Caste in Question: Re-Reading the Recent Hunger Strike in University of Hyderabad


Joby Mathew

joby "Lost rights are never regained by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle.... Goats are used for sacrificial offerings and not lions." ~ Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

The indefinite hunger strike in University of Hyderabad initiated by Raju-Venkatesh solidarity committee itself was a historicizing process but not in terms of stipulations set by linear history, otherwise its beginning and end cannot be analyzed through a binary perception. It is an attempt to understand various debates aroused from the struggle instead, the dualistic categorization of its success and failure. The hunger strike put forward four concrete demands before the university administration on the recent suicides of dalit students namely, Madari Venkatesh and Pulyala Raju; those demands do not merely indicate its literal sense, but also signify the institutional negligence towards dalit students.

This struggle is more relevant in the present scenario, where the suicides of dalit students are considered a normal phenomenon by the authorities and the larger campus community as well. One has to read it as a method which counters the so-called expectations of dalit struggles even though the ideological dissimilarities might be interpreted as an Ambedkarite: Gandhian paradox. Generally the system attempts to frame dalit struggles as those using violent methods. In this case, the hunger strike from dalit and subaltern students was an unexpected method to the authorities, therefore it got an unusual attention in public sphere.

Obviously, it is not a hunger strike along the Gandhian method which rejects food in its abundance, as for the majority of dalit struggles, hunger is simply a part of their life and struggle. The struggle reaffirmed the political presence of dalit and subaltern groups as a counteractive force to the system and its normative approach towards the suicides of dalit students. Apart from the form of this struggle, it raises certain fundamental questions, discussions and thinking on the perceptions of caste in academia in the context of dalit deaths in a knowledge space like universities.

The post-Mandal era witnesses the preconceived notion of reservation as a disabled one which creates divide between the meritorious and meritless student in academics, therefore the system itself operates on the offensive notion which treats students in an unequal manner. Scholars admit that the anti-Mandal activists turned out as the policy makers and bureaucrats of India, at the same time the pro-Mandal activism produced politically sensitive scholars and activists on Ambedkar thoughts and subaltern politics in the post-Mandal Period.

Here my argument is that the anti-Mandal discourses of reservation created a huge divide between the reserved groups and non-reserved groups and it even posed the question of ability and merit in a derogative sense, therefore the genealogy of the anger on reservation is linked to the anti-Mandal agitation to a certain extent but it is deep rooted in the Indian caste system and still prolongs in higher educational institutions.

In universities and any other higher educational institutions, students have to maintain a sort of standards or expectations in their period of study which are nothing but elite dominant academic standards -- for instance, the quality of thesis, stipulated time frame for the course of study, capacity of cognition (in comparison), and performance in the classes and so on. Thus struggles such as these pose direct questions against the elite standardization process on the basis of dalit standards which may contradict the present dominant standards. The academia still believes in the above mentioned standards and wants to examine the intelligence and cognition of dalit students with this. It indicates their limitation as well as negligence towards the diverse knowledge discourses emerging in universities.

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The insensitive faculty expect the students to continue that particular standards in their studies where they are deliberately ignoring the heterogenic nature of the student community. In other words, they are using homogeneity as a tool to practice casteism in certain departments, especially in sciences to keep them as sacred agraharas. In the case of dalit students the system never functions as a supportive mechanism to enhance their confidence levels; the symbolic capitals like, fluency in English, dress code and other requirements are lacking in the majority of dalit students. Therefore dalit students struggling to sustain their performance with less support are forced to take extreme steps.

What is meant by 'systemic failure'?

In an open dialogue before calling off the hunger strike, the activists asked the vice chancellor, 'is caste being practised in this university, yes or no?' He replied that there are institutional failures. The answer of the vice chancellor should be analyzed not just as a response from an institutional head but as an answer from a system. Interestingly, it is not merely his answer to this question, the sociologists and even the enquiry committee too were focusing on the issue as a systemic failure, and that it can be resolved through its own mechanism. If it is a systemic failure, why can't the university take its moral responsibility and call it as a systemic response to this sensitive issue?

Instead of addressing the core issue or even instituting a judicial enquiry, they try to offer compensation after the long agitations. By putting the systemic/institutional failure as an abstract category, the system wants to build separate entities; systemic subjects and the proponents, where the subjectivity/identity of the proponents consciously hide as an irrelevant matter in the public discussions, because the institutions' oppressive mechanism is nothing but the mixture of caste, class and gender predominance. Also the reason why people do fact finding on suicides still focus on the epistemological understanding of the problem instead of enquiring into the ontological linkage of the oppressors who hold power in the system?

Unless and until we realise the systemic failure as a constructed abstract entity which is used to divert the issue from its core concerns or the power holders of the system acknowledge (deliberately not) it as their failure and limitations to understand certain social facts, it would remain as an impossible topic for discussions.

The question of capitalising emotions and anger

Another important aspect of this struggle is how the emotions and anger of dalit students is being communicated/exchanged against the system. From the beginning itself the struggle was kept on a different mode: the so-called dalit-subaltern struggles, consequently the whole anger of students turned on authorities when the dialogues happened between them. The question is who benefited out of the anger and emotions of students and how it was tackled. For dalits, their emotions and anger are the reflections of their struggles and experience therefore it is more valuable to look at how it is exchanged or communicated in a public dialogue.

University administration has been taking a Gandhian cum pseudo-democratic strategy of listening to tackle the issue, by this they exploit the anger of the students, but it has to be capitalized by their own agency. University of Hyderabad is a hub of dalit-subaltern politics, for that reason the emotions and anger must widen the pan-Indian scenario for the larger dalit emancipation and resistance. Moreover, this struggle provides a lesson that the dalit students are not the emotional subjects of any system. These are the most definite questions/ debates that emerged from the indefinite hunger strike which happened in University of Hyderabad.



Joby Mathew, an ICSSR Doctoral Fellow, is doing Ph.D in Center for Human Rights at University of Hyderabad. He is working on 'Land and Caste: A study of Land Reforms in Kerala'.

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