The alliance of Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA), Students' Federation of India (SFI), and Dalit Students' Union (DSU) won the University of Hyderabad (UoH) students' union (SU) elections on Saturday, 25 February, beating the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
The first UoH SU election in three and a half years also saw two Dalit queer persons contesting and winning the polls for the first time in the central university's history.
While the ASA-SFI-DSU alliance's presidential candidate Prajwal Gaikwad beat the ABVP candidate by nearly 600 votes, Hritik Laxman Lalan, a Dalit trans woman, emerged victorious (987 votes) as the alliance's candidate for the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH).
Shortly before the elections on Friday, 24 February, The Quint spoke to the two candidates – who are members of the ASA – about the Rohit Vemula movement, the significance of their candidatures, and their plans for the university.
'Rohith Vemula Movement Shaped My Politics'
Speaking to The Quint, 24-year-old Gaikwad said that the Rohit Vemula movement inspired him to pursue PhD in UoH.
"I come from an Ambedkarite family, and my parents have always had this emphasis on education. They have always prioritised my studies despite difficulties," Gaikwad, who hails from Maharashtra, said.
He added that though his parents wanted him to be a doctor, his experience at a National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) coaching centre changed his life forever. "That was the first time I actually felt what caste discrimination was," he said.
"It started with the fees – my parents had to compromise on a lot of things to get me in. Then I noticed how people stopped eating from my tiffin and stopped sitting next to me. In a class of 120-150, there were barely five to six students from the Scheduled Caste community."
Gaikwad said he didn't have the language or vocabulary to talk about this kind of discrimination. "That's when the Rohit Vemula movement happened," he said.
"There was an inferiority complex building in me – that I'm not capable of doing anything. But the movement helped me realise that this is not how it should be. I quit the coaching institute and switched to social sciences," he added.
He said, "Academics is not an individual process – you need your colleagues, you need peer support. That peer support never developed for me at the coaching institute. Whenever I sought help when I scored less, I faced comments – 'you anyway come from the SC category, you have so much reservation, you just need to score only little anyway'."
Gaikwad said that as the president of the union, he would ensure that students from marginalised communities would always have access to peer support.
"Several remedial and affirmative policies that the University Grants Commission has recommended to universities – like remedial coaching classes, civil service coaching classes, etc – have not been implemented here. I will ensure that they are," he added.
Since his candidature was announced, Gaikwad alleged that he had also been at the receiving end of a queerphobic attack on social media.
"A post was circulated against me with a lot of baseless accusations – with a lot of queerphobic content in it. It was circulated in all WhatsApp groups and also sent to nearly 3,000 university mail IDs," he claimed.
'Not Just About Inclusivity'
Hritik Laxman Lalan is a 22-year-old Dalit trans woman doing her Master's in Sociology. She hails from the Meghwar community in Gujarat's Kutch.
"When I first came to this university, as a Dalit trans woman, my concern was accommodation. But the Ambedkar Students' Association ensured that I was given dignified accommodation. I was given a guest room in the men's hostel – so that I would at least have the privacy of a bathroom."
She told The Quint that in terms of giving dignified accommodation to trans people, no university has ever set any precedent. "So, I wondered how this university was so receptive to this kind of demand. I believe it's because of what the Rohit Vemula movement had started."
She added that no campus is truly inclusive, and that is why their panel is important. "Personally, I don't think that inclusion is what defines my politics. We are not trying to include people, but trying to build leadership in the Dalit-Queer movement. It is not just about 'including' people."
"I would want this campus to give dignity to people – a campus that would actually not reduce a human to their immediate identity, and see them as just a human," she said, quoting Vemula's words from a letter he had penned before his death.
GSCASH & Sensitisation
Historically, the progressive parties at UoH have always emphasised that the sexual harassment cell be called 'GSCASH' and not Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), as the latter would "limit it to just a redressal mechanism."
Speaking about her plans for the GSCASH, Lalan said, "Issues of harassment need concrete action. It can't just be limited to a redressal mechanism. A GSCASH committee should also push for structural changes – like safe transportation and gender-neutral washrooms in public spaces."
"It must also sensitise people. Mandatory sensitisation has to be mindful of various marginalised identities and their issues; the GSCASH rulebook must be available in regional languages too."
Lalan said she would also push for the revival of the committee for transgender persons at UoH, which has been defunct for a while.
The Larger Queer Movement
"The trans community has been in existence forever, but their experiences of abuse have only recently made it to policy – and they're often not taken seriously and are criminalised," Lalan said, explaining why her candidature is significant.
"This panel is historic because we are all marginalised people. It also provides a different framework for the queer movement – to speak a language, not of pride but dignity, to speak of the politics of self-respect that is not just welfarist," she said.
Speaking about the Bombay Queer Pride, which was recently called out for being 'apolitical', Lalan said, "The queer movement has been trying to depoliticise itself a lot lately – sidelining trans people and keeping itself just focused on the legal aspects. The Dalit-Queer movement offers an alternative, and the larger queer movement can learn from it."