Come Wednesday night, Jawaharlal Nehru University in the country’s capital will witness another session of the much awaited presidential debates. If the analyses and estimations from last year’s elections – which said that Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech swept all the floating votes toward his favour – are anything to go by, the night of the debate indeed is not a mere spectacle of wit, oratory and rhetoric, but also serious electioneering. But, this year’s elections look riveting and engrossing for another reason—the clear emergence of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) as a force that has been systematically sussing out and exposing the casteism practiced by the Indian Left, particularly the parliamentary Left parties. With its call for the unity of the bahujan on a platform of ‘shared reality of different oppressions’, BAPSA is hoping to scrape together all such votes that have not been represented and respected by the erstwhile Unions.
And the cynosure at this juncture is a seasoned student leader named Rahul Punaram Sonpimple, who hails from a slum in Nagpur and studied in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai before joining the Centre for the Study of Social Systems in JNU for his MPhil. Despite the awfully busy campaign schedule, he meets me briefly to talk about why the Left in JNU should stop talking about BAPSA patronizingly and sympathetically if it actually cared about the common struggle of the historically oppressed in the country. Rahul explained why the demand for decreasing the maximum marks stipulated for the interview is a result of collection of years of data through RTI applications where it has been seen that students from discriminated communities have historically been awarded low marks even when a lot of them score as much as seventy percent in the written examination, making the whole system look dubious and dodgy. “There have been so many instances where a student from an oppressed background and one from the comparatively privileged have scored similar marks in the written, but the latter goes on to get anything between fifteen and twenty in the viva and the former sometimes even a zero,” says Rahul. The administrative, systemic discrimination also shows in the high level of dropouts from among the Dalits and other persecuted communities, corroborating the allegation that discrimination does not stop after you enter the institution. This is the biggest hole BAPSA sets forth to plug.
But the equally crucial and key agenda that the organization has this year is that of deprivation points for the Muslim students since – says the candidate -- “the number of Muslim students, barring in Urdu and Persian, is abysmal and political activism in JNU has not clearly been able to address this cardinal issue.” The wishy-washy commitment of the Left parties in JNU may well have to answer some hard-nosed and badass questions from this front of the oppressed minorities speaking for themselves.
The BAPSA candidates believe that such systematic problems can be resolved with systemic changes, and in the case of JNU, looking at the list of faculty members is as important. “No Dalit promoted to professorship means no Dalit as chairperson, no Dalit as the head of any powerful committee and decision-making bodies. Most of the interviewees ‘not found suitable (NFS)’ are lower caste, Muslim and Adivasi teachers,” says a central panel candidate. Rahul asseverates, by way of examples, that a centre which boasts of an arch-chairperson with presentations and publications on labour and economy in India’s hinterlands does not have an Adivasi faculty member for the longest history.
Since the schools with subjects in science are assumed to be tilting Right-ward and the social sciences Left, the presidential candidate statistically showed how the history of questionable numbers holds true for all the schools irrespective of ABVP or Left predilections. BAPSA is for complete oppressed unity, and will stand pledged and bound to address every issue faced by communities like the SC, ST, Adivasi, OBC, LGBTQ, people from the North Eastern region and from Kashmir, deposes the crusader who does not mind any label that his campaigns and fights may give him. “Some people may call me a Marxist when I champion these causes, some a progressive, and some others an Ambedkarite. I mind none if social justice is delivered,” smiles the son of a construction-worker mother who took her son to meetings after the Khairlanji massacre of 2006, and a rickshaw puller father, who died in 2005.
As to the so-called Left unity between the AISA and the SFI in JNU, Rahul points out to the kidology that it is, reminding us how AISA in JNU had consolidated as a carper of SFI and its parent party CPI(M) post-Singur, only to shake hands at opportune moments. Who does AISA now think was the killer of Tapasi Malik, he asks. “In Kerala, the Left had indulged in character assassination of Chitralekha and now here, out of frustration, they revealed the identity of the rape survivor in the recent case that anyway put AISA on the back foot, forcing them to cringe and look for alliance cover. It all points to their lack of sense and sensibility,” added another contender, saying that this unfortunately became possible because the Left had created a structure of impunity for themselves which gives them the arrogance and impudence to do anything by invoking the ABVP fear. This election, BAPSA also asks the electorate to put on their thinking cap about what the outgoing union achieved for the university going beyond their individual celebrity status. “It is great that two of the leaders are writing their autobiographies for big corporate publishing houses, but what is the report card of work for the lesser mortals in the campus?” the presidential hopeful enquires and claims that sale and celebration of oppression in flowery speeches are not going to pull the wool over the students’ eyes. He included that BAPSA’s success lies in the fact that the even ABVP member in the current union, though hilariously enough, has started to talk about caste and publicize himself as a member from the OBC.
As the contingent got ready for another round of canvassing, I asked Rahul to quickly tell me about the TISS Mumbai anecdote doing the rounds. A member in the interview panel, having found out that he came from the slums, started praising how good and innocent slum-dwellers are, to which Rahul said: not at all. They have high crime rates, acute patriarchy, and need no romanticization but solutions. “You cannot continue to exoticize and sell the stories of the discriminated and the suppressed. Instead, learn to listen to them and not condescend, if you actually want to see justice and equality. Therefore, your politics wherein you promise a revolution of the eternally downtrodden cannot and should not forever have a Pandey and a Chakraborty as projected leading faces, just as I should not volunteer to be the torchbearer of a feminist movement. For a change, you must listen to the underprivileged speak in their own tongue and style,” a self-assured Sonpimple Rahul Punaram signs off.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar is an independent journalist and researcher. He divides his time between politics and poetry.