I remember once I had come across a very interesting picture on my Facebook timeline. It had an image of a graffiti where it was written “If graffiti could change anything, it would have been illegal”. The image in a very subtle manner showed how in a democracy, people are led to believe that they enjoy the freedom to dissent against the ruling class, while in reality any form of meaningful dissent that would actually cause problems for the state or the ruling class is effectively banned.
The recent instance of the derecognition of the Ambedkar-Perriyar Study Circle (APSC) at the prestigious Indian Institute of Madras (IIT–M) is a clear pointer towards the fact. The incident has shown that the Indian establishment would permit meek forms of protest such as candle light vigils and other things, but anything that radically seeks to alter the institutionalised form of injustice such as caste, that exists in the Indian society, would be brutally crushed.
In the aftermath of the ban, there has been a wide range of writings criticising the ban and a lot of important questions related to caste, campus democracy; the nature of students’ politics and the right to freedom of dissent vis- a- vis the current Narendra Modi regime, have come at the forefront, which we need to critically examine.
Caste is one of the most institutionalised, religiously sanctioned forms of social injustice in India that has been existing since quite a centuries now. It mandates the creation of social hierarchies based on the virtue of birth, with people in the topmost pyramid considered the best of human beings and the ones at the bottom the worst and the polluted.
It is quite true that since independence India has come a long way in its efforts against the oppression of the caste. We have had a Dalit president of the country, political leaders like Mayawati have centred their politics around an aggressive Dalit identity, and there have been some kind of representation of the people of the lower caste in positions of importance. However, it would be naive to believe that caste has been eradicated completely from the Indian society. While it is quite true that the earlier caste-based brutalities have been done away with in most urban and semi-urban areas and even many rural areas, and the lower caste people now often do lead a life of dignity, that was unimaginable a few decades back. But, as India has gone on to embark the path of economic transformation and globalisation, caste has reshaped itself and its manifestations of inequality is being seen in a more subtle and complex manner.
According to a list of dollar billionaires published by Forbes magazine, fifty five of them are Indians. The top seven among them are Vaishyas who are CEOs of a number of Multinational Corporations. Among the remaining forty eight, there are nineteen more Vaishyas, with no Dalit or Adivasi featuring in this list.
Now let us look at the position occupied by the Brahmins, the caste that is placed at the pinnacle of the caste pyramid, in various spheres of power.
According to a study made by the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, New Delhi (CSDS), forty seven percent of all Supreme Court Chief Justices between 1950 and 2000 were Brahmins. 37.17 percent of the Indian Bureacracy is made up of Brahmins, the Backward Classes Commission states in its 2007 report.
Even in the field of media, the upper castes continue to hold its sway. According to the CSDS survey of 2006, among thirty seven Delhi based Hindi and English print media, ninety percent of the decision makers in English media and seventy nine percent of the Hindi print media are from the upper caste, of which forty nine percent are Brahmins. Four percent of the decision makers belonged to Shudra castes and three percent were Muslims. Again the percentage of Dalit or Adivasi decision maker was nil.
Thus, as the above mentioned statistics help to establish, in post- independence India, caste instead of being eradicated has appeared in an altogether different avatar by placing the upper castes in the alleys of power and placing the lower castes in position which is absolutely disproportional to their population.
This is why Ambedkar continues to remain relevant (probably more relevant than ever) in contemporary India. However, given the nature of Indian polity since independence, Ambedkar has been appropriated by the Congress and quite obviously the BJP, for furthering their own political gains. His most radical work The Annihilation of Caste has been rendered oblivious and we have been schooled to believe Dr. B. R. Ambedkar as the man who was the key architect behind drafting the Constitution of India.
This is where organisations like the APSC become so dangerous for the ruling establishment. It is primarily because they nullify all sorts of appropriation of Ambedkar and present him as he is ought to be looked at, a crusader against casteism and the politics of the Hindu Right.
The other reason why the APSC has been derecognised is because they have sought to politicise, the otherwise deeply depoliticised campuses like the IITs. It is an undeniable fact that the IITs are indeed centres of academic excellence who have contributed to the growth of scientific education in India. However, at the same time these institutions have been forced to exist as separate, individual islands, thereby delinking them from the realities of the very society to whose needs they are supposed to cater. In such a scenario organisations like APSC take it upon themselves to ensure that the educational institutions they are part of do not merely produce engineers but also contributes in raising a voice against one of the most oppressive systems that has existed in India.
No wonder then that the IIT- M administration resorted to banning the APSC on flimsy grounds; an anonymous complaint which stated that the APSC had resorted to spreading hatred against the current Government. The action goes against the very guidelines of the institution which categorically states that no action can be initiated against an individual or a collective on the basis of anonymous complaints. Questions have also been raised about the neutrality of the IIT- M administration on its silence regarding another students’ body called Vivekananda Study Circle, a right wing organisation that had organised protests against the UPA Government on its reservation policy.
Every democratic regime secures its rule on the basis of a concept called safety value. According to this, every Government permits its citizens to exercise some form of dissent, so that it is not looked upon as a despotic regime. However, during the past one year of the Narendra Modi Government, it has issued bans and has stifled dissent, at times in absolutely arbitrary manner, which occasionally have also led to embarrassment for the Government. Coupled with this is its fetish for cultural vigilantism, which have not gone down well even with its own supporters. Take for instance the ban on beef by the BJP Governments at Haryana and Maharashtra. Responding to this, Union Home Minister, Rajnath Singh remarked that his Government would use its ‘political might’ to enforce a ban on beef throughout the country. The Prime Minister must understand that a significant section of its voters is the urban, upper class, aspiring youth of the country who had overwhelmingly voted for him for his promises of economic transformation. A culture of ban and enforcement of choices upon people would only serve the purpose of alienating a large section of his voters.
The positives that have emerged from the IIT- M saga, is that after a long time the question of caste has found a mainstream discourse in India. Apart from this is the question of students’ politics and the state of our institutes of higher education which have been duly highlighted owing to the large scale media coverage of the entire episode. The incident provides before us an opportunity to strengthen our resolve against caste and also to lay out a direction for the future of students’ politics in India.