what happened. I passed the written entrance with a good number. I prepared a proposal on Music as a form of Resistance and visited one of my teacher under whom I had done a seminar paper. She told me that it is a good proposal and it is an interesting area to work on. She suggested me some books and research works on the topic. On the day of the interview, when I entered into the interview hall, it was silent, everyone was staring at me, I gave a copy of my proposal to all the professors. The moment I entered the hall, the professor who gave C- in one of the papers was surprised. She could not think that I would be able to clear the written exam. She was so surprised that she couldn't stop herself from asking me, with a sarcastic smile 'Oh tumhara ho gaya? (Oh, you have cleared the exam?)' I confidently answered with an eye to eye contact, I replied "haan ma'am ho gaya' (Yes ma'am I have cleared the exam) I remember all the panellists were Brahmins in the interview panel. They gave me few minutes to present my proposal. Then the same lady professor asked me three question in the interview. These were the only three questions posed to me:

1) So Jitendra finally what was your grade in MA?
2) From which university did you complete your graduation?
3) What was your grade in graduation'?

After these questions, all the professors were sitting silently, looking at me as if some alien creature has entered into their sacred space. There was not even a single question on my proposal and area of interest. This was not a surprise to me and I had expected it from them. Because of the humiliation I faced, I did not wish to see their faces again. That is how I made my mind to not continue research in such an atrocious brahminical centre. I had scored around 43 marks in the CHS entrance exam. The cut off marks for the centre was 48 for Scheduled Castes. I was thrown out from CHS. During MA I had opted for a course called Dalit History, therefore I prepared my mind to join the CSDE, JNU. I got selected in CSDE in general category and took admission. Unfortunately, the CSDE centre is being targeted by the government and not getting any funds time and again. Now there are rumours about the CSDE center being shut down by the present government.

There are many other stories. But now let me turn towards the class and the students. Most of the students were 'convent' educated or from Delhi University and other reputed universities. The composition of class was such that brahmin and upper caste students were dominating. Everyone believed that, if you are fluent in English and you speak like a parrot, that makes you intelligent. The savarna students make their own ghettos, special kind of ghettos. To use Babasaheb's notion of caste formation, it was an 'enclosed class' where certain groups of students enclosed themselves while blocking others from entering their sacred Brahminical space. This blocking of others and making of the enclosed class is a product of hypersensitivity of their own caste identity and superiority which produces others as lower and inferior beings. This blocking may not be intentional but the space is so brahminical, violent and oppressive that it will not allow others to incorporate in that space. I hardly had friends in two years of my post graduation in CHS, as experienced by Muthukrishnan. I had three-four other classmates and friends but they were not in my subject, they were in Ancient History. They were from OBC background, we used to help each other in writing our assignments, especially helped each other with English. I used to go to the centre only for my class, official work, and assignment presentations and when I had to ask something to teachers, otherwise I used to spend my time with my friends who were not from my centre. I remember few of us used to ask critical questions to the teachers for which we have faced discrimination. I was the only person who used to ask unconventional questions, most questions used to be from an Ambedkarite perspective. Except few students, almost all would be silent in the class. This silence is a kind of politics, this silence is silence of agreement of their Brahminical narrative, and this silence is a strategy to maintain good grades in the class. I had a friend who came from Dalit background but from a well to do family, fluent in speaking English. She used to travel from her home to attend the classes, most of the time she used to be silent and depressed. I saw her and started talking to her. I asked her, "what happened, you are not regular in the class, is there any problem, you don't seem to be okay?" She said that she felt alienated in class. She felt excluded in the class. She did not want to continue at the center. Finally, after one year without completing her MA she left CHS, JNU and joined another university.

Muthukrishnan, lovingly known as Rajini Krish came to JNU with high aspirations and dreams of becoming a historian. He actively fought for justice in the Rohith Vemula movement. After few months of his admission in JNU, he got the Jhelum hostel where I stay. I used to call him Thalaiva, he loved to be called Thalaiva. I had warned him once, 'you have to be cautious about your CHS centre. You have to think what kind of questions you are raising in the classes. You have to be careful. This centre is very much Brahminical'. He used to tell me that 'I know these people brother, I will handle it'. Most of the time he used to spend in the centre and library in order to prove himself. To prove that he was no less than the savarnas. I relate with the pressure, alienation, exclusion and humiliation that he was undergoing at the centre. He had shared this experience with his friends. Muthukrishnan said that he was seen and treated as dead man.

In 2008-09, after completing my 12th I was here in Delhi, working in a Gas Company (Indraprastha Gas Limited) near to Jawaharlal Nehru University in sector three petrol pump Munirka. I never heard what higher education was. I had never heard what JNU was, though I was working in the periphery of JNU, I never knew what I would do in my life. Meeting with Babasaheb Ambedkar changed my whole life. While reading his works I started thinking why there is no history of marginalized groups, why there is no history of Dalits? Why we were never taught Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and other anti-caste philosophers, thinkers and leaders? Babasaheb Ambedkar gave me the courage to be a storyteller of his marginalized community like Rajini Krish. Rajini Krish is no more with us to tell his stories. After coming to the Centre for Historical Studies, I started hating history. This hatred is accumulative pressure of Brahmin-Savarna professors who make me hate history. They taught me how Gandhi fought against untouchability. I ask, if Gandhi and Congress fought for democracy, fought against caste, untouchability, why I am a subhuman, an animal in 21st century in my village, in your society and in this very university?



Jitendra Suna is an M.Phil research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion at Jawaharlal Nehru University.