An Interview with Anand Teltumbde on Current Student Struggles

June 4, 2016

A Malayalam Weekly Madhyamam, recently asked Anand Teltumbde, a writer, scholar of peoples’ movements, civil rights activists with CPDR (Mumbai), inter alia two questions relating to the student movements. Here are his answers:

Question: The article by you in EPW in October 2015 has succinctly captured the perils of raising memorials of Dr BR Ambedkar while forgetting the principle aim of his life – the annihilation of caste. The Rohit Vemula incident in the University of Hyderabad and the subsequent incidents across the country have proved beyond doubt that the annihilation of caste, the kernel of Ambedkar’s thought, remains an unfulfilled dream. What is your view on this?

Answer: Indeed. While Ambedkar had clearly seen annihilation of castes as the goal; his tactic relied on representation. I am deliberately calling it as a tactic to dampen the intensity of contradiction between the two. Right from the beginning he saw, perhaps encouraged by his own example, that if a few Dalits are sent to legislature, they would take care of the interests of the dalit masses. With this view, he struggled to get Dalits their political representation. It is a different matter that his victory was annulled by Gandhi’s blackmailing strategy that compelled him to sign the Poona Pact. But the very Poona Pact opened up avenue for other reservations, viz., in educational institutions and public employment. Initially they remained as preferment policies as it was thought that there were not enough Dalits to institute reservation for them. But when Ambedkar became a member of the Viceroy’s executive council, he wrote an innocuous note, which was approved by the Viceroy thereby instituting a quota system in 1943. I may argue that there was no contradiction between the two as the castes were delinked from their Hindu parentage and had become an administrative category ‘Scheduled Castes’. Unfortunately, there was no articulation to that effect. In the post-colonial India, the native elites who took over the reins of power, with their Brahmanic cunning overlain on the learning from the colonial masters, could easily ensure the castes and religion (the other factor), were consecrated in the constitution, as weapons to divide people. Reservations based on castes became the contradiction with the annihilation of castes, inasmuch as they developed vested interests in a section of upwardly looking Dalits, that role-modelled for the masses. The other supplementing factor was the First-Past-the-Post type of election system, arguably the most unsuitable system for a country like India which was hopelessly fragmented into castes, communities, languages, ethnicities, etc., that was adopted as an instrument for democratic governance. The combination of these two became a deadly fortification against the annihilation of castes.

The HU episode and the unfortunate suicide of Rohith highlight rather the attitude of the ruling classes which are desperate as never before to woo dalits on their side. While they are pursuing it, staking everything in promoting Ambedkar as the icon, they would not tolerate the radical Dalit opinion to emerge. Rohit symbolized the latter. They would label them as extremist, anti-national, etc. which are enough even for the Dalits to discard them. The Dalit masses under the influence of their middle class subtly supported by the state have simplified Ambedkar. One of the notions of this simplified Ambedkar was that he was against any type of extremism or radicalism. With this notion, they would also easily disown the dalit youth who raise radical voices. Rohith’s death actually stirred up emotions but still not awakened Dalits to its radical content that points towards annihilation of castes. Notwithstanding the massive support it received from all student organizations, which at one point, completely isolated the ABVP, it is being steered along the identity sans radical possibilities.

Question: The Rohit Vemula incident and the struggle in JNU have brought the possibility of alliance between Left and Ambedkarite movements at least in the campuses. Do you think that the new found bonhomie between the two streams can be consolidated to make an effective challenge and counter to the communalism of BJP and Sangh Parivar.

Answer: I, for one, think that the youth in our campuses can be the only force who can clear the ideological mess in the politics of the oppressed masses. The signs emerging from our campuses are quite encouraging. HU episode was part of the BJP strategy to polarize students raising the bogey of anti-nationalism, extremism, etc. They chose the HU because it had become center for radical voices of Dalit students. If they succeeded there, it would be a cake walk for their student wing to capture other campuses and particularly make inroads into Dalit students. But to their misfortune, the whole thing turned topsy-turvy with Rohith’s unfortunate death. Taking caution, they chose JNU and engineered similar thing but without Dalit factor. There it was pure anti-nationalism, patriotism, etc. But it created Kanhaiya there. The best thing the JNU students did is to claim continuity with the Rohith’s struggle. It overwhelmed the ideological divisions (I call mess) and oriented it to the burning questions faced by the masses today. I will give full marks to Kanhaiya for doing so as I think that should be the approach of the peoples’ struggle today. Neither Marx nor Ambedkar, least anyone else, can provide you complete wherewithal to fight the ruling classes, who are unprecedentedly powerful with their states laced with learning and modern technology. The world that we live in would not be recognized by either Marx or Ambedkar and hence we will have to configure strategies for our struggles ourselves. Marx, Ambedkar, and many such greats may guide us, inspire us but cannot provide us readymade tools and tackles for our battles.

There may be hiccups in this process. For instance, when all student organizations had come together in HU, I had suggested some leading elements of students there to give it an organizational shape to it isolating ABVP. It could have been a Front against Hindutva or Communalism or any such name. It could have been easily done when things were hot in HU, to be replicated elsewhere eaily, but unfortunately it did not happen. I kept following it in my own way but to no avail. Instead, the Joint Action Committees (JACs) formed for ‘Justice to Rohith’ began subtly deflecting along the old identity lines providing impetus to the reactionary elements who would identify Kanhaiya as Bhumihar. Nothing could be more unfortunate in the current context. But still I am confident that the students will overcome these hiccups. There will be many more hurdles in the way. For instance, the ruling classes have awarded harsh punishments to JNU students against which they are currently on hunger strike. They will realize what best to do tomorrow. I am confident they will defeat the evil designs of BJP/ABVP combine. With regard to striking unity between Ambedkar and Marx, the JNU students are on absolutely right path to do that. The approach they adopted would render irrelevant the casteist arguments of Mayawatis and her chelas. I am quite hopeful that these boys and girls will do what has not been done so far. For if they fail there, the hope itself would die for India!