Student activism is advancing the anti-caste struggle

“Rule-breaking and protest are an inherent right of students. They are part of growing up and part of understanding the importance of rules and making the right kind of rules. They are also a first step towards dialogue,” says Sanjana Krishnan, a PhD student at India’s University of Hyderabad and an anti-caste student activist.

She was quoting a former professor, during a session on “Students as agents of change” at the British Council’s recent Going Global 2016 conference held in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I speak as a student of research from India who is representing anti-caste struggles that have been going on for the past 150 years,” she said. Krishnan has been a student for eight years, in universities across India. “I’ve seen the highs and lows of student movements.”

The issue

The caste system in India – a country with 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under 25 years old – is rigid.

“Once you are born into it, there is no means to move out. Even if you have social aspirations and you can move socio-economically, your caste doesn’t change. That is the fundamental principle of caste,” said Krishnan.

“Caste is a major system of exclusion across Indian society and higher education is no exception.”

Students from scheduled castes and tribes and other historically disadvantaged communities – people who used to be called ‘untouchables’ but are now known as Dalits (oppressed) – previously wouldn’t have dreamed of achieving education beyond school.

“In the past 20 years, because of the assertion of social movements by Dalit and other students and affirmative action taken under government policies, there has been a massive increase in the involvement of Dalit students in higher education at both the undergraduate and research levels,” said Krishnan.

Students who have struggled all their lives to complete schooling are admitted to university – but once they are identified as Dalits “they struggle to move forward. There are many forms of class discrimination that they face in universities' spaces.

“To understand what kinds of discrimination students face in higher education one needs to really engage with students who come from these backgrounds.”

Krishnan is from a privileged background, and her association with the anti-caste struggle began by challenging her privileges and “the blindness of privileged sections of India that still do not recognise that caste is a problem”.

Outcry over discrimination

The past year has been very interesting for student movements in India, said Krishnan.

Last October students began protesting against the discontinuation of a fellowship for research students by the University Grants Commission or UGC. Protests in several cities, led by the Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union, turned into an ‘Occupy UGC’ movement and prompted a harsh security crackdown on students, with some arrests.

The government decision to scrap the stipend for PhD students affected Dalit students particularly, Krishnan continued, “because they come from very, very underprivileged backgrounds. The little amount that the government provided was the only way in which they could even imagine researching and studying in universities.”

Students called for the reinstatement of the fellowship and its increase, saying it would hit students from disadvantaged backgrounds particularly hard. Students also saw the move as part of a government plan to make Indian higher education compliant with the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services.

The University of Hyderabad made headlines across the world following the suicide in January of Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula, which sparked a national outcry over social discrimination on campuses and weeks of protests at the university.

The young scholar had been “suspended on the basis of false allegations that were levelled against him by certain right wing groups on campus”, said Krishnan. “Those charges remain though there’s been no legal action taken and protests continue against the current vice-chancellor and administrators. We got support from across the world.”

Vice-chancellor Vipin Srivastava headed a committee that suspended five Dalit students, including Vemula, and so students called for his resignation.

Campus action was coordinated by an umbrella group of student bodies called the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, which has continued protesting to push demands.

After a few months, harsh police action was taken. “It was so sudden,” Krishnan recalled. “There were 200 of us protesting peacefully, and singing songs outside the vice-chancellor’s bungalow, and all of a sudden the police started pulling us out, thrashing us, beating us.

“Most of the female students were threatened with rape by the police and the Muslim students were called jihadis and terrorists and were arrested: 27 of our friends were arrested and now they are out on bail. There were no charges of violence against them, it was just all made up.”

Need for clear vision

Krishnan said she wanted to make it clear that student movements object to certain principles held by governments but are not against the state. A problem in India is that “students are not recognised as voices for change”.

Student movements that take on a social issue, such as caste, strive for impact not only on campuses but also in wider society. This can be difficult to sustain.

“Student movements need to have a clearer vision. For that we need to take a step back and also reflect on where we go wrong sometimes, and the strategies that we have when engaging in negotiations with groups across the country.

“It is important that there is a strong consolidation. We cannot be just five to 10 people protesting on the streets. We need stronger public attention.

“We begin with a lot of euphoria as students and positive energy to bring about change.” In movements across the world and over time, students start off with hope but because of a lack of vision “end up largely with disappointment, with not being able to achieve our goals”.

For student movements to be sustainable, Krishnan concluded, “we must keep engaging with people across the country and the world. What really helps is the kind of support we get from faculties and from activists and social entrepreneurs and forums like these”.