I have never been a big fan of presidential-style debates or Jawaharlal Nehru University. The former almost always reduces social justice to grandstanding and the number of hunger strikes while the latter takes itself too seriously as the citadel of equality, never mind the festering casteism, sexism and homophobia.
Therefore, when I managed to sneak into the university's south Delhi campus last Wednesday, I had little hope of a politically engaging process. For the most part, the debate scraped the bottom of the barrel – dominant caste men hid their caste, shouted at Dalit men; men ordered women to sit down, parties wrangled with each other's history as if anyone had a clean slate, and gender justice was bandied about like some meaningless word. A progressive candidate even expressed his support for the army.
But the night was saved, for me, by the perceptible influence that the historic and powerful campaign by the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association had left on campus politics and other presidential candidates.
For the first time, political parties are trying to read up Ambedkar, talking about him in their speeches, mentioning his politics, even appending jai bhim to everything they do.
Most of this engagement remains on the surface, and for cynical political gains – as the ABVP candidate showed during the presidential debate – but for a campus that has historically neglected Ambedkarite politics and suppressed the assertion of Dalit bahujan students, this was a huge step.
Indian university campuses are not kind to students who don't come from dominant communities – talk to any Dalit-bahujan, adivasi, LGBT, women, disabled folks and how they've struggled to get their voices heard and reach leadership positions.
Even organisations that claim to speak on behalf of the marginalized don't tolerate any assertion by them – the articulation of non-mainstream politics remains at the mercy and discretion of the dominant. I remember when hundreds of university students ringed the University Grants Commission last year, the slogans that went up often referenced left philosophers from foreign lands but not native Dalit Bahujan Adivasi leaders.
But all that appears to now have changed. Thanks to BAPSA, appearing on the side of justice for Dalit Bahujan Adivasi students has become an urgent cause.
But it is not just on semantics and appearance that BAPSA has left a mark, but also on substantive issues as well. BAPSA's presidential candidate Rahul Sonpimple was the only one talking about issues of affirmative action, discrimination on campuses, and the need for changing the structure of the examinations to eliminate any discretionary practices that allow for discrimination.
For years, complaints of caste-based discrimination in viva marks, the lack of Dalit Bahujan Adivasi professors, the subtle and overt discrimination faced by hundreds of students, have been brushed under the progressive carpet that JNU is adept at rolling out. The Left has been as complicit in erasing and not addressing these problems as the Right.
But now, thanks to the BAPSA's articulation of these issues, whoever comes to power in the student body will have to act on some of these demands – mainly because of an ever-aware organization on campus pressing for the welfare of the marginalized.
In an interview with me earlier this week, BAPSA candidate Aarti Rani Prajapati said the greatest achievement of the election campaign was the visible empowerment of dispossessed communities on campus – she said Muslims, Adivasis, Dalit Bahujan students were happy that they could fight for power and not simply stand in solidarity.
The organization continues to push the envelope and grapple with questions posed from within and outside – of engaging with feminist, queer politics, of talking about gender justice in a non-reductionist way, about including more non-binary, LGBT, Muslim folks in visible leadership. There have also been questions raised about their approach to questions of gender, queerness, and Kashmir – issues that they hopefully will engage with more in the future. But in the vibrancy of conversations, internal dissent and the willingness to talk, they've left many established "progressive" organisations behind.
As I write this, BAPSA is running second on most of the central panel posts – Rahul Sonpimple has won an unprecedented number of votes for a party that is just two years old.
When the actual results come out, many candidates from BAPSA may not win – it isn't easy to upend a brahminical order in one election. But in unequivocally rejecting the right wing while pushing for social justice, BAPSA has already won. Their slogan – Unity of the oppressed – has been transformative (and already appropriated by other parties).
In interviews and in his presidential debate speech, Sonpimple repeatedly said how the bogey of the ABVP – Gabbar in his words – was used to stop marginalized folks from asserting. But this election, as he predicted, Kabali has already roared, never mind the numbers.
Dhrubo Jyoti is journalist based in New Delhi.