By Souradeep Roy
This is a response to the ‘Statement on Student Protest’ by the Ambedkar Reading Group and some other points of discourse. The Ambedkar Reading Group alleges that the language and manner of protests carried out by the students of MA English, University of Delhi, is casteist. The critique in my article makes a close reading of the ARG’s concerns and accepts that casteist remarks were indeed made by students. This piece largely argues that both the ARG and the students are against one common enemy: the brahminical system of appointments.
1. The protests have led to the formation of the Student Faculty Committee, an institutional space where students will have official representation, hopefully with students from all categories finding a space in the same. Also, it is ironic that the protests have led to a debate of this kind and yet is seen as narrowing down only on the three teachers, and not talking of larger issues.
2. The merit versus reservation debate is outdated brahminical rhetoric; we are not against reservation and we condemn the authorities who did not (or still not implementing) the reservation policy. However, should one take recourse to the identity as a victim whenever it suits his/her purpose? Is this not a trivilialization of the broader struggle where the victims are seen to assert their rights? If there has been a case of favoritism, should we not question that favoritism occurring across categories, including the SC and ST categories? If the reserved candidates see themselves as one homogeneous victimized whole, is this not discriminatory as it denies heterogeneity to the group?
If this is the first time that the department made appointments by following the reservation policy, it is indeed condemnable and we applaud the policy followed in the new appointments where the reserved seats were filled up. We understand that if we voice our dissent against those from the reserved categories it might imply that we are again drawing on the merit versus reservation analogy. However, things cannot be taken out of context. One of the teachers indeed belongs to the General category and we have not zeroed in on other teachers from the reserved categories.
But my point is a larger one: if both the ARG and the students of MA English, DU are against the appointments because there were obvious cases of favoritism, are we not against the same tyrannical brahminical system? Is it not the inherent systemic violence of brahminism that makes it appear that the ARG and the students are necessary antagonists in the struggle? The favouritism followed in the entire procedure of appointments is in itself an elitist, brahminnical practice, showcasing Ambedkar’s theory of the upper castes shutting themselves in, and the lower castes being shut out automatically in the process. To make the analogy complete: those close to the VC made their way in, and those opposed to him were left out – a case of selective ‘shutting in’ of his minions, and an automatic ‘shutting out’ of those critical of him.
3. The question of canonical texts in the English departments across India and DU in particular:
To quote from the first response by the ARG:
“The students, for instance, have talked about being robbed of the opportunity to learn the “literary devices of canonical writers” because of the incompetency of the new teachers. One would like to ask these students if it isn’t a very racist and colonial mind-set that makes them approach the learning of English literature in terms of the “literary devices of canonical writers?”
The entire point has been taken out of context. The term canonical was used purely as a technical one for the texts in question. They include Middlemarch, Life of Galileo, and Shelley’s ‘A Defense of Poetry’ – all canonical texts we presume, from our undergraduate study of English literature and language. Shelley died in 1929, we were told. If such a misrepresentation of facts occurred with any other non-canonical text/author, we would have heard of the same. We are not outraged that such a factual error regarding Shellet could have been made in the classroom.
One of the reasons why the writer of this piece chose to pursue a postgraduate course in this department was because of the presence of non-canonical writers, dalit literature, and other texts of Ambedkar offered by several teachers in the Internal Assessment scheme. This does not exclude the fact that the syllabus comprises largely of savarna authors and the students are as keen on non-canonical texts as they are interested in canonical texts.
4. The question of language:
The ARG writes: “However, we still feel that there is an immediate need to interrogate the language and message of this protest, which is largely led and supported by upper caste students and faculty members.”
I provide an excerpt from another letter sent to the faculty members who demanded an official meeting between the members of the faculty and the students:
“We have been repeatedly told that the events which have unfolded in the last few days have been “unprecedented?” Perhaps, in this unprecedented turn of events, we have been very angry, and in expressing our anger, been insensitive on certain occasions.
We understand that this has hurt some of the sentiments of those who are a part of this department. . . As students of this department, is it too much to ask all the members of the faculty to respond to our concerns in an official meeting? Is it too much to expect an official space where both the students and the teachers deliberate on the concerns raised by the former? We are willing to respond to some of your concerns too, but in order to respond officially and unanimously we need an official space where we can hear of your concerns too.”
We hope that the clarification issued by the students makes amends for the rather strong language of the first letter of complaint.
On another note, there are problems with the language in ARG’s response as well. We haven’t “zeroed down” without any basis. The reasons for naming the three teachers are clearly mentioned in the letter. We do not have any kind of prejudice against the three teachers; such terms such as “zero(ing) down” makes it appear that we have a personal vendetta against them and that our concerns are not grounded in academic concerns.
5. A critique from the inside:
The writer must also concede that fact that several of the responses to the ARG is indeed casteist in its language. The point made repeatedly – “This is not a caste issue” is indeed a casteist remark. Also other phrases used when the question of caste was made are very problematic. They say that this is diverting attention from the “real issue.” This adamant marginalization of questions related to caste, and, thereby, latent casteism, is inherent in these remarks.
Because two professors mentioned belong to the reserved categories, it automatically becomes a “caste issue.” The students in the movement must respond to this sensitively without brushing it aside adamantly.
The point I am trying to make is that both the students and the ARG are against the brahminical method of the appointments, and we must fight the malaise together, and not as antagonists. Just as the presence of two teachers from the reserved categories makes it a question of caste, the fact that these appointments have been made with a brahminical ideology indicts the two teachers as well because they too have become a part of the department because of brahminically-minded appointments.
6. Being aware/unaware:
The ARG indicts us of being ‘unaware’: “It is such compromises done by senior teachers and heads of departments in the university that led to the problematic recruitment process in January. Unaware of this or refusing to address such issues, the students have merely zeroed down on the three new teachers.”
We present factual evidences that show that the ARG is unaware of quite a few other actions taken by the movement: we were aware that the recruitment process goes much beyond the official powers of the members of the faculty and the HOD. This is why we sent in a letter to the Registrar and VC as well, and one of our written demands to the Dean of Students’ Welfare clearly states that a response from the Registrar is imperative.
7. A final appeal to the ARG: we would like to know your stance in the manner of protests carried out by the SAEIG – a group that too claims to uphold the rights of the reserved category teachers and students. The students received text messages from this group in the middle of the night to join in their protest against some problems with another member of the faculty as a result of a spat on an online forum. These students had believed that they had given their numbers out to a teacher because academic issues could be communicated personally, and that they would not be dragged into personal nitpicking among teachers on online forums.
The writer of this article finds that the approaches of the two groups vary to a very large degree but their concerns are the same. But what does the ARG make of this?
Souradeep Roy is a student of MA (Final) in the Department of English, University of Delhi. Currently away from home in Calcutta, he is trying to figure things out in Delhi.
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