Recalling Rohith: Not backing down under state pressure, youth politics emerging strongly in Maharashtra

Written by Daisy Katta | Published on: January 19, 2018
Two years ago, on January 17, Dalit Research Scholar Rohith Vemula was institutionally murdered by the casteist administrative forces of Hyderabad Central University. This day was celebrated as “Rohith Shahadat Din” across Central and State University campuses throughout India. In Mumbai, Ambedkarite Students in Tata Institute of Social Sciences held programmes in Remembrance of Rohit Vemula while Ambedkarite Students from IIT Bombay distributed pamphlets. However, in many places like Ghatkopar in Mumbai student groups were not able to arrange any programmes in the wake of the ongoing combing operations. It is not the first time that the students have suffered a setback due to state intervention.

Youth Politics
Image: PTI

Student politics in Mumbai has taken a backseat ever since the Maharashtra University Act was passed in 1995. This was enacted in the wake of a student murder during Mumbai University student elections in the 90’s. The implementation of this Act became a watershed moment for student politics in Maharashtra. A clear fallout of such step is visible today, with very few young faces visible today in Maharashtra student politics. Talking about the current situation, Kiran*, a young student of Mumbai University said, “During the 1970s when the Dalit Panther Movement was strong, a generation of those students from the Dalit Bahujan Community had strong idols in front of them like Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, J V Pawar and others. These are people who rose from the ground and influenced the student movement during those days. Now I don’t find there are any such idols in context of Maharashtra who can really inspire students. There is a need for debate and discussion. Politics is not in isolation, politics is something connected to the economy, the medical facilities, almost every aspect of our life. Only youth can connect with youth, we need someone who can connect with the young people”.

Students like Kiran are of the opinion that although there is a huge willingness amongst students to contribute, there does not seem to be a single political organisation with a long-term sustainable agenda.

Another student activist Dinesh*from Mumbai added, “Brahminical agencies have always been scared of critical consciousness that can harm their hegemony. Students politics in Indian universities have recently witnessed a change in its student’s communities, especially after second Mandal Commission. More Dalit Bahujans with political/ social consciousness in Universities means a threat to Brahminical forces both inside and outside universities. To suppress and mutilate the growth of such consciousness resulting from the Dalit movement, especially Dalit Panthers, has always been a necessity for Brahminical forces in order to keep their oppression alive”.
Even before Panthers, there was an active student movement in the 1950s, when scores of students participated in the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti. It was a movement demanding a separate Marathi-speaking state of Maharashtra with Bombay as its capital. Many youngsters joined the Samta Sainik Dal (Party of the Fighters for Equality) which was formed by Dr Ambedkar in 1926. Urmila Pawar’s book Amhi hi Itihas Ghadavala ( We Also Made History) painstakingly documented the history of Dalit women’s participation in the Ambedkarite Movement. Till date, it remains a fundamental text of women’s participation in the Ambedkarite Movement.

The government plans of lifting the ban on institutional student politics through the passing of New Maharashtra Public Universities Act is likely to create a new avenue for Dalit-Bahujan student voices in Maharashtra University spaces. In an atmosphere where administrative and state intervention is at its peak, it is important that issues of Dalit-Bahujan students do not get sidelined. Speaking on this scenario, Sourabh Wade, Research Scholar, IIT Bombay, added, “The ban on elections has definitely affected Dalit-Bahujan politics. Firstly, one can say that the crucial phase, whereby issues of identity and representation should have been resolved by now, are being faced even today. Secondly, the alignment of Dalits with the Left-Right binary in politics has limited them from realising their potential that lies in building a larger, autonomous Dalit-Bahujan politics. Thirdly, the repression on Dalits outside the campuses could not be highlighted in a vocal manner and the alignment with the binary limited the politics to sympathy/solidarity, which to me is a very patronising approach to any politics”. Students like Saurabh also feel that a single face in Dalit Bahujan politics is not necessarily mandatory and believes that there should be diverse representation.

The mainstream media is busy covering the student political movement in Delhi and Hyderabad, mainly highlighting the select few premiere institutes. There is a huge movement on ground level which has been away from the limelight. In case of Dharavi in Mumbai, youngsters from the largely-migrant community, mostly from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana got together after the tragic suicide of S.Anitha in Tamil Nadu. S. Anitha, a young medical aspirant, committed suicide after the implementation of NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Test) which affected a number of poor students across the country. NEET, which required specialised training in the medical syllabus, was made mandatory with effect from 2017 in Tamil Nadu. This was also made the sole criteria for admission to medical colleges.

Speaking about the initiative in Dharavi, Francis from Jai Bhim Foundation says, “We mainly work on the ideology of Periyar and Ambedkar. We inform young students from our locality about the larger student politics happening in our country, like what happened during Rohith’s Movement or in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for that matter. We also screen a lot of documentaries. We recently screened Kakkoos by Divya Bharathi, which is based on manual scavenging. Not only that, we lay equal emphasis on documentaries related to science.”. Francis opines that this is a part of the larger consciousness-raising amongst young students. Currently, Dharavi has different organisations like Jai Bhim Foundation, Mumbai Awareness Organisation, Liberation Panthers and also Dravida Kazhagam (Dravidian Organization) which work on various social issues and specifically on caste.

Many students who grew up during the 80’s and the 90’s post the Dalit Panther Movement had a different entry into the larger political realm of Maharashtra. Their involvement began with Dalit Sahitya Chalval ( Dalit Literary Movement). Magazines like Dalit Asmita by Gangadhar Pantawane and Samuchit by Yashwant Manohar raised a lot of critical questions regarding Dalit-Bahujan issues and politics.

Dr Awachar, Professor, Mumbai University recalls, “I grew up in Washim district of Maharashtra during the 90s. This was also a time when Congress was strong and Fascism in terms of extreme right-wing politics was at its peak. During this time, what shaped my political consciousness was the dynamic Dalit Literature movement, which was in full swing. We had great precedents in front of us, like the people who had participated in Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and also the Namantar Movement. The entry of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the 1990s in Maharashtra also changed the political dynamics in Maharashtra hinterland”.

Dr Awachar points that the rise in the intensity of combing operations across Maharashtra to clamp down on protesters is not a new trend., “There was a similar effect on the students even after the Khairlanji massacre. My contemporaries were jailed for agitating. While I feel that such actions by the state hampered the political aspirations of the youngsters, these were the students who were at the forefront in questioning the state and the system. This rebellion is something which came out as an answer to state injustice and contributed to the Ambedkarite Movement”.

The youth resilience has been given an impetus lately due to the rise in local community consciousness, which is happening mainly among the marginalised localities of Mumbai. Many students who are not looking to align with a particular political outfit and want to work autonomously are keenly following Ambedkar’s footsteps with the call to Educate, Agitate and Organize. Many of these students want to work more keenly towards the aspect of education in their community as they feel this is a basic aspect required to create a larger political consciousness.

Kiran and his group of friends have started their own initiative called Jyoti Savitri Probhodhini which is working towards education. Talking about the initiative he added, “When Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule started a school, they only started it with eight girls. Did they imagine that there will be someone like Indira Gandhi or Kalpana Chawla who will benefit from their efforts? All they did was make a sustained effort. This is what is required.”

Courtesy: Two Circles