Reju George Mathew
Who are the Asuras? What is their relation with the Dravidas? Aren't these some stories from the Puranas and some assumptions from the past? Let's forget all those. But, we cannot ignore them easily when, for the past few months or years (let's also forget the Dravidian movement and other identity assertions of the past), we hear through the social media and newspapers about some people claiming that the Asuras and the Dravidians are the representatives and even Gods of the Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans and other marginalized communities. Also, it becomes a necessity for us to understand this politics when those perfomances like Ganesh Chathurthi and Durga Puja, which the Savarna castes project as "Indian festivals", are rejected as celebrations and festivals of violence, oppression and invasions.
For the Ganesh Chathurthi festival on the 9th of this month and for subsequent pujas, a group of ABVP students in the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad had set up a puja pandal near the administrative building in the university, with the sanction of the university administration. This led to the "counter celebration" of an "Asura Week" under the leadership of some Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan and like-minded students. Later, instead of being a counter celebration, it shaped into an occasion to celebrate "Asura Pride". This could be understood as an apt answer to the Savarna attitude that tries to demean the Avarnas and the marginalized as the Asuras and thereby keep them away from all kinds of Savarna festivals and celebrations. When the Avarnas try to celebrate the Savarna festival, it becomes an aberration, an act which is not often appreciated (the attack and killing of Dalits in Bihar during the Independence day celebrations last month should be kept in mind).
Even when recent studies reveal that the Arya-Dravida theory is not a dependable one or that the Asuras are there only in the Puranas, one cannot consider it as stupidity or lack of awareness when a group of Dalit, Adivasi, and Bahujan students (along with some Christian, Muslim, Atheists etc.) attempt to project the Asura-Dravidian cultural and identity symbols, along with declaring their pride in being Asura. The fact that, unlike many other universities and centres, EFLU has been a place where discussions of caste and other discriminations have happened in the academic circles plays a major role in the politics of this university.
In the post-Mandal era, especially after the 2000s, EFLU has seen growing numbers of Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans and other marginalized sections, both as students and as faculty members. The critical engagement that has been made possible (because of this numbers) has led to student groups becoming more aware of the religious, socio-political and cultural dilemmas, politics and stereotypes in the country. The proximity of a politically active Osmania University has also helped the students to consolidate support and take further the critical engagements. Remember the Beef Festival that was jointly organized by some students' organizations from EFLU and Osmania and the violence that followed it, physically and in academics and media.
Last year, ABVP had celebrated Ganesh Chathurthi in the campus, with the support of a new administration which sanctioned such celebration. It ultimately led to the puja lorries being parked in front of the houses of Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan faculty members and the celebrations even taking the colours of threats and abuse. The protests of the Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan students were not addressed. It is also to be noticed that the new administration of the university had supported these Savarna festivals while refusing to celebrate or sanction funds for Ambedkar Jayanti or any of those events that would matter to the marginalized communities.
Various student groups have been engaging with the dominant Savarna festivals and its politics for some time in the university. Last year, Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students Association (DABMSA) had organized a seminar to this end, in which academicians and critics engaged with the students and their questions. This year, DABMSA organized one more seminar on secularism and the politics of dominant festivals, critiquing the cultural hegemony. Thus, the students in the campus were in a track to question and understand better the politics of various dominant festivals like Onam, Ganesh Chathurthi, Durga Puja etc. The modes in which certain religious festivals are projected as national and all-encompassing are being discussed and debated by the students.
"Asura Week" was begun as a week-long celebration of the identities and the cultures of the Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalized groups with themes and programmes for each day. It started with the members of the "Asura Community", a community of EFLU students and friends in Facebook, adopting Asura and Dravida names to declare to the public their dissent from popular Savarna ideology. Various names like Mahabali, Tatki, Mahishasura, Hidimba, Raavan, Kumbhakarna etc were adopted.
The theme for the first day, September 9th, was Ravana. On that day, a face painting competition was held in the campus, in which a handful of students participated. Several faces were painted, many in the popular notion of the Asura, but not as shameful, but full of pride. Handle bar mustaches and long thick side burns, which are used in popular representations to portray the 'evil' nature and 'cruelty' of the Asuras were celebrated and worn with pride. The artists gave life to the Asuras and there was an air of satisfaction, pride and awakening.
The students, with their painted faces took a rally in the campus raising slogans in respect of the Asuras. The various Asuras who are depicted as demons and killers were celebrated as they are celebrated in many of the indigenous and local cultures. Thus, the day was to proclaim that we are Asuras and we are proud to be Asuras. The blackened faces and the colourful beards were symbols of the protest against the Savarna notions of virtue and goodness. Day 2 was for Shoorpanaka. The day called for art installation by the students. Various students came together and produced a variety of items, including a massive black nose with a nose-ring on it to symbolize the cut nose of Shoorpanaka.
Identifying with Shoorpanaka and invoking the Asura-Dravidian pride also saw many students producing models of utensils and other items of marginalized daily life from bamboo, paper, jute etc. The third day, September 11th, was the day for public canvas painting, the day of Mahishasura. A long canvas was left in the public, near the university library. Various students painted the canvas, producing a number of beautiful and politically charged paintings. Several of them celebrated the Asuras and the violated. The theme of the painting was indeed "Memories of Oppression". Hence, there were paintings of the violence that Asuras have suffered at the hands of the Suras, paintings of anger, protest and pride. Several forms of caste oppression and violence were depicted through the pictures.
The situation started turning ugly in the evening as a group of students who called themselves "Hindu" approached the organizers of the canvas painting and demanded them to remove the canvas as they were upset with the paintings. Late evening, two vehicles of police arrived in the campus to comment, judge and "counsel" the students. There were several high ranking officers and the police questioned the students on the need of such an action as an Asura Week. According to them, such events can happen only in a Cultural Studies classroom and not in the public. They anticipate trouble in these kinds of political expressions. They also "offered" the students bandobast (security) if they want to make a political act like this as it could otherwise trigger communal issues.
The tension on the third day called for an open forum on day 4, September 12th. It was the day of Tataki and the open forum was a democratic and critical gesture from the political Asuras in EFLU to engage with the larger university community and public. The reluctance of the Savarna and skeptical public to overcome their sentiments, religious or communal, and to engage in democratic and rational debates resulted in a poor attendance in the open forum. Day 5, the final day of the Asura week witnessed a seminar named "Reinterpreting Indian History: Redefining Secularism in University Spaces" organized by few student organizations in collaboration with the Asura community members.
Yogesh Master, writer of the Kannada novel "Dhundi" which has stirred up a controversy, and several academicians and student activists from EFLU, Osmania University and Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU) participated and led the discussions on the need to challenge the Hindutva moulding of Indian history and myths. The seminar was attended by a large group of students, teachers and other public. The discussion that followed raised several crucial questions for contemporary politics and also brought forth the ideologies behind the celebrations of Mahishasura, Tataki, Ravanasura etc along with other assertions like the beef festival in the universities.
One has to acknowledge that the political situations in India are changing at a fast pace and students of a university like EFLU are indeed a part of those who initiate and produce the change as well as who live the consequences of such changes. The group of Dalit, Adivasi, Bahujan, Muslim and other like minded students are indeed making a deliberate political statement by openly rejecting the dominant narratives of culture, virtues, and their visible manifestations. What they attempt is not a mere outcry, but a deliberate initiative to question norms - the norms that are being taught and administered to us to make us conform to certain Savarna ideologies. The students in EFLU are celebrating their differences, their identities and cultures with pride. Political solidarities are being formed and students do need a change of the scenario which is oppressive and biased.
EFLU has always had an Om (literally as well) inscribed above the entrance of its administrative building - Bhoomi puja has been opposed by students when the hostels were constructed; a big idol of Saraswati sits in the Librarian's office; the publishing unit of the university has a tile with Ganesha's picture on it at the entrance; the publishing unit has always been conducting pujas and distributing prasadam; hostels have seen students being allotted rooms based on their castes; several cases of caste abuse and violence have been reported, both involving students and teachers; minorities of all sorts have been in trouble, not to mention the suicides of two Muslim students recently, one from Kashmir and the other from Tamil Nadu; several departments demand its students, especially the research scholars, to be apolitical.
When the marginalised, the Dalits, Adivasis, Bahujans and others voice their identities, their concerns, their struggles, it becomes a matter of law and order. The police is being called in by the administration without even engaging with the students. The administration fears the questions of the students and gets the police to answer them. The administration and the Savarnas are fine if I am an Asura, if I am a Dravidian, but they shudder when I take pride in what I am. For them, differences are not to be celebrated, but they are to be ashamed of. I am different and I don't attempt to fit in. I'm proud to be an Asura and my pride doesn't allow me to be silent.
Reju George Mathew says:
I am a PhD student in the department of Comparative literture in EFLU. My research is on Dalit Christianity, religious conversions, missionary archives and the formation of a Dalit Christian subject in Kerala. I have presented papers in several national and international conferences and was also a DAAD fellow in Techinsche Universitat Dresden, Germany in 2011. I am associated with the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minority Students' Association (DABMSA) in EFLU from 2006.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.