Sign up for Alice Newsletter
Alice News           Alice News - Video           Alice News - Opinion

Choice, Agency and the Naming of Names – The Trap of ‘Immediate Identities’ and the Vision of a Democratic Revolution

Every struggle goes through highs and lows. The students who are part of the movements that are spreading out of universities in India – Hyderabad Central University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University have had their share of internal debates and disagreements, even as they have found moments of significant victory and solidarity.

June 3, 2016
thumb image

Every struggle goes through highs and lows. The students who are part of the movements that are spreading out of universities in India – Hyderabad Central University, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University have had their share of internal debates and disagreements, even as they have found moments of significant victory and solidarity

Shuddhabrata Sengupta
Paired Guest Posts by Chintu Kumari* & Umar Khalid**
18 May 2016

Students at JNU who have recently concluded their hunger strike to give time to the university authorities to respond reasonably to the High Court directives on the HLEC punishments are now being criticized for having ‘abandoned the struggle’ by some sections who claim to play a role within the broader students movement, when, in fact, nothing of that sort has actually happened.

The majority of the students who were on hunger strike (including several JNUSU office bearers, and others) have said that they have given up the hunger strike against the HLEC recommendations in keeping with the court order. In doing so, they have never said that they are suspending the agitation against the attempts by the JNU administration to weaken OBC reservation in admissions, hostel seats and deprivation points for women and oppressed sections of society.

In fact it is not as if the HLEC punishments issue has taken precedence over the other issues. It is actually the other way round. The students have decided to give priority to the struggle for ’social justice’ within the campus, while simultaneously giving time to the university authorities to respond adequately to the court directive on the HLEC punishment question.The call for a demonstration against the University Authorities by the JNUSU to continue the struggle on the social justice issues on the 16th of May is indicative of this fact.

The attacks and insinuations against the majority of the students at JNU who were on hunger strike have also featured a deliberate attempt to create divisions within the unified ‘Red-Blue’ / ‘Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam’ dynamics of the movement on the grounds of identity. Activists, such as Umar Khalid, on the left have been singled out for being ‘Savarna-Syed’, if they happen to bear a Muslim name, and for being ‘sold out to the Savarna left’ if they are Dalit, as happened with Chintu Kumari and Rama Naga. This attack has come primarily from individuals representing organizations like BAPSA that claim to speak from a ‘Dalit’ position, and it is given traction by several other individuals eager to flaunt their disdain for the ‘left’ students on Facebook and social media.

What the latter day custodians of Dalit identity seem to be most keen to forget is the robust generosity of a vision founded on intersectional solidarities that a previous generation of Dalit activists, such as those associated with the Dalit Panthers were keen to foreground.

The Dalit Panther Manifesto of 1973, for instance, proclaimed that a Dalit is a term that has no essential fixity in terms of caste. It says clearly – “…Truly speaking, the problem of dalits, or scheduled castes and tribes, has become a broad problem, the dalit is no longer merely an untouchable outside the village walls and the scriptures. He is untouchable, and he is a dalit, but he is also a worker, a landless labourer, a proletarian. And unless we strengthen this growing revolutionary unity of the many with all our efforts, our existence has no future. The dalit must accordingly accept the sections of masses, the other revolutionary forces as part of his own movement. Only then will he be able to fight his enemies effectively. If this does not take place, we shall be condemned to a condition worse than slavery. We must develop and help this consciousness ripen every year, every month, day, hour and every moment. Then alone shall we possess the right to be called human beings at all. It was for this that Dr. Ambedkar made us realize our humanity even in our state of beast-like exploitation. We should, to be successful, accept and understand a thing only after deep study, with a calm mind. We should not fall prey to slogans and outbursts. We must uproot the varna system, the caste system that enslaves us in its snares. The soil in which it survives and grows must be made infertile. We must understand that the caste nature of the term dalit is breaking down.

The Dalit Panther Manifesto goes on to answer the question ‘Who is Dalit’ by saying – “Dalits are “members of scheduled castes and tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”

The BAPSA members and their fellow travelers who have taken the initiative to attack activists like Chintu and Umar have fallen prey to what one can only hope is a passing meanness of spirit. I hope that the overwhelming dynamics of struggle and solidarity in the nascent student movement can help them find their way back to a real, critical conversation, and that their politics that can find the resources to correct itself by learning from the actual legacy of Dalit and other struggles. Several of the ‘left’ student activists readily accept the need for ‘self-criticism’ within the left, and indeed, there is an urgent need for much more self criticism. I hope that for the students who act as if they are the proprietors of Ambedkar’s legacy, this time is seen for being what it is, as an opportunity to shed the ‘self-righteousness’ that sits so heavily and awkwardly on their shoulders now.

The students on the left who have been at the receiving end of this vicious campaign of insinuations have not taken this attack lying down. If anything, they have taken this opportunity to speak their minds with clarity and maturity, and without a trace of sectarian arrogance.

Chintu Kumari
Umar Khalid

We present here two responses, by Chintu Kumari, All India Student Association (AISA) activist, former General Secretary of the JNUSU, and by Umar Khalid, student activist with the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Student Organization (BASO), adapted from their Facebook Status Updates, to the personalized attacks against them. Both Chintu and Umar have been attacked on the basis of their identity – Chintu is attacked for being a Dalit who is part of an an organization that stands on the Left, (as if she had not made this a conscious choice) and Umar as the utterly fictitious category of a ‘savarna’ Muslim (as if his specific point of origin prevents him and others like him of being capable of solidarities). Both Chintu and Umar have refused to let themselves be reduced to their ‘immediate identities’

We present these responses not to index an internecine battle between different student fractions, but because they tackle the broader political questions of identity, solidarity and substantive politics that face young people today. Chintu’s text comes first, and then come’s Umar’s.

I. Naming Names and the Denial of Choices: Chintu Kumari

I feel it necessary to respond to the (Facebook) post of Chinmaya Mahanand who has shown tremendous public concern for me on facebook (even though he never bothered to inquire about my well being even once while I was on the hunger strike) and also because despite his concern for me as a Dalit woman, he doesn’t think it necessary to respect my agency as a Dalit woman.

To begin with, I am a proud dalit, communist and ambedkarite as well. I have chosen to be part of left activism (AISA) by my own choice. In fact nobody had come to give me AISA membership but I had myself gone to take the membership. Also, over the past few years, I have also emerged as a left leader in the campus. My decision to be a part of CPI-ML (Liberation) cannot and must not be taken as an instance of the ‘victimisation’ of a Dalit person. I can say this on the basis of my experience as a person from Bihar, because since my childhood, I know that it (CPI-ML- Liberation) is the only party which has stood for the most marginalized castes and classes of Bihar. The liberation of dalits and ‘backward’ sections of society in Bihar can not be possible without our (CPI-ML-Liberation’s) struggle.

I have no issues with my comrades who have different opinions about caste and class and I don’t want to preach here about the histories of caste and class. But yes, the understanding that identity politics is 100% right and that left is always wrong, or, that left parties are 24 karat pure gold and identity politics is wrong seems highly problematic to me.

We have seen how in some states, governments led by those who claim to be followers of Ambedkar and upholders of social justice have betrayed the Dalits, allowed massacres of Dalits to happen and let the guilty to go unpunished. Similarly, we have also seen how also in some states, those who claim to be adherents of left, when in government, have betrayed the cause of Dalits and the other oppressed sections in order to stay in power. In history both have done mistakes and both should introspect and make some necessary changes with time.

But really, when some one says that I am being ‘victimized’ by the Left for being a Dalit it raises certain questions in my mind.

– Can Dalit women exercise their own agency in determining their own politics. Can I, as a Dalit woman, exercise my agency in determining my own political orientation?

– Is it necessary for anyone to dictate to me what my political orientation should be?

– Who gives anyone right to publicly name me and saying that I am victim of left activism?

– Being a Dalit can’t I have my own opinion or political orientation?

I sat on hunger strike for 16 long days for social justice and social inclusion. I was fighting to save the deprivation points for marginalised caste and class.I was fighting to save the same OBC reservation which was fought by the AISA and students of JNU. I was fighting against HLEC in which along with other comrades mainly students from marginalised caste and class were targeted. Many people including teachers, alumni, students , parents who were concerned about our deteriorating health condition came and sat on relay and encouraged us for our struggle. But I am shocked that the people who say that they share same feeling and emotions despite their different opinions, they never ever even bothered to come to ask whether we are dying or alive. People may have difference of opinion on methods. But it doesn’t stop them to evolve other methods for the same purpose.

Yahan, mera hausla badhane ki jagah mere independent soch ko hi victimise kiya ja raha hai!!! (Here, instead of being a source of strength or courage, this kind of attitude only seeks to victimize my capacity for independent thought.) As far as I am concerned, mera political orientation kya hoga ye Tay karne layak main khud hun. (As far as I am concerned, I myself am capable of deciding what will be my political orientation.) I don’t want any patriarchal bullying by anyone. The same patriarchy jiska shikhar caste ke andar hai. (The same patriarchy whose heights exist within every caste.) Yahan pe yeh bhi dhyaan rehna chaahiye ki dalit mahilaon ke upar bhi dalit mardon ka apaar soshan hota hai. (We must remain mindful of the fact that Dalit women face extremes of oppression at the hands of Dalit men.)

Finally, With due respect I would like to say ki mere political orientation ki chinta koi dusra na kare mai apna political choice khud kar sakti hun. (No one else needs to concern themselves about my political orientation because I can make my own political choices.)

Yes, my association with JNU has made me identify with and be sensitive to many more issues than I could have imagined. I will fight for annihilation of caste and I will also fight against patriarchy, communalism, minority witch hunt, tribal displacement, corporate loot, discrimination against sexual minorities, oppression of workers, agricultural labourers and other poor and marginalised sections.

You talk of Rohith Vemula, but please don’t use his name to deny me my choices, and if anything, respecting Rohith Vemula’s struggles and words, kindly do not reduce me to my immediate identity!!



II. ‘Jai Bhim-Lal Salaam’ Represents a New Vision of the Democratic Revolution: Umar Khalid

An open letter to BAPSA activist Rahul Sonpimple

Rahul, On the day of the Academic Council Meeting, you made a speech. At the outset, let me state that I agree with some of your criticism as far as they relate to the way the parliamentary left in India has looked at the caste question. However, your speech goes much beyond just that and makes insinuations at me as someone who has become a “hero”, “a political prisoner” and a “students’ union election aspirant” all because of my “savarna surname – syed”. I have my differences with the same, and would like to respond.

First things first, far from a hero, if anything, over the last few months I was made into a villain. I hope you have not forgotten, how because of my Muslim identity, the kind of things I was called – “a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist”, “anti-national”, “Pakistani agent”- and that it certainly was not the most comfortable period for me or my family. My sister received rape threats, my father was singled out for attack because of his past association with SIMI and given death threats. My entire family in the initial period was confined to our house for many days for fear of their lives. While police was carrying out raids in different parts of the country, a lynch-mob as close as the north-gate of JNU was baying for my blood everyday with slogans of ‘Umar Khalid ko phaasi do/goli maro’. (Hang/Shoot Umar Khalid) I was forced to go into hiding for several days, and then arrested. Two cops still guard my home for fear of any possible attack on my family’s lives. I just hope, you won’t deny the entire branding, villainizing and baying for our blood had to do with the fact that I was born in a Muslim family. Interestingly, the state never places the emphasis that you place on my surname. For the state and the police, my name which reveals my most immediate identity – a Muslim – is enough. The point, here is simple. This is how muslims are always looked at- anti-national, potential terrorists and fundamentalists irrespective of their caste backgrounds. If it could be done to a privileged leftist ‘savarna Muslim’ studying in JNU, one only wonders what goes around in the name of “national security” and “counter-terrorism” in Kashmir, Gujarat, Azamgarh and Malegaon. I wonder what you are going to call Sohrabuddin Sheikh, killed in a fake encounter by Modi’s cops in Gujarat – a “savarna” Muslim who is unnecessarily remembered. Or what are the epithets you want to throw at Mohd. Amir Khan (a pathan, after all) who spent 14 years in jail (the term for life imprisonment) only to be acquitted by the courts in all of the false terror cases. Amir Khan’s case never got any media attention while he was in jail for 14 years, and why I got the same had less to do with my caste (which I share with Amir) and more to do with my JNU studentship.

And by the way, when Hindutva mobs murdered and raped Muslims in Gujarat and Muzazafarnagar, they did not care to first ask them about their caste identity. If you remember, they did not even spare a Muslim MP Ehsan Jafri. This is not to say that caste or caste oppression does not operate within the muslims in India. Nor is it to say, that only muslims are facing persecution while dalits and adivasis are not facing oppression. That is a binary your speech creates. The jails of this country are full of muslims, dalits and adivasis and by creating a false binary between them, you are exactly doing what the state and the government wants.

It won’t be correct to say that there were no protagonists (a gender neutral synonym of hero) in this movement. The real protagonists were those students and teachers who came out on the streets to fight this unprecedented fascist attack and to defend our democratic space and right to dissent. They did not term the 9th Feb event as ‘anti-constitutional’. Ironically, when the organisers of the events were branded as anti-nationals, you and your organization distanced themselves from the program, and worst still termed it as ‘anti-constitutional activities’. On the 11th February, on your facebook wall, you posted:

“We believe in our constitution and it is the only source for us to claim and reclaim our human dignity. Ambedkarism is entrenched into constitutional morality and as followers of Ambedkar and his ideology we do not support any anti constitutional move and condemn any such act which stands against constitutional ethos.”

If your status kept whom you were referring to slightly vague, your organisation’s position made it more specific with the following opening lines:

“We, BAPSA, as an Ambedkarite student organization condemn any kind of anti – constitutional activities. Ambedkarism is entrenched into constitutional morality and as followers of Ambedkar and his ideology we condemn any anti –constitutional move by any group or individual. BAPSA was not an organizer of the event organized on 9th February 2016. We as an Ambedkarite organization and strong believer in the Constitution, oppose any ideologies, groups and individuals who violate constitutional ethos…”

Yes, it was followed with a few perfunctory lines on ABVP being a casteist organisation that is targeting Ambedkarite activists. Interestingly not a mention of the vicious targeting of the organisers of the program, not a word on ABVP getting the program’s permission cancelled, and interestingly JNU administration’s role does not even find a mention in the entire poster. And most importantly, not a word on democratic right to dissent, which was shamelessly violated that evening by ABVP-administration nexus. How can an organization which claims to follow Dr Ambedkar’s ideology term an event anti-constitutional for speaking against the brahmanical collective conscience, against unjust execution of Afzal Guru and for the Kashmiri people’s right to national self-determination.

(Here I am not trying to single out you or your organization. I am also aware of the fact that some so-called left democratic organizations and individuals had similar positions. But frankly speaking I was not surprised by their positions. In fact, they truly lived up to the expectations. But I was really disappointed by BAPSA’s meek surrender in front of brahmnical fascist onslaught).

If you remember your organization had organised the screening of the documentary ‘Caste on the Menu Card’ at the Sabarmati Dhaba last year, for which the permission was cancelled at the last moment by the Administration on AVBV’s complaint (just like it happened on 9th Feb). The progressive democratic organizations and students made sure that film was screened. Will you or your organization also term that event anti-constitutional activity?

The most ludicrous part of your speech is where you, making insinuations at me, say that I left the organisation I was a part of because it does not contest elections, and now I want to contest students’ union elections. It is absurd on many counts. The reason as to why I and others resigned from DSU is known to the world, because it was a public resignation. Secondly, as far as elections are concerned, all these years I have never contested any election for any post because of my opposition to Lyngdoh guidelines. Since 2008, we have consistently fought against the draconian Lyngdoh Committee Recommendations and have mobilized students to hold JNUSU elections according the JNUSU constitution. Your organization, on the other hand participates in Lyngdoh bound elections, which is based on the idea of brahmanical merit and discriminates students coming from deprived sections. However, at a more fundamental level, this ridiculous assertion reflects your election centric political imagination.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that the present attack on the JNU students’ movement is unprecedented in the history of our university. Students, alongside police cases and the HLEC , continue being served more show-cause notices and proctorial enquiries for organising political programs. At the same time, the administration has come with various machinations to scuttle several progressive provisions of the admission policy. This emphasis on elections in your speech at THIS moment shows, just like the revisionist left, all you can think of is elections. More than anyone else’s it reflects sheer poverty of your political imagination.

Finally, it is true that the class divisions, caste hierarchies and patriarchy exists amongst muslims in the Indian sub-continent, just as they also exist among the Dalits and other oppressed castes. It is equally true that muslims and Dalits, notwithstanding their internal divisions and hierarchies, also face discrimination and violence for simply being muslims or Dalits. Any genuine force that is committed to social justice, annihilation of caste and radical social transformation has to deal with these contradictions. Not only the BJP and the Congress but also CPM, BSP, JDU, SP etc use these contradictions to cultivate vote banks to gain political power. The annihilation of caste is not on the agenda of the so called left parties as well as for those parties who swear by the principles of social justice. In fact, some of the worst kinds of massacres of the Dalits and Muslims have taken place in states ruled by the left or by the so called messiahs of the social justice. We also know how some of these big champions of social justice have aligned with the brahmnical fascist forces to gain power. The history of the last 60 years has clearly demonstrated that Annihilation of Castes and Social Justice can’t be achieved through vote bank politics. Brahmanical Hindutva fascism can’t be simply defeated through electoral permutations and combinations. A real fight for the annihilation of castes has to go hand in hand with the struggle against the forces of privatization and imperialist globalization. And I firmly believe that the struggles against the internal divisions and hierarchy among the muslims and Dalits will only strengthen our fight against Hindutva fascism, feudal brahmnical caste system and imperialism and will forge the real unity of the oppressed people.

For us the slogan of ‘Jai Bhim Laal Salam’ is not simply a call for electoral unity of the left and Ambedkarite groups. For us it’s a new vision of a democratic revolution in which the struggle against caste system and patriarchy is internal to class struggle. When we speak of Bhagat Singh and Ambedkar, we speak of a new politics which talks about the fight for the annihilation of caste and revolutionary social transformation – a fight also against being reduced to a number, a thing and the most immediate identity of people. This fight will be waged every day in the streets, factories, fields and universities and the unity will be accomplished over the course of this fight.

Hoping for that Unity in Struggle

Jai Bhim Lal Salaam!

Umar Khalid

*Chintu Kumari is a JNU Student, AISA activist and former General Secretary of the JNUSU.

**Umar Khalid is a JNU Student, and was one of the organizers of the 9th February Programme ‘Country without a Post Office’ to protest and commemorate the anniversary of the execution of Afzal Guru that led to his arrest and draconian orders against him and several other students.

Umar Khalid and several other students left the Democratic Students Union (DSU) due to their critique of what they consider to be patriarchy within DSU. Umar is currently a member of the recently formed Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organization (BASO).

Both Chintu and Umar took part in the recently concluded 16 Day Long Hunger Strike at JNU.