Before the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on January 17, the Ambedkar Students’ Association was not a very familiar name beyond Hyderabad. Now, its politics and alleged altercations with the right-wing student body Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad are in the national limelight.
Vemula, an active member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association at Hyderabad Central University, killed himself after he and four other Dalit students were suspended for allegedly assaulting a member of the ABVP, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even though a university-appointed proctorial board had investigated the incident and found no substance to the allegations, the five students were suspended in the wake of a letter written by BJP union minister Bandaru Dattatreya to the Human Resource Development Ministry describing the ASA students as “anti-national, casteist” elements on campus.
The activities of the ASA deemed unacceptable by its opponents include a screening it organised of a documentary film on the Muzaffarnagar riots and a protest held against the hanging of Mumbai bomb blast convict Yakub Memon. According to its current and former members, the ASA has grown into a powerful force asserting Dalit rights at Hyderabad Central University for the past 23 years. And in its early years, members admit, violence did form a part of the Association’s response to casteist harassment.
The Ambedkar Student’s Association was founded in 1993 by a small group of Dalit students at Hyderabad Central University, led by PhD scholar Rajasekhar. “It was a time when the University had a ‘no politics’ policy, and didn’t allow any posters or students organisations,” said K Satyanarayana, a culture studies professor at Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University. Satyanarayana was a student at Hyderabad University from 1988 to 1994 and one of the ASA's early members.
But before the ASA, there was the Progressive Students’ Forum, a group formed in 1990 when attempts were made to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations of caste-based reservations in government jobs. “HCU was the main centre of upper-caste protests against the Mandal Commission, and our protests in retaliation to this led to the closing of the university for nearly 20 days,” said Satyanarayana, who had been the convener of the Progressive Students Forum.
Soon, Rajasekhar and other members of the Forum felt the need for a more specific Ambedkarite organisation on campus, one that would address issues of discrimination and harassment faced by Dalit students. “There was a high dropout rate among SC-ST students and at the PhD level, especially in science, there was almost no Dalit student,” said Satyanarayana.
In its first few years, the ASA had less than 50 members, but received support from Ambedkarite and leftist organisations from outside the university. “But the university’s administration was against the ASA, because the Association was bringing to light issues like vacant seats in the SC-ST quotas and the non-allocation of guides to Dalit scholars,” said Prashanth Badge, a political science PhD student at the university and a current member of the ASA’s core committee.
Another problem on campus in the 1990s was the ragging and harassment of Dalit students. At the time, says Bagde, the ASA developed a reputation for responding aggressively.
“They took a radical stand and would beat up people who would rag Dalit students,” said Bagde. When the ABVP began to rise on campus, there were a few physical fights between members of the two groups. “But today the ASA is very democratic in its approach. The Association has been contesting student elections for more than 10 years and we have to be careful about not being aggressive or violent.”
In 2002, however, a fight between some ASA members and three hostel wardens – one of them being current Vice Chancellor Appa Rao – had led to the rustication of 10 students. “The trigger was that the wardens had moved a Dalit student off his duties in the hostel mess and asked him to look after sanitation instead,” said Satyanarayana. “A heated exchange took place in which the students broke some furniture and there was a physical fight.”
The fallout of the fight angered ASA even more – 10 students were expelled permanently, even though university rules allowed expulsion only for a maximum of two years. This led to a massive agitation involving supporters from outside the university as well, and the students were eventually able to return to classes after two years.
“The administration probably thought the expulsions would dissolve the ASA, but it became even stronger after that incident, and eventually started contesting and winning student elections,” he said.
Where are the women?
In 2011-'12, striking an alliance with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)'s Students’ Federation on India, the ASA won the campus election and member Dontha Prashanth became the president of the students’ union. Today, the Association has more than 500 members and manages to draw at least 800 votes from across the student community.
“We are also very diverse today – we have members representing all kinds of marginalised groups, from Muslims to Adivasis to students from Kashmir and the North East,” said Bagde. The ASA now also has branches in Hyderabad’s Osmania University, the Pondicherry University and also the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Besides organising protests against caste-based oppression, the ASA holds seminars and conferences on campus with prominent Dalit academics as speakers. It marks cultural festivals of several marginalised groups and also spends time to make fresh Dalit students from rural backgrounds feel welcome and comfortable in the university.
If there is one consistent criticism of the ASA, says Badge, it is that its gender ratio is quite drastically skewed. The Association’s core committee currently has 30 members, of which barely two or three are women. “I don’t know why Dalit women don’t come out and participate in public spaces as much, but I would like to see a Dalit feminist movement on our campus,” said Bagde. “The ASA has been criticised quite a bit for coming across as too patriarchal.”