Lessons From the JNUSU Elections: The Citadel of Left and Dalit-Bahujan Politics

In the recent past, the Dalit-Bahujan politics and the Left movements in India have continuously been marginalised.

6 min read
Hindi Female

In the general parlance of Indian politics, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has almost achieved a cult status. JNU appears like a thorn in Delhi’s decorative crown as it pinches the ruling authorities and reprimands them for their wrongdoing.

For the Hindutva proponents, it is, therefore, necessary to end the supremacy of the Left political ideology on campus and introduce the right-wing political program as a dominant narrative. However, the results of the recently concluded JNU Students Union (JNUSU) have surprised the right-wing political party the most.

The Leftist student organisations defeated the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on all major seats.

An alliance of four Left organisations contested the elections and built a strong opposition against the Hindutva brigade.

The Relevance of the Left and Dalit-Bahujan Ideology

They mobilise the students on the issues of social justice, and secularism and reprimand the Hindutva regime for anti-people policies.

Interestingly, the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) has made inroads into the Union by grabbing the General Secretary post at the Central Panel.

The Left and the Dalit-Bahujan political organisations have witnessed a significant ascendancy, showcasing that these ideologies are still relevant against right-wing domination.

This is crucial, as in the national political discourse, the obituary on the demise of the Left-Marxist ideology has been written several times.

Similarly, the Dalit-Bahujan political movement is also in disarray today. Further, in the upcoming general elections, the prospect of both ideological folds is limited in stalling the aggressive right-wing assertion.

In such a political context, the defeat of the ABVP by the unified Opposition at the JNUSU offers to show that the oppressed social groups and marginalised classes can build a powerful political campaign against the ill-governance of the Hindutva regime and can mobilise the people against the right-wing politics.


The Decline of the Left and Social Justice Movements

Today, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM) is relevant as an influential political force only in Kerala, whereas its other two significant bastions, Bengal and Tripura, have collapsed.

The other militant Left Party, the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) is impressive in some parts of Bihar as it has won a handful of legislative seats in the last Assembly Elections. Importantly, the Left has lost its influence over the working classes, and on very few occasions, we have witnessed that the Communist parties have mobilised the 'proletariat against the Capitalist class’.

A sporadic and scattered Left political activism is witnessed in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Maharashtra on various fronts of working-class movements, farmers' protests, and trade union activism.

The Left is also associated with the struggles to protect human rights, and civil liberties and for organising events to defend the religious minorities against the high-handedness of the state.

On occasions, we can see the Left’s critical and anti-establishment voices in media and cultural spaces (like films and theatres). However, these mobilisations and protests almost have negligible impact in changing the dynamics of electoral politics.

Similarly, the powerful anti-caste movements that voiced an impressive call for social justice are also declining.

In the mid-1990s, the nation witnessed the arrival of powerful Dalit leadership and movement in major states. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) under the leadership of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, the impressive Republican-Bahujan leaders like Prakash Ambedkar and Ramdas Athawale in Maharashtra, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) under Thirumavalavan in Tamil Nadu and the Janata Dal faction led by Ram Vilas Paswan in Bihar had provided a dignified and robust voice to the Dalit subjectivity and made them an essential component of the democratic process.

Though there was no alliance between various Dalit political outfits, they had an ideological comradery around the slogans of social justice, secularism, and socialism.

In the beginning, the Dalit parties showed deep intimacy towards the ideals of social justice and secularism. However, the maverick rise of the BJP on the national scene brought defining ruptures within the Dalit-Bahujan political movement. The BSP was the first to join hands with the BJP in 1995 to form the first state government headed by Mayawati in UP.

It was followed by many socialist leaders, including Ram Vilas Paswan to join the BJP-led alliance and secured an important portfolio in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet in 1999. In Maharashtra, Ramdas Athawale distanced itself from the radical ideas of the Dalit movement and formed an electoral alliance with the BJP in 2014. Periodically only a few amongst the Dalit political leaders advanced the revolutionary task of social justice politics. Amongst the Dalit parties, it is the VCK and political outfits led by Prakash Ambedkar (the VBA) that have retained a consistent anti-BJP position and formed alliances only with the secular parties.

In the recent past, it is visible that the Dalit-Bahujan politics and the Left movements in India have continuously been marginalised and have remained passive. There are very few attempts to revive the declined position of the Left parties or to build a strong Dalit-Bahujan ideological assertion.

It is beyond electoral politics, especially in the mainstream academic, social and cultural domains that the presence of the Left and the Dalit-Bahujan ideologies found a vibrant reception. These assertions are heralded as the courageous challengers to the growing domination of the right-wing juggernaut. In such context, JNU has not only sustained the Left politics but also introduced BAPSA as the new torchbearer of the Dalit-Bahujan political wave.

JNU: Citadel of Left and Dalit-Bahujan Politics

The Left students’ organisations, like the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the All India Students Association (AISA), have a dominant influence in a few central universities, including the JNU. The Leftist students’ movement of JNU is known for its radical and non-compromising attitude towards the governing authorities, has provided impressive leadership to the dire issues of the students, and also made JNUSU a platform to raise the concerns marginalised groups like women, Dalits, Adivasis and the religious minorities.

JNU has been successful in creating legitimacy for the Left political discourse by reprimanding the Hindutva forces for their violent and communal acts.

In the recent past, the JNU students have defended their right to dissent, free speech, and intellectual autonomy against the powerful attack by the central government.

While these protests were on, the Dalit-Bahujan student movements emerged as a significant force at the national level to protest against the injustices, discriminations, and violence that the Dalit-Bahujan students suffer in the institutions of higher learning.

Especially the 'Justice for Rohith’ movement reintroduced Dalit-Bahujan protest politics and substantiated the idea that Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi students are capable young leaders to lead the battles for dignity and social justice. BAPSA was born in such tremulous times in JNU.

The 'Save JNU’ and ‘Justice for Rohith’ movements provided an ideological platform where the issues of freedom of speech, nationalism, social justice, and the method of critical inquiry were sincerely debated. The students as a combined force resisted the Hindutva regime vociferously and soon it became a widespread movement to safeguard democracy and freedom of speech in the institutions of higher studies.


The Right-Wing Juggernaut

The progressive ideological merit and intellectual calibre of the Left and Dalit-Bahujan organisations here have disallowed the ABVP to win the student union elections. In order to counter these influences in JNU, multiple strategies and programs were implemented so the Hindutva ideology could make a significant arrival on the campus.

Right-wing politics has invented the rubric of 'Urban Naxals’ to derogate and demonise the Left activism mainly to counter the Left’s influence over the university spaces. JNU is witnessing aggressive structural changes, episodes of violent attacks, and shrinking of democratic spaces.

Just a few years back, the university was defamed as the 'den of anti-nationals’, as the ‘biggest threat to the union government’ and calls were made to shut down JNU – as the students here enjoy unrestricted freedom and become rebellious over the expenses of the taxpayers.

Further, at the institutional levels, unconventional structural changes are made (like starting an MBA course), students’ intake is reduced (by ending the MPhil course) and restrictions are imposed over the political activities of the student organisations.

It is often alleged that the recent faculty appointments are not based on the candidate’s academic credentials or intellectual merit and instead, selections are made to please the ruling Hindutva masters.

With such events and changes, it was expected that JNU would witness a dramatic shift towards the right-wing ideology, and the influence of the Left-politics would be relegated.

In addition, the social and cultural life of the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi students on the campus has not improved much. Alongside the assertive right-wing presence on campus, the problems of caste discrimination, rising cases of violence, and sexual harassment have made the general atmosphere of the campus unhealthy and unsuitable for the general students.

The victory of the Left and the BAPSA in the JNUSU elections is, therefore, valued much within the Left-Liberal diaspora as for many the JNU still appears like a bright star that shines brilliantly in such dark times.

With this emphatic mandate, it is aspired that the passive and dormant Left and Dalit-Bahujan parties at the national level would learn a good lesson and has reignited the possibility of its arrival at the national level as a significant political force.

(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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