Redefining space and resisting caste in university spaces – In conversation with N Sukumar

N Sukumar

Professor N Sukumar has been teaching Political Science at Delhi University for 19 years. He was a fellow at Developing Countries Research Centre, University of Delhi. He also taught at Ambedkar Chair of Social Work at the National Institute of Social Work and Social Sciences, Bhubaneswar and Ambedkar Chair, Tezpur Central University, Assam. Sukumar, an Ambedkarite scholar is a co-author of book titled ‘Indian Government and Politics’. He spoke to Raniya Zulaikha, student at Ramjas College, Delhi University about the caste, Ambedkarite politics, education policies and university spaces. Edited excerpts below.

While having a glance at your words, I could gather that you have often critiqued your colleagues for their parochial behavior. On the other hand, we also have the experiences of Kancha Ilaih and MT Hany Babu being haunted in the label of ‘social justice’ from the same space. How long has the pedagogical space changed since 2001?

Ernest Gellner once said; “At the base of the modern social order stands not the executioner but the professor”. He had deep insight into who could change the world. As a community that can engage with students for generations, professors can make revolutionary social changes. Practical dialogues and engagements in the classrooms shall pave the way to positive yet radical changes. Because of such a prospect, this profession of mine was a choice. I am talking about the very possibility of achieving social progress by teaching ‘Sathyashodak Samaj’ in the classrooms. You just have to provide a broader canvas for them; they shall come out in glowing colors.

I speak this from my own past experiences. As I begin to speak about the caste, I asked them to tear down the prevailing notion that the human creation is innately dissimilar as they were created from the head, body, and feet of Brahma. They are ready to engage with the question. When classrooms mature into intellectual platforms, the questions and doubts that arise from the students become a driving force for revolution.

Yet unfortunately / grievously, the present scenario is witnessing the intensification (exacerbation) of the reactionary Brahminical social order. It is predetermined how your body language should be manifested in such a space. Only submissive body languages are allowed. But then there are both internal and external evident changes. As a first-generation Dalit teacher, I came from a department that only gave painful experiences. But now it gives a great pleasure to see that this had become into a ‘social justice’ department even in my absence to an extent.

These past years have passed with our deliberate attempts to bring forward different sections of the society which includes the long-neglected Ambedkar, the study of human rights and other forms of social segregation. Yet what seemed more revolutionary to me was the change in the attitude of my colleagues. It has evolved from a very conservative university space that does not include Dalit backward classes to a large group of progressive thinkers and a very good example is the teachers mentioned here. These are the people who have influenced me the most. It is not easy to exist as opposed to the wrong cultural pattern and at the same time, criticizing the state, especially, a state with ‘Eliminate opposition voices’ being their slogan.

Yet, teachers who come forward give hope. At the same time, it is a frightening reality that some centers that enjoy and promote this kind of governmental position have grown in universities in recent years. The total number of Dalit teachers in Delhi University is still limited to seven and this should be taken seriously.

Although Plato, Marx, and Gandhi had discussed all kinds of progressive theories, Ambedkar’s is the missed / missing ideology. How did you cope up with such a crisis from a major university in the country?

History is not yet written. The intrigues behind written history are obvious. Gramsci recalls what Marx had said about the ideas that ruled are the ideas of the rulers.It is the common sense that must be questioned here. The unpopular boycott against subordinates is not just an academic snag. Discrimination in the Pedagogical space is just a reflection of the prevailing injustice of the social order.

Phule’s and Periyar’s birthday is invisibilized; whereas Gandhi’s day is celebrated as a national jubilee. (Ambedkar Jayanti will be remembered to some extent because in this case we are compelled.) And this politics of amnesia is normalized.
The elite class, after deciding what to read and where to read, has started designing the method to read. Phule’s liberation theory based on social justice, History of Ayodhya Das (the first recognized anti-caste leader of the Madras Presidency), the Tara Bhai’s book ‘shtree purush thulan’ with the ideas of Periyar and Ambedkar are invisibilized. All of them are trying to forget it, only to realize that their very existence is threatened. Hence Remembrance becomes our responsibility, especially on an academic level.

Although I was aware of the need to represent my identity while I was a student at HCU, the activities had to be reduced to the level of a student political organization. It was only after I entered DU as a teacher that I tried to bring structural changes in the pedagogy. The experience of firstly introducing Ambedkar’s text The Annihilation of Caste in Delhi University is memorable. We wanted to focus on the thinkers because the style of teaching ideologies led to biased lectures.

As a part of that, we suggested the paper ‘Understanding Ambedkar’. It took three and a half hours to get permission to come up with an optional paper that covered not only the caste discrimination but also the national, economic, women, agriculture, tax and other issues addressed by Ambedkar. Getting a canvas to paint Ambedkar on the university campus is rare, and the rarest when unfamiliar colors are used. Such a paper was fought without repeated compromises from colleagues who stood up and prated Gandhi-Ambedkar could be a negotiator and Ambedkar alone should not be studied. There have been students who said these optional papers kept them passionate.

As a follow-up study, postgraduate students have a paper entitled ‘Ambedkar in Contemporary India’. Despite all, attitude is what determines things. As Winston Churchill said, the kings of the future are the kings of the mind. It is interesting to see the growth of curious and strong minds.

New education policy, educational privatization and Hindi language compulsory changes are underway. Doesn’t this make the lives of marginalized students harder?

What more can one expect from a place that considers the reservation as a charity and constantly cries for financial reservation? How many of us know that the new education policy with its discriminating ideas has been going on for the past 20 years? But the disregard for marginalized students, the reduction of government investment in education by three percent, and the creation of hierarchies that divide the campuses are ‘New ‘ in the new education policy. When you go to the MA Political Science classes, you can see the students learning on the floor. With all due respect, I had to stand idle by looking at dysfunctional projectors in their classrooms where over 450 students gather. It isn’t just a matter of infrastructure.A situation is created such that it encourages every possibility to widen the gap between students without even mentioning the discrimination in the central universities. UGC, which has reduced its economic incentives while giving nationality to cow dung, is now into the theories of discussing the benefits of pancake (a blend of cow products) in the IIT. The politics of conspicuous forgetting of Shurpanaka and Malik Amber and the repeated history of Ekalavya are obvious. By confirming the standards of existing social relations, Issues that help to marginalize the underprivileged in extremist politics and the language of is normality of our time. It would be a disaster if the ideology that helped to nurture such issues is not yet revoked. All I want to say isn’t that the previous government was perfect. But there was space. That is not the case now. Interestingly, now the debate is not even possible, there is the cry for the unification of the language of the debate.

Subjectively speaking, as a South Indian I am against the imposition of Hindi language. English, for me as a Dalit, is more convenient. That doesn’t mean I have shied away from my responsibility to teach Hindi to Hindi medium students. Disagreement is not with any language, but with its politics of dominance. Language is only a means of communication. It isn’t to be kept sacred. The people in power seek to destroy the diversity of language, food, and culture in its quest to convey the geographical concept of the land as a (single) nationalist one. The first problem, we need to do is recognize its politics and then resist such moves.

You have discussed how the left progressive intellectuals appropriated Ambedkar. How do you comment on it?

In recent times, this has been one of the most challenging questions, while writing an essay on social change. The title of my paper was Rohit Vemula’s Utopian Republic. (The red sun in the blue sky)It was borrowed from Rohit’s own words. To resist is important. But it is unreasonable to give away the (political) autonomy to a section. The Left is active in student politics.But that activism never gives them sovereignty. Indeed, Dalits and Minorities have only begun to interact politically. They weren’t silent but were silenced. They weren’t allowed to speak up.

The slogan of “Bhim” echoes the power of suppressed people. Hitherto they weren’t audible for the mainstream. But today they have more listeners. So everyone is competing against each other to take advantage of its politics. Concealing behind their casteist Gandhian notions, Congress tries to enshrine Ambedkar in Public. Periyar, a UN advocate for South Asia’s Socrates, argued that women should have agency over their bodies. We have the fact that academic and lawmakers, including the left-liberals, have ignored him. All the Left Lecturers started quoting Ambedkar, which they insisted was very recent. Even then, they haven’t accepted that the reality of India’s basic problem is caste rather than class. It can be understood clearly from the standpoint of the leftist organizations towards the post-Rohit campus struggles. It is true that, if left organizations are still inclined to uphold harmony and identify a common enemy, it will cause their annihilation. For the fear of victory of the slogan ‘Jai Bhim’ over Lal Salam, it is no longer to put on the progressive mask. Cooperation – the politics of many colors is inevitable. The mainstream political leadership, especially the Left, needs to introspect about their views (perspective) on caste. The issues raised by the Dalit-minority identity politics cannot be negated over and over again. ‘Jai Bhim’ gives some people more life and courage. Similar slogans should be echoed. I am sure that the sight of the vast masses chasing Indian fascism without risking their own identity (existence) is not far away.

Finally, were all of my questions answered by a professor or a Dalit professor in DU?

As a professor who is a Dalit activist. I’m a political scientist. However, I shall answer this contextually. I love my identity. I understand what I represent. But At the same time, my responsibility is precious to me. There are colleagues around today who look at activism with contempt. With due respect all of them; I keep on saying that, like books in a library, slogans on the street brings change.

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