Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The JNU Students’ Movement and the Struggle for Social Justice

 The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA), a sectarian organisation which calls itself “Ambedkarite”, has sought to attack the Left in their recent pamphlets. In these pamphlets, BAPSA repeats its oft-repeated lies about the Left’s supposed neglect of social justice in JNU. Even a brief look at the history of the JNU students’ movement would expose BAPSA’s claims to be utterly fraudulent.

The legacy of Left-led Unions in the fight for a socially just, inclusive admission policy

In 1972-73 itself, the SFI-led JNUSU (with VC Koshy as President) advocated an admission policy which would pave the way for students from poorer backgrounds and backward regions to come and study in JNU. The struggle for the admission policy began after the Union’s analysis of the admission pattern in 1972 found that the admissions were skewed in favour of students coming from privileged strata – those from big urban centres, and those who had access to education from better educational institutions. Students from socially and economically deprived backgrounds, and those from backward regions were far fewer in number.

The recognition of the skewed admission pattern led to the campaign to refashion the admissions policy of JNU. It was the first major struggle led by the JNUSU, and it resulted in a path-breaking admission policy being adopted by the university, according to which weightages were given for students from deprived socio-economic backgrounds and those hailing from backward regions. The deprivation point system awarded a maximum of 20 deprivation points based on social, economic and regional backwardness.

The admission policy was implemented in 1973 (six years before the Mandal Commission was set up), and the results were immediately felt, as the new batch of students came from far more diverse backgrounds. The final touch to this policy was given in 1974 when the Academic Council approved the union president's resolution for reservation for SC/ST students. Student-Faculty committees (SFCs) were also set up with elected students in each centre. During the term of the 1973-74 union led by SFI (with Prakash Karat as President), the admission procedure was regularised with the students having a say through the SFCs, which would scrutinise the entrance tests and finalise the results. Members from the SFCs used to be present when the viva voce was held to ensure that discrimination or harassment did not occur. A very important upshot of this admission policy was that the representation of students from the deprived sections was more than the proportions mandated by the Constitution later on.

The alarm of the ruling classes in the increased empowerment of the deprived sections led to the scrapping of this admission policy – known as the Old Admission Policy (OAP) – in 1983, when there was a brutal police crackdown on student activists in an attempt to break the back of student militancy, and the university was closed down sine die. In 1983, no students were admitted into the University. The OAP was replaced by the New Admission Policy (introduced with effect from 1984), according to which the system of deprivation points was eliminated. The NAP eroded the national character of the University, and the students’ movement suffered a serious setback. The infamous ‘EC Norms’ were introduced to restrict the rights of protest, and were repeatedly invoked in the 1980s to initiate disciplinary action against JNUSU office bearers. The deprivation point system was partially restored in 1993-94 during the term of an AISA-led Union.

JNUSU’s first Dalit President – Battilal Bairwa of SFI – was elected in 1996-97, and re-elected in 1997-98. The demand for setting up a Committee against Dalit Atrocities was raised the following year, and following the massive agitation of 1999 September-October, the Equal Opportunity Office to look into the problems of deprived sections was set up, based on the CP Bhambri Committee recommendations.

The Progressive Admission Policy (PAP) initiative by the SFI-led JNUSU of 1998-99 was the first attempt by the Union to fully integrate the Mandal Commission recommendations with JNU’s admission policy by introducing 27% OBC reservations. The ABVP denigrated PAP by terming it ‘paap’ (sin), and the reactionary sections led by ABVP joined hands to seek a secret ballot in a UGBM called to decide the fate of the Progressive Admission Policy. While the casteist, reactionary forces managed to stave off this momentous initiative, the larger agenda of the reactionary combine – that of fundamentally altering the character of our students movement by rallying the reactionary sections – could not be fulfilled.

It is of utmost importance to recognise that the concrete advances made by the JNU students’ movement with regard to a socially just, inclusive admissions policy came about as a result of collective, organised (and not merely “spontaneous”) struggles by Left-led Unions.

The Attacks by the RSS- led administration to scuttle Social Justice in the Campus

While the vicious assault on JNU following the incidents of 9 February 2016 was direct and public in nature, far more ferocious and institutionalised has been the attack on the progressive character of the campus thus built over the years. The most “ingenious” ploy to scuttle social justice in JNU has been the UGC gazette notification imposed in a draconian manner by the administration. Apart from the very visible effects of drastic reduction in the number of M.Phil. and Ph.D. seats adversely affecting the research-oriented character of the University, we have also seen the attack on the Deprivation Points System which has been the hallmark of our admission policy. The Nafey committee report recognised the prevalence of discrimination in M.Phil. viva voce, and due to the sustained struggles of the student movement, it was also agreed to reduce the weightage given to viva voce in M.Phil. Entrance. But the UGC notification has, through its imposition of 100% viva weightage and entrance exams as being merely qualifying in nature, undermined social justice in the campus.

What has been rather unfortunate is the stand of the self-styled “Ambedkarites”. Instead of recognising the fundamental contradictions between the marginalised and the Brahminical RSS-backed administration, they have built up binaries with no connection to ground realities and tried to de-legitimise our students movement which has remained unflinching in its commitment — in the face of all adversities — to carry forward the struggles for social justice.

BAPSA, as usual, trains its guns on the Left rather than the RSS or the administration. This is not surprising, given their opportunist politics which leads them to consider the Left to be the bigger enemy rather than the RSS-ABVP.

BAPSA’s stand on the communal threat posed by the Hindutva forces has always been dubious and treacherous. BAPSA presence in the #StandWithJNU movement in 2016 was token at best. They even put forward the ridiculous “theory” that the #ShutDownJNU campaign was a conspiracy hatched by the ABVP and the Left to divert attention from the movement demanding Justice for Rohith!

Organisations like BAPSA, with their counterparts and “role models” outside the campus have never been serious about fighting communalism. Leaders such as Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan, Ramdas Athawale, Jitan Manjhi and Udit Raj have all allied with the BJP at various points of time. The BSP had allied with the BJP three times, in 1995, 1997 and 2002, thereby further strengthening the Hindutva forces. BAPSA in fact even hosted Jitan Manjhi in a public meeting in JNU after he started hobnobbing with the BJP!

BAPSA’s bankrupt politics was further exposed in the claims made by BAPSA leaders that the land reform agenda put forward by the Dalit assertion in Una (Gujarat) is irrelevant. The Una struggle made the demand for land for the Dalits the prime focus of its attention, because the social oppression of Dalits is inextricably linked to their economic exploitation – Dalits were historically not allowed to own land, and they were always used as a source of labour which can made easily available to the ruling classes to make surplus extraction possible. The recognition of this fact, however, would militate against the position that ideologues of identity politics have often taken that in India, class struggle doesn’t matter!

The results of the Uttar Pradesh elections in March 2017 delivered a serious setback to the pipe-dream peddled by the likes of BAPSA that progressive politics can be advanced by foregrounding “identities” such as caste and religion above everything else. The largest and most powerful identity politics in India is Hindutva. If identity is the primary basis of political mobilisation in a society, a political formation which uses the identity of the majority community for political mobilisation will ultimately have an upper hand. In other words, the RSS-BJP – the biggest and most organised proponents of Hindutva – is better poised to play identity games than anybody else in India.

In the UP elections, the BJP was able to successfully pit various caste and sub-castes against each other to make electoral gains. The politics of the BAPSA and like-minded organisations, which ignores class divisions within communities (and even the effects of sub-caste divisions within communities), has proven to be singularly incapable of countering the rise of the communal-fascist forces. The result — a rabidly “upper caste”-supremacist, anti-Dalit political formation is enjoying unbridled power in India’s most populous State.

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