Is there a space for Bahujan people in the JNU discourse?

Is there a space for Bahujan people in the JNU discourse?

Currently, it's essentially a fight between the Brahmanical Left and the Brahmanical Right.

By Raju Chalwadi and Swapnil Gedam

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A university is a dynamic space where social, cultural and political movements engage with often conflicting histories of social groups, including the marginalised. Indeed, if there is actually a microcosm of society, it’s the university campus. The university then isn’t just a place for producing and acquiring knowledge, it’s also a contested terrain of power. 

Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University is visibly marked as a theatre of both learning and politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party government and its allies in the media have portrayed the university as a national enemy, accusing it of producing traitors to the nation because of its perceived ideological tilt to the Left. For the left-liberal camp, on the other hand, JNU epitomises the imagination of the “argumentative India”. Who, though, has the privilege to participate in this argumentative space? Whose narrative prevails and whose is the victim in this “graded” left-liberal discourse dominated by privileged caste groups?

Historically, JNU has been dominated by so-called upper caste Hindus of the left-liberal persuasion. This is uncontested. The ideological hegemony of upper caste Hindus, in fact, extends to their representation in academic positions and campus politics. Yet, even progressive media uncritically buy the argument that JNU is a diverse, inclusive space. That is far from being the case. 

In India, the left-liberal ideology has served as a vehicle for advancing soft Brahmanism. Consider, for one, the faculty positions in JNU. According to the university’s latest annual report, for 2017-18, around 78% of its 585 filled faculty positions are occupied by people from the “general category”. Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe teachers comprise just 11.5% and 4%, respectively, of the JNU faculty. Reservation for Other Backward Classes applies only at the level of assistant professor. And even at this entry-level position, only about 14% of the teachers are OBC. A total of 307 faculty positions are vacant which further reduces representation of marginalised communities.

The hegemony of the upper caste Left in JNU is only entrenched by students from similar social and ideological backgrounds driving the campus politics. A 2018 study by Jean-Thomas Martelli and Khaliq Parkar found that in 40 years until 2017, the Students’ Federation of India and the All India Students’ Association led the JNU Students Union for 33 years. Both SFI and AISA claim to be progressive leftist student groups, but how many of their JNU Students Union presidents have been Dalit, Adivasi, OBC, or Pasmanda Muslim? 

India’s Brahmanical Right preserve their privilege under the cover of cultural nationalism; the Brahmanical Left do just that in the garb of secularism and progressive values. It’s no coincedence that the current left-liberal focus on Hindu-Muslim unity has swept under the rug the pressing matter of caste underrepresentation and discrimination. 

In this context, why should we not assume that the ongoing battle in JNU has nothing to do with the democratisation of knowledge and power? The violence in JNU, in fact, should be seen as a failure of the democratisation of the campus. Would the Hindutva mob have dared attack JNU so brazenly if it had been a democratic space in the real sense? 

JNU needs to introspect about its role in sabotaging the movements of marginalised groups. In the past six years, JNU has, even if unwittingly, served as a tool for the Narendra Modi dispensation to divert attention from mass movements, including the protests against Rohith Vemula’s suicide in 2016 and the ongoing pushback against the citizenship law and the police brutality at Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. JNU’s privileged student leaders have hijacked such mass movement by foregrounding issues specific to their university. They have been helped along by lelf-liberal professors at various elite universities. Why is it that the citizenship law protests and the police brutality in Jamia and AMU did not compel them to come out on the streets en masse, but the mob violence in JNU did? Why is it that Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide, caused by caste hatred, in the heart of a megapolis did not force left-liberal teachers to stand with placards in their hands? What stops JNU’s “progressive” teachers and student leaders from asking serious questions about the incarceration of Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad? What keeps “progressive” faculty members at elite institutions from opposing the regressive Economically Weaker Sections quota and using their influence to mobilise opinion against it, nationally and internationally? 

Caste privilege is not restricted in time and space. It can pervade a liberal space as easily as any other. JNU must understand this for the sake of the marginalised groups. For the moment, the discourse in JNU, because it’s shaped by caste elites, is essentially a fight between the Brahmanical Left and the Brahmanical Right. It’s from this all-pervading Brahmanwad that Bahujan people need Azadi.