Rameshbabu Para is pursuing PhD from Hyderabad Central University. Recently, he was elected as secretary, Ambedkar Student Association. Here he interacts with K.S. Kusuma on different facets of Dalit student’s life in University of Hyderabad.
Dalit students’ groups in the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) are by far one of the most powerful and articulate Dalit students’ groups any where in the country. What are the reasons?
Hyderabad has had a history of people’s movements. The consciousness level among the Dalit community is relatively higher. There is a very strong network of Dalit teachers here. The literary movements like Virasam (the Revolutionary Writer’s Association) has also shaped the thoughts of Dalit student activists. However, the most important factor was the influence of ‘Dalit Mahasabha’–(an organisation formed after the Karamchedu massacre in 1985). Its leaders like Katti Padma Rao and Bhojja Tharkam encouraged Dalit students to participate in the movement. Dalit students started participating in meetings and processions organized by the Mahasabha. These were the starting points through which a strong Dalit students’ politics has emerged in HCU.
When was the foundation of Dalit students’ group laid in the campus?
I think it was the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990 that really ignited Dalit and other progressive students to start organizing. Already there were some radical students, trying to sensitize the student community on various social and economic issues. They had formed an organization called Progressive Students’ Front (PSF). Many of them supported Naxalism. In fact, one of the students was shot dead by the police at that time on the pretext that he was a Naxalite. However, post-Mandal, Dalit students felt the need of organizing themselves. A few Dalits students took initiative and formed the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). It was mostly Dalit cadres from PSF who later formed the ASA.
How was the situation of Hyderabad Central University then? What were the issues that were initially confronted by Dalit student activists?
HCU was a completely brahminical university. Before the 1990s, one of the major issues concerning Dalit students was that they used to score very less marks in exams, due to which they were not able to take any exams like the NET. The caste-hindu faculties were very hostile to them and would say, “they haven’t written much”, “their English is poor”, “their presentation part is bad”. There were only 2 or 3 Dalit faculty members and their voices were never heard. However, PSF took up this issue and started an agitation. This was early 90’s and Dalit students were very scared to meet openly on these issues. But then, PSF collapsed due to police crack-down on Naxal sympathizers in the campus. However, the vacuum was filled by the formation of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) and this agitation was then led by Dalit students themselves under its banner. They demanded re-evaluation of the answer-sheets of both Dalit as well as non-Dalit students and that it should be done outside the campus.
So, were the answer sheets sent outside?
No. These were re-evaluated inside the campus itself and the result completely vindicated our stand as majority of Dalit students scored much better than earlier. It was a great victory for us and it completely exposed the casteist leanings of caste-hindu faculties of HCU.
Is ASA active in other universities of Andhra Pradesh as well ?
No. It is in HCU only.
What is the position of Dalit students’ mobilization in other universities of the state?
In some universities like Andhra University and Osmania University, Dalit students are well-organized but in others much efforts are needed, as local politics plays a major role unlike HCU, which is a closed campus. The local, dominant- caste students’ groups are strong there and often there is no place for any ideological debates and discussions, which hampers the growth of consciousness among the Dalit students. And now this Mala-Madiga divide among the Dalit students is having a huge adverse impact as students are getting more organized along the caste lines.
As a student group, how did you engage with this issue of categorization within the Dalit community?
When this sub-category issue came up in 1996, everybody looked at HCU for direction. Our seniors organized talks with both Malas and Madigas. However, given the sensitive nature of the problem, it was very difficult to arrive at any consensus between Dalit students belonging to different sub-castes. Then it was proposed that in the larger interest, this issue should not have any impact on the unity of Dalit students in the campus. But this proposal was not followed
in the spirit and soon the Madiga students formed a separate organization called the Dalit Students’ Union (DSU) and ASA remained confined only to Mala students.
What is your equation with DSU now?
Except the categorization issue, I don’t see much difference between the two organizations. On all other issues, we both fight together. In elections also, we normally form a coalition and contest together.
In most of the Indian campuses, the reserved seats for Dalit students remain vacant. But in your campus, Dalit students are much more in number than their prescribed quotas?
In HCU also, many seats used to remain vacant. However, we put pressure on the administration for filling the prescribed quotas. Apart from that, we have developed a culture, where conscious Dalit students pool in their money and send hundreds of application forms together, with previous years’ question papers to their villages as well as their schools and colleges for eligible Dalit students to apply for admission in HCU. Lack of access to proper information and guidance, together with financial constraints, are two major problems for Dalit students. By sending those forms, we are able to somewhat counter that. The result is before you. Many Dalit students get selected on general seats every year. In class rooms also, we are continuously breaking the myth of ‘upper’ caste merit. In many departments, the competition is between Dalit students only.
Tell us about other student groups active in the campus.
There are two other student groups worth mentioning– Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarathi Parishad (ABVP) and Students Federation of India (SFI). Together with ASA and DSU these are the two groups, which are the major players in campus politics. We have direct fight with ABVP. However, with the Left group, our relationship remains very dicey, as they never provide us honest support. They only want our votes and pay lip service to ‘Dalit empowerment’.
What about the Students’ Union elections? Does ASA contest elections?
Yes. We contest elections and normally we have an alliance with DSU and SFI on seat-sharing basis. In 2006, I contested for the post of President, supported by both DSU and SFI. All the seats were won by this alliance except the presidents’, where I was defeated by the ABVP candidate by 32 votes. We were defeated due to a rebel candidate from SFI. However, in 2007, ABVP made a clean sweep, winning all the seats, as our alliance did not materialize and all of us fought the elections independently.
Dalit students of this campus are considered by many as aggressive and prone to violence. What do you have to say about this?
(laughs) It is a case of stereotyping. The administration and faculties have huge problems with the Dalit students, as they fight back against the caste-based harassment. The caste-hindu mind is not used to such behaviour from the Dalits. They get easily offended when we try to reason or argue with them. Such interactions appear violent and aggressive to them. By branding us as violent and aggressive they are in fact trying to discredit our politics.
But ten senior Dalit students from your organization were expelled in 2002 on the charges of violent behaviour!
Yes. Ten senior most members of our group were expelled for ‘misbehaving’ with the warden. However, the truth is that the Dalit students had gone to meet the warden to lodge a complaint on hostel matters, that resulted in a minor scuffle. Next day, the campus administration expelled ten senior leaders of the group. Some of them were not even present at the spot. It was a clear-cut case of vendetta against Dalit students. It was done with a motive to intimidate members of ASA and other Dalit students to submission. Recently, our stand has been vindicated by the honourable court which has revoked the orders of rustication.
Tell us about the structure of the Ambedkar Students’ Association.
It is a well-structured, democratic body. The main decision-making body of ASA consists of a Convener, President, 2 Vice Presidents, a General Secretary and a Treasurer. This body is elected every year. Each hostel also has a separate body. After new admission gets over, the main body gets dissolved and the new body is elected at the Fresher’s Welcome organized by ASA. But before this, we organize General Body Meetings (GBMs) in each hostel to get feedback from our members. Then, a campus GBM of ASA is organized, where the new body is elected.
K.S. Kusuma (firstname.lastname@example.org) is working as a Lecturer in Jamia Miliya Islamia University, New Delhi