Even as the alliance formed by the Left parties swept the students’ union elections of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, an Ambedkarite party turned out to be the dark horse by gathering an unexpectedly large number of votes from the so called "Left-bastion".
Formed just two years ago, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association emerged as a formidable contender against the Left Unity alliance as its candidates gave a tough fight to the contenders on most seats, throttling the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and the Congress-backed National Students’ Union of India.
Is this the beginning of a new wave of Ambedkarite politics in the campus known as a bastion of the Left? Or should the rise of BAPSA be seen against the recent incidents of atrocities against Dalits around the country?
Rahul Sonpimple, the presidential candidate from BAPSA, who gathered 1545 votes while the winner Mohit Pandey got 1954 votes spoke to Mayank Jain. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Will you please tell us a little bit about BAPSA and its values and the ideology it represents?
BAPSA was formed in 2014 on the birthday of Birsa Munda. Basically, the idea behind the organisation is to have an Ambedkarite discourse which represents the voices of the oppressed, bahujans and Dalits. This is not represented by the parties on the Right, Left or Centre.
We believe that the Right has nothing progressive in their ideology so there’s no point in discussing them. But the Left parties used to talk of Ambedkar as a bourgeois statist here in JNU. Minorities and other oppressed groups started supporting BAPSA and then the Left started to praise Ambedkar in their speeches and pamphlets.
Our emphasis is on forming a social union between the oppressed rather than forming an alliance with any other political party. The social change should precede political change. When we started to talk about the issues of the marginal communities, the right wing started to stigmatise us as a casteist organisation and the Left charged us with doing sectarian and identity politics.
We did not stop there from their criticisms and got a lot of support from Dalits, OBCs, Muslims and even some upper castes. Our strength has started becoming a formidable force in the campus even against the United Left.
What were the challenges that you faced while taking on the Left and how did BAPSA build its support base so quickly?
Umar Khalid’s organisation Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students’ Organisation did a lot of slandering and spread misleading lies about it. They used to call Ambedkar a bourgeois agent but suddenly after February 9, he became a change agent. The Congress used to do the same thing – they would protect Jagjivan Ram as the Dalit leader, not Ambedkar.
Similarly in JNU, as people started to be associated with Ambedkar organisations, the Left started to form their own cadre to mislead people and appropriate our discourse. There’s no representation even in the university from the marginalised community but the Left is not bothered about that and they started talking about merit and how their candidates had the so-called merit.
It is worth asking how all the Left parties had to come together to defeat an Ambedkarite candidate.
We are very clear that the Left has a casteist and Brahmanical nature. Left shuts our mouths by saying that we are doing identity politics. They want to talk about everything but from their own pedestal, but they get threatened once a woman or an oppressed community member starts speaking out for themselves.
There’s a whole history of the stigmatisation by the Left when it comes to Ambedkarites and giving minority communities their space in the discourse. They want the Left vs Right binary because that’s what they thrive on. It becomes a threat to the Left parties when you talk about oppression from the ones who were oppressed.
BAPSA managed to get a lot of of votes in these elections and has suddenly come to the forefront. How did the so-called Left-bastion vote overwhelmingly for an Ambedkarite party when the Left has always claimed unity between the Dalits and the Marxists?
When we went to meet common students irrespective of their caste or creed, we found that Left parties were using Ambedkar and Marx together. It’s a recent phenomenon that they are appropriating Ambedkar because of the political compulsion.
Secondly, campus issues faced by every student regularly – like fulfilment of reservations and other such things – have never been solved by the Left parties. Marginalised sections face it a lot more as the dropout rates for these communities are very high. In the science schools, there is a high dropout rate even for those who claim to be Left wing but come from the marginalised sections.
Left parties have never raised these issues and their claims have been shallow. The students on the campus know this much too well. BAPSA worked on these issues relentlessly. People realised that BAPSA is a force which is not fighting an ideological battle and [that it is] also fighting for daily issues.
Is BAPSA a mere stitching together of all the previous Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Classes forums in JNU, which had their own following? If so, how did you manage to achieve such coherence to make a mark in these elections?
When it comes to the oppressed, there are some inevitable differences but those can be resolved. Our enemy is the same – the Brahmanical structure, which is oppressing the oppressed. We started building the discourse of a common enemy and made sure that people know that we are a social union formed of Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis and even minorities – [all these communities] have been oppressed by the Brahmanical masters. And this is how we managed to band them together.
We see a lot of varied support for our marches and rallies which are often attended by women and upper-caste people at times because they believe in our fight.
What is your plan going forward? Do you think winning student elections in the campus in the coming year can build a foundation of Ambedkarite politics in this country since it is not present in a substantial manner in any of the major campuses, except perhaps the Hyderabad University?
For JNU, we have always had a concrete plan to work for students’ interest. This time, our plan is to form an Ambedkarite organisation like BAPSA where it doesn’t exist around the country. We want to form a larger unity among Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis in a national alliance around the campuses in the country to make sure that our voices are not drowned out.
We are also trying to form a social alliance between the Dalits and the LGBT movement. We know that their reality is so harsh that unless the oppressed of this country stand with them, there’s no point calling ourselves progressive. Hence, the most marginalised sections of the country need to come together [on] a common platform and fight for their identities. This includes people from the Northeast and Kashmir too. This is our primary agenda.
Where do you stand when it comes to the violence in Kashmir and the talk of self-determination? Most Left outfits on the campus have been quiet but do you think BAPSA has a substantially different stand?
We stand with Ambedkar on what he said about Kashmir and the valley. He advocated a plebiscite and we want that to happen. We don’t agree with Kanhaiya and his party since they are as right wing as other parties which talk about Akhand Bharat. We believe that Ambedkar was right when he said that unless or until the most marginalised person in the country believes that there’s a nation for him or her, you don’t have a nation.
We believe that we need to ask for a plebiscite. We should not ask these questions to the Leftist hypocrites. We should ask the people of Kashmir who have lost their sons and parents and families in this struggle and then only will we have the real answer.
It is easy for a Kanhaiya to talk about Kashmir staying in all the privilege of JNU but not so much for the mother carrying a stone for protection while looking for her son in the rubble. Oppression is a daily issue for them not an issue for the Leftists. We should talk to Kashmiris first.
There was a Leftist candidate from the NSUI [National Students' Union of India, the student wing of the Congress party] also in the elections, who was expected to sway a lot of Left-leaning voters but trends show that people voted for the alliance more than anything. Do you think that politics of the party often comes in the way of good candidates getting their fair share of support from the electorate?
BAPSA stands at a discourse which is the discourse of the oppressed. This is not about the Congress or the Communist Party of India. BAPSA wants to talk about the privatisation of the oppressed issues by a few people. The number of votes that the Left parties got for the presidential posts are very few as compared to other parties which gained a lot.
I think even Leftists aren’t too happy with their parties because those from the marginalised sections don’t see their politics reflected in that of the parties that they are voting for. BAPSA got a broad-based support this time in the elections and it is only going to become better as we continue exposing the hypocrisy.
What is your stand on the events of February 9, since the Left parties have distanced themselves from the call of a plebiscite? Former JNU President Kanhaiya Kumar said that he wants freedom in India not from India...
After February 9, any common student in the campus would have not voted for ABVP because they maligned the entire campus. Nobody will forgive them. The fight is not against ABVP because they are already lost. The entire fight this time around was between BAPSA and the Left. The parties knew that if they take on BAPSA directly, they would not be able to win. Slowly and slowly people realised that BAPSA could come to power and do good work.
BAPSA was always there with all these “Stand with JNU” movements – but we were ignored. They never highlighted our support to the movement. The Left parties decided to ignore these issues and only talked about the High Level Enquiry Committee. It is only the Left’s fear mongering that we have to counter for years to come. Congress has been doing this for a long time by saying that the BJP will oppress Muslims. Left does the same.
They pretended to fight against the ABVP because they want this binary which is both comfortable and easy to ride against. But this is not going to work for long, since campus debates right now are discussing the Left’s overemphasis on ABVP’s threats and slandering against us which is going to hit them back in the larger scheme of the discourse – and maybe the next elections.
Corrections and clarifications: This story has been edited to correct the final tally of votes in the JNUSU elections. An earlier version was using a preliminary count.