Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Omprakash Valmiki Departs; The Task of Annihilation of Caste Is Still On!

SFI expresses deep condolences on the demise of noted Hindi writer Omprakash Valmiki, whose works paved way for a movement of Dalit assertion in Hindi Literature and its power centres of upper caste domination. In his demise Hindi literature has lost a powerful champion of the assertion of the voices of the unheard and hence also one of the most important figures in the democratisation of a space which still continues to be largely undemocratic.

Omprakash Valmiki was born in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district and had a rough and deprived childhood, which formed the material basis of him questioning the very basis of the society based on the foundations of caste discrimination. Jabalpur’s Marxist study groups brought him in contact with the rich realism of Gorky and Chekhov; while Bombay gave him the fire of the poetry of Namdeo Dhasal, Daya Pawar and the Dalit Panther’s politics of resistance. It was Chandapur though where he became totally absorbed in the Dalit movement. He says: “It was in this part of the country that I came across the marvellous glow of Dalit consciousness. The self-fulfilment that I experienced in connecting with the Dalit movement was a truly unique experience for me.”

He emerged on the horizon of Hindi literature as a comet which was not to vanish into flames; rather it sparked a thousand other comets. Modern Hindi literature had been a citadel of upper caste dominance right since the days of the Nagari Pracharini Sabha and the control of the mathadhish-s over the Hindi departments, publishing houses and magazines across North India still remains more or less intact. Unlike in Marathi or Telugu Literature, Dalits were largely underrepresented in Hindi literature until the late 1980s, when a spurt of works by Dalit writers were published and new magazines and literary groups with focus on Dalit literature started coming up. This period coincided with publication of Valmiki’s autobiographical work Joothan, which announced the arrival of Dalit literature onto the stage of Hindi literature. The genre of autobiography has since then emerged as a powerful means of the assertion of Dalit subjectivity that translates victimhood into a weapon of resistance. Casteism and untouchability were something which Valmiki saw everywhere from his village in Western UP to the cosmopolitan Bombay, and throughout Joothan, there is a definite urge in extending the individual experience to the ongoing movements and towards the creation of a Dalit identity. The publication of Joothan and Valmiki’s surname itself created ripples in the literary circles of Hindi. He says: “This surname is now an indispensable part of my name. Omprakash has no identity without it. ‘Identity ‘and ‘recognition’, the two words say a lot by themselves. Dr. Ambedkar was born in a Dalit family. But Ambedkar signifies a Brahmin caste name; it was a pseudonym given by a Brahmin teacher of his. When joined with ‘Bhimrao’ however it becomes his identity, completely changing its meaning in the process. Today ‘Bhimrao’ has no meaning without ‘Ambedkar’.”

The emergence of Dalit literature has been a step forward in the larger task of the democratisation of Indian Society. While remembering Omprakash Valmiki, it is important to underscore the fact that true democratisation and concrete advances towards the goal of his entire life – the annihilation of caste – can be made only when “annihilate caste” becomes the slogan of all democratic sections of the country. The coming together of progressive forces is absolutely necessary to take the fight against casteism and Brahmanism to its logical conclusion. Today when our Universities and public life continue to be engulfed by the fangs of caste, when huge dropout rates of students belonging to deprived backgrounds is not merely a statistic but a naked display of caste discrimination, the urgency of this task cannot be overemphasised. It is in rising up to the urgency of our times that we will be able to do justice to the memory of Omprakash Valmiki.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Groundbreaking Struggle against Sexual Harassment and Ragging in Pondicherry University

The Pondicherry University (PU) administration has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect criminal elements who indulged in sexual harassment, ragging and intimidation of girl students in the campus. Instead of punishing those who engaged in such criminal activities, the administration suspended the girl complainants and others who stood by them! The students are on indefinite hunger strike now, and the Madras High Court has stayed the suspensions.

The series of events that led to this began when Jithu, a senior male student, verbally abused two girl students (Kavya M and Vidya T Appukuttan) a few weeks back. When the girls told him that this is not the way to talk, he threatened to rape them. A complaint was filed against the aggressor, and the police filed an FIR against him under IPC sections 506 and 509. In the subsequent days, the students who supported the girl students were threatened and abused, and on October 1 morning, a gang of hooligans manhandled them. They threatened that they would cut off the legs of the students who stood with the girl students if the assailant was suspended from the University because of the complaint filed by the girl students. The gang also brutally beat up one of the students; his tooth was broken and he had to be admitted in JIPMER, Pondicherry. The security personnel of the University remained mute spectators throughout even as the gang unleashed violence.
When one of the girl students who were harassed approached the Vice-Chancellor with her grievance, she was discouraged from filing the complaint – the VC’s prime “concern” was that the “reputation” of the institution would be spoiled. Ever since she filed the complaint, the girl student has been continuously subjected to intimidation and threatened that she wouldn’t be allowed to complete her course of study in the University. Even more shockingly, the attempts to intimidate her were being led by Mr. Praveen, a faculty member of the Department of Physical Education. There were also attempts to slap false cases on the students who helped the girls in filing the complaint against the attacker.
The students of the University conducted a massive protest on 1 October night against these criminal acts in the campus. The protest saw massive participation of girl students and others, who demanded that the University must take steps on an urgent basis to stop ragging, sexual harassment and goonda raj in the campus, and that the University must set up a Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) to address complaints of sexual harassment in the University.
The subsequent days saw further attempts to harass the girl complainant. The university administration issued showcause notices to Kavya and Vidya along with the students who stood by them, for "creating a tense situation in the campus", for talking to the media and so on! The students of PU, however, did not take it lying down. They fought back the patriarchal administration’s machinations fearlessly through campaigns and protests. Students and other democratic sections led by SFI and AIDWA staged another protest demonstration on 23 October in Puducherry demanding strict action against the sexual harassers and the setting up of GSCASH.
But in a decision that could only be termed illogical, irrational and shocking, the PU administration issued a memorandum, signed by the university Registrar, suspending the two girl students and five other students who stood by them. In the memorandum, the university administration sought to equate the aggressors and the victims by portraying the acts of sexual harassment and ragging as merely a case of “mutual fight and exchange of abusive words”. The other charges were even more ridiculous – “having approached the media to release the news without obtaining due permission from the University” and having organised “unauthorised protests within the university campus” are the other “crimes” that the students have supposedly engaged in. 
Since when did talking to the media and holding peaceful protests become crimes in this country? Since when did "the right to freedom of speech and expression", and "the right to assemble peaceably and without arms" cease to be part of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India? The right to protest against injustice constitutes the very essence of democracy, the suppression of which has become the hallmark of the Pondicherry University administration.
Kavya, one of the complainants suspended by the University, was on an indefinite hunger strike from Monday (4 November 2013) against the despotic, vindictive measures by the University administration. Most condemnably, the police forcibly arrested her on Thursday night. But her mantle was taken up by Vidya, Abhijith and Rony, who went on hunger strike immediately. Within hours (on Friday, 8 November), the Madras High Court issued a stay order on the University's decision to suspend the students. The struggle of the student community for justice will now continue with renewed vigour.
SFI has demanded that the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, the UGC and the Vice-President of India (who is the Chancellor of PU) must intervene to ensure the safety and security of girl students in the campus and to ensure that the culprits in the case are given exemplary punishment. We demand that a GSCASH be set up in the University immediately as the students have been demanding, and that action be taken against those in the administration who sought to protect those who engaged in sexual harassment and ragging.

It is of deep concern to the student community that 16 years after the Supreme Court in its Vishaka judgement of 1997 laid down binding directives regarding the formation of committees to deal with cases of sexual harassment, GSCASH has still not been formed even in most central Universities. SFI demands that GSCASH be constituted in all Universities and colleges in the country in order to effectively address cases of sexual harassment in campuses and to sensitise students on gender issues. The incidents in PU underscore the need for intensifying our struggle for gender justice and against ragging in campuses across the country.