Scenario 1: A student leader in Delhi is arrested on charges of sedition, days after an event in a university triggers right-wing ire. The student is built into a leader overnight, over the other students facing similar charges, who’re probably at greater risk than him. More importantly, the university witnesses an outpouring of solidarity from across the globe. Every prominent intellectual writes in defence of the university as an egalitarian space, celebrate the ‘idea’ of the university. Newspapers write about how the government is ‘wrong’ to take on the prominent and influential university. Students of the university and teachers hold press conferences, boycott classes and take out well-attended public marches.
Scenario 2: A university not in Delhi witnesses the tragic death of a bright Dalit student after months of overt caste discrimination and clashes between the ABVP and the Ambedkar Students Association. The suicide triggers a wave of protests and an outpouring of grief, forcing the vice-chancellor (who’s booked for abetting the suicide) to go on leave. When the vice-chancellor returns two months later, enraged students protest outside his office. There is some ransacking but it is not clear if the ABVP students did it or the protesters.
Police enter the campus, thrash several students, drag them by their hair on the roads and arrest them. The university cuts off food, water, internet and money supplies to the campus that houses 5,000 people. There are allegations of police brutally beating up students who’re cooking for fellow students.
In all this, there is little public outrage except from those in the city. There is no ‘idea of the university’, no one predicts the downfall of the government and certainly nothing about how the university is an institution. The difference is telling.
There are many reasons why incidents at Jawaharlal Nehru University received more public attention. Primary among them are two.
First, the location of the institution in the heart of the Capital helped capture the attention of the national Delhi-based media, many of whom wrote ‘in-depth’ pieces from night-outs at the university. JNU’s location also helped in bundling public intellectuals who flooded edit and opinion pages of newspapers with their rage against JNU.
Second, JNU’s historical prominence and the luminaries associated with it helped build the protests up into a national issue. This power came not just from the students at the university but also from the brahminical might of the institution – many of its upper-caste once-revolutionaries are now prominent leaders, intellectuals, thinkers and writers, who swooped down to defend their alma mater. A university where caste barriers to attain ‘merit’ have been historically notorious became an ‘idea’ we must all defend.
This is the power that helped Kanhaiya Kumar become a household name. This is also the power University of Hyderabad students don’t have.
None of this takes away from the JNU struggle, which was both important and revolutionary. It is also important to acknowledge the multitude of lower caste voices from within JNU, many of whom were making the same arguments as above many weeks ago.
But when scores of students are beaten up and an university is under siege without invoking the ‘collective conscience’ of the nation, it is time to ask questions of our leaders.
What is this power that makes sure national media picks up Kumar’s denial of entry into UoH but not the battlezone-like situation inside? What is the power that ensures that the demand of a ‘Rohith Act’ is only heard when Kumar talks about it? What is this power that the idea of ‘the government created JNU fracas to distract from Vemula protests’ that has been firmly articulated by Ambedkarites is heard only when Kumar says it?
The power is caste. And it is time our comrades acknowledge its power.
Brahmanical power is what lets JNU behave like a representative of India’s intellectual might and relegates UoH to the backbenches. Brahmanical power is what ensures Kanhaiya Kumar is celebrated everywhere he goes but Vemula’s friends, who have been fighting for much longer, don’t even get their names in the papers. Brahmanical power is what ensures only dead and maimed lower-caste folk are ever remembered. Until Dalit-Bahujan people are suffering, we’re not interested in their stories.
It is time Kanhaiya Kumar acknowledges that he wields this power and try and take himself off the spotlight. His comrades in the Left have done the reverse for far too long – Deny their caste privilege while killing hundreds of lower-caste people in Marichjhapi to save the tiger, or sitting back and let Chuni Kotal die.
There is a fierce movement at UoH, one that has gone on without help from media or powerful friends in important positions. All it has got are statements of solidarity. It is time we put our money where our mouth is.