The Unspeakable Violence of Caste: Lessons from 2002 for Hyderabad University

The late K. Balagopal, human rights activist, lawyer, mathematician and founder of the Human Rights Forum, wrote a powerful essay 14 years ago following the rustication of 10 dalit students from the University of Hyderabad. The essay appeared in the Telugu daily Andhra Jyoti on February 23, 2002.

Eklavya. A sculpture at the Velivada on the campus of the University of Hyderabad . Credit: Shome Basu

Eklavya. A sculpture at the Velivada on the campus of the University of Hyderabad . Credit: Javed Iqbal

The chief warden then, P. Appa Rao, is the vice-chancellor now. The dalit warden referred to in the essay, K.Y. Ratnam,  is now the head of the Centre for Ambedkar Studies.

On March 22, 2016, Ratnam was roughed up and taken away in a police van from the University of Hyderabad campus, when he tried to dissuade the police from beating up students protesting on the lawns in front of the vice-chancellor’s lodge. He was released on March 29, after being in custody for seven days.

Balagopal wrote this essay at a time when he was tirelessly offering critical readings of our contemporary political cultures and languages.

Fourteen years later, we should read this to reflect on the consequences of our reluctance to reconstruct our languages of resistance. We should read this to think about how our silences might reflect our lack of confidence. And we should read this to understand how, as “democratically minded” people, our “blind spots” might actually serve to mask an unwillingness to give up caste privilege.

A translator’s note follows the essay.

(The translator thanks the Human Rights Forum, the custodian of Balagopal’s legacy.)

K. Balagopal. Credit: Youtube

K. Balagopal. Credit: Youtube

The ‘Unspeakable’ Violence of Caste on Campus

Universities are supposed to be places of learning. Those who seek knowledge and wisdom go to universities. Those who can impart knowledge and wisdom teach there. It is a painful reality of our times that those of our universities which rank high in knowledge appear to be devoid of wisdom. How else can we explain the summary rustication of ten PhD scholars in the University of Hyderabad ?

It is an inviolable principle enshrined in all modern constitutions that nobody should be punished without due process. This principle of natural justice is a cherished value of humankind from ancient times. People with even a modicum of knowledge or wisdom should be able to appreciate this without any difficulty. Yet the administration of the University of Hyderabad is completely ignorant of it. Following an ‘altercation’ on campus, they have just rusticated 10 PhD scholars. Rustication in the final stages of PhD means nothing short of death in the field of education. These students will not be able to enrol in any other universities to complete their PhDs. They will never be able to get a PhD in their lives. The administration comprising senior professors justifies this action by arguing that not meting out this punishment to the students would have meant a lot of opposition from the campus community. Imagine one of these professors being summarily dismissed from service on charges of embezzlement of departmental funds without any due process. Will that professor accept the argument that such a dismissal was necessitated by the demand of the campus community ? Would that professor not have gone all the way to the Supreme Court to fight it?

It is not the case that these professors are not knowledgeable and wise. It is not that they have never heard of natural justice. It is just that they are deeply embedded in a casteist value system that teaches them that some people deserve some things and others don’t. ‘Apaatra danam’ – a gift to the underserving is strictly forbidden in their system of knowledge. They implement their casteist value system insisted in denying education and principles of natural justice and even constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights to some students and some teachers. It is not easy to teach these learned men that principles of natural justice cannot be selectively applied. They are unteachable.

But this is not just about natural justice. Let us assume for a moment that the ten rusticated students are indeed guilty as charged. Is the punishment proportionate to their offence?

A fundamental principle of social science is that nothing in this world is what it appears to be. That there are invisible dimensions, that our view of reality reflects the reality as much as it reflects our own points of view and that these points of view are shaped by our material and non-material interests. Social inquiry in fact begins only when we acknowledge that nothing in this world is self-evident. The way the learned men in the University of Hyderabad are behaving in this instance, we now have to suspect that they believe that their professional integrity stops at the gates of the campus. They look at the violence in the world outside as a social process and write books on it and teach students how to investigate it. But they have no hesitation in treating violence by their own students as an unpardonable crime and rusticate them without any further inquiry.

Since it is now commonplace to brand any attempt to understand the social basis for violence as inherently ‘antisocial’ activity, we shouldn’t be surprised if someone jumps in at this point and dismisses all this as a rant to defend the ‘violence’ and ‘anarchy’ of the Ambedkar Students Association. Such dismissal is fundamentally an unfair one and must be refuted firmly. Yet, surprisingly few among our democratically minded people appear to be willing to step up to this responsibility. This is because our ‘democratically minded’ people are unsure about when to defend violence, when to be sympathetic but critical and when to openly oppose it. It is a discretion that democratically minded people have not yet learnt. They are not even ready to learn it. They do not know how to name it and talk about it. They do not have a framework to think about when it is appropriate to invoke structural violence to justify the individual acts of violence by the oppressed and when it would be unethical to do so. They do not want to acknowledge that some times there might be truth, however partial, in the charge that the actions of the oppressed are unjustifiable in the name of resistance to oppression. Yet unless we work this out, we cannot but give in to the relentless pressure to erase everything else and make violence by the oppressed the central issue. Even if, in the short run, we delude ourselves into thinking that we are in solidarity with the oppressed by sidestepping this issue, without this cultivated discretion, in the long run, we would actually be harming the very cause that we proclaim to be supporting.

So what was the charge and what was the defence?

The trouble in the University of Hyderabad began with a disagreement over hostel mess management. The new chief warden, a man of the kamma caste (the same caste as the chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu), proposed that all of the mess pantry procurements which were until then managed by student representatives should be handed over to contractors.

This proposal by the chief warden was opposed by dalit students in particular but many students in general. The students apprehended that privatisation of procurements would result in a steep hike in mess bills which were already rising. Advocates of the new proposal alleged that the actual reason for the students’ opposition was simply that the dalit students who had been managing the purchases until now would no longer be able to take cuts in the purchases under the new system. But of course, the proposal did not guarantee that the contractor would not be taking any cuts from the purchases. After all, why would any contractor agree to handle the purchases without any monetary benefit? The difference, it would appear, is simply that cuts taken by the contractor would be known as business acumen, and cuts taken by the students would be known as misappropriation. But there is an additional dimension here. For many dalit students, these small cuts could augment the meagre resources with which they come to the university.

How should we have moved forward in this sticky situation? If we had acknowledged that the students were actually benefiting monetarily from being in control of mess procurements, we could at least begin to talk about it with sympathy. We could, in fact, turn it into an opportunity to deal with this as a political question. Our defensiveness meant that a crucial political opportunity to discuss the actual conditions in which Dalit students live was lost.

Let us pause here for a moment. Up until now, the Dalit students may indeed be on a weak footing. But let us look at what precipitated the altercation – the chief warden’s humiliation of K.Y. Ratnam, a dalit warden who got embroiled in this. Ratnam opposed the chief warden’s proposal. There is no evidence to show that Ratnam had any personal interest in this. But taking umbrage at Ratnam’s audacity, the chief warden divested him of his financial authority in hostel mess management and asked him instead to look after sanitation work. He handed over financial authority to a brahmin.

In effect, he said ‘you the untouchable do the scavenging and our brahmin will do the patwari work’. This may seem like a surprisingly disgusting division of labour to people who are not familiar with how institutions of higher learning in this country work. This was the proverbial last straw for the dalit students. They, having themselves been subjected to a thousand cuts everyday, could easily recognise the insult and humiliation and injury to the dalit warden. Let us be clear, our universities systematically insult and injure people who do not belong to the privileged castes and classes. It is an uphill struggle even for non-dalit students from Telugu medium colleges to protect themselves from daily loss of face on campus. For first generation dalit scholars this is virtual hell. They are marked and hunted down as people who came in because of reservations – into places where they do not deserve to be. They are insulted and ridiculed on a daily basis. (This is much harsher in departments where most of the faculty and students believe that they are there because of their own merit. A majority of the students rusticated recently were students in science departments.)

The dalit students were angry. When they went to meet the chief warden, they lost balance and beat up people who came in their way. It did not help much that Rajasekhar, the lecturer who was beaten up by them also happened to be a dalit. The SC ST Employees Union leadership put pressure on the university for action against the students. Upper castes in the campus worked off this general lack of sympathy for the students and demanded that Ambedkar Students Association students who resorted to violence should be taught a lesson and thrown out of the campus. Even sympathetic people began to say that Ambedkar Students Association representatives have a history of beating up people in the past, and that the pent up anger is now working against the students. Even people who have no objection to political violence in their normal course of work, have begun to argue that the violent history of Ambedkar Students Association has made them less eligible for sympathy.

If it is true that Ambedkar Students Association has ‘made it a habit’ of beating up people, we can certainly criticise it without losing sight of the fact that they are up against oppressive structures. This is simply a question of whether we want to look at this only as a matter of “cause and effect” or as a “long term political question of transformation.” If it is the former, then we can only see it as a matter of “right” and “wrong.” If it is the latter, then refusing to engage with the question of acts of violence is not a very wise thing to do. In fact, in the long run, such wilful ignorance can harm the struggle for justice and equity.

The administration were perhaps desirous of quickly closing the issue through rusticating the students because they are not aware of these dimensions. Or perhaps the “unteachable” men of higher learning are only too aware of all these dimensions and that is precisely why they wanted to give the whole episode a quick burial.

But rustication is most certainly not an answer to such a complex question. Rustication without due process should simply never have happened. If they are honest at all, the administration – the men of higher learning – must create a campus environment in which dalit students do not feel like aliens in enemy territory. Activists and sympathisers should not stop at merely endorsing or overlooking all forms and practices of resistance arising from oppression without discretion. They must be able to provide concrete criticism and constructive suggestions to everyone.

The first step towards that is to revoke the rustication orders.

Translated by Anant Maringanti from the Telugu original as published by Andhra Jyoti on February 23, 2002. This translation has been published by The Wire with the permission of Andhra Jyoti and Balagopal’s family.

Translator’s note

The original title in Telugu was titled somewhat blandly, “Is wisdom only a part of the syllabus?”

This translation takes certain liberties. The original text is written in Balagopal’s inimitable, powerful Telugu idiom and takes for granted the reader’s familiarity with local political discourse. The liberties taken here aim only to convey the force of his argument clearly, in English.

In the original Telugu, the criticism of the “democratically minded” is understated. It has been emphasised here precisely because it appears that the thrust of Balagopal’s work is completely lost on us – which is perhaps why we see history repeating itself with a vengeance. One of the violences done to Balagopal’s work was to read it in the narrow framework of violence and counter-violence as cause and effect. Balagopal’s cultural criticism was far more profound, an investment in the agenda of long term transformation.

In the original, Balagopal does not go into the details of dalit students’ hardships, possibly for want of space. But without a sense of how poor dalit students, particularly those from rural areas, actually live and support each other in their daily struggle to find a foothold in the city, it is difficult to understand the broader questions of justice and education. Here is a recent report based on an interview with one of the students who was among those rusticated in 2002.

The “democratically minded” in our society consider some aspects of life “unspeakable” and embarrassing at several levels.

First, the way in which some poor dalit students scour hostel messes for leftovers after everybody leaves. That is a horror story that nobody dares acknowledge, that would require a lot of courage and honesty to tell.

Second, acts of individual violence. The democratically-minded do not know how to account for these except as being somehow caused by structural violence. They refuse to acknowledge them and critique them with sympathy for what they are. They believe that endorsing them in simplistic terms means helping the cause. In turning away from the truth, however, they do not help anyone, but actually lose a vital opportunity to talk about how places of higher learning treat those that the “‘unteachable’ men” consider “undeserving.”

The very roots of acts of anger and violence become inaccessible for politics because we pretend that the nature of the actions borne from those roots are irrelevant to the larger debate. We thus enact a self-defeating defence.