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‘Others can consider this as a mode of protest but for us it is a mode of living’: In Conversation with Karthik and Omprakash

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21 September 2016 | The fight for alternative accommodation continues. Well, some have already found alternative accommodation beneath the open sky and under the glare of the administration at the Freedom Square and in the most cavalier manner pitched their colourful tents high, to the great ire and discomfort of the administration. There are all sorts of company too: friendly dogs that lay at night beside you, the buzzing mosquitoes, the ready to burst threatening clouds and the steady autumn breeze, menacing guards, callous and the least-bothered officials, curious on-lookers and the happy-go-lucky chaps who join at night with guitars and swelling conversations. 

Amidst all the hullabaloo, The Informer struck a conversation with Karthik, Omprakash, and Megha as they sat under the shade of the Pink Palace, preparing for all-orgs, coordinating, and having a quick word with the occasional visitors who would drop by, happily waving at the VC as he was exiting the building, while they prepare to have their lunch, courtesy a generous friend.      

A few prominent issues emerged during the conversation: First, does the protest involve only those without accommodation or is it something which involves all of us? In light of the lack of transparency and lethargic mode of operation at the IHA, dismal hostel conditions, and the sheer insensitivity of those in-charge, it is evident that this is not something that concerns a few. 

Secondly, is SR/TR (Second Roommate/Third Roommate) a viable option for those in urgent need of accommodation? Multiple reasons can be used to counter the fact: (a) it is difficult to plead, convince, and procure a seat as an SR/TR, (b) as Karthik mentions, it depends on the other person taking pity on you to allow you to stay in their room. Why should one make compromises with one’s dignity and have to beg someone else for something for which they are legally entitled to? And (c) if problems are to be solved by the students taking in SRs and TRs, then why not implement it on a mass scale and have an SR/TR in every room? 

Thirdly, who regulates and determines the use of public and community spaces?   

Fourthly, have we all been reduced to fragmented bodies, segmented and distanced, too individualized to always talk in terms of ‘you’ and ‘I’ instead of ‘we’ and ‘us’? If so, perhaps we should introspect on our limitations in engaging and interacting with those around us as well as those who purportedly rule above us, to forge new grounds of solidarity and meaningful dialogues; and also new expressions for resistance, collective movements, and participation to sustainably interact with the authorities and hold them accountable for the lapses on their part.

Finally, the idea of going back to the roots—the same derisively termed ‘JNU culture’ for others—but for the ones who have lived and experienced it, an ethos that guides their way of living, a constant urge for free spaces and a mutual understanding of each other’s needs.    

What follows, is an excerpt from the interview:

Informer Correspondent (I): When did you think of doing this? How did it start?

Karthik (K): We want to inform you that this is not a question of me, it is a question of ‘we’—how we got this idea? ‘We’ not only in terms of me and Omprakash, but rather it is a collective effort. It is the organizations that we appealed to and who endorsed our demands and consented to our mode of protest of pitching tents, including the elected student’s body of JNU. It is a collective decision made to address the accommodation crisis in the campus.

I: You guys were asked to apply for an SR/TR (Second Roommate/Third Roommate) by the administration. You guys had the option of doing that, why didn’t you go for it?

K: For multiple reasons. First, TR is not an option provided by the administration. It is a privatization of a social problem. They are not giving you the option of going and staying with someone randomly, but you have to go and ask … like say if I want to stay as a[n] SR/TR, I have to come to you, I have to say to you these problems that I am facing that I come from the state of Tamil Nadu, I don’t speak Hindi, I am not very friendly with other people and I don’t have much friends, and that I am finding it difficult to get accommodation…. So I am actually appealing to your mercy. It is not anything I am entitled to. Every second of my existence in that room is at the mercy of you. As a TR, at the mercy of two persons and you very well know what the size of the room is. That is the second point.

First discussion is about how it is not the solution provided by the administration. If it is the solution provided by the administration, thinking it is a legit option, as Umesh Kadam (Assoc. Dean of Students) also said that he is appealing to the students to take SR or TR for everyone. Then I challenge the DoS and the VC to allot SR or TR for everyone so that they will have excess seats and vacancies of hundreds of seats, excess of thousand seats. Because if we make every room take a SR or TR we will have thousands of excess seats. So we have the solution, the revolutionary solution for the hostel crisis for the days to come ahead. So I am challenging the DoS, if they consider it as a meaningful option.

This is one thing, in another way regarding the TR option; to have to apply for any public resource is to say the least is outright ludicrous. In a way, it doesn’t make sense to me. [Nowadays] people are letting in a lot of things … the Public Distribution System (PDS) is happening; say in Tamil Nadu they give 20 kgs of rice … the government gives 20 kgs of rice to you, all are eligible and all are admitted into it … you get 20 kgs of rice, she gets 20 kgs of rice and he gets 20 kgs of rice … but I am left out. For now I am asking the government for my due share of allocation of resource and the government is saying we are not able to give because we don’t have, so just ask the others who are entitled to and have it and so I am coming, and I am begging you to give a share and you are giving okay …  you may or may not consent … your consent is important. So you have the right to keep and I don’t have any claim to it and the government is just saying to ask for it….

It can’t be dealt in this way by the privatization of it because if the distribution happens in this way then it [government] should ensure that it is fair and complete—this is the responsibility of the State and State institutions like JNU.

I: So, in a sense, the onus falls on the students, the administration is acting just as the mediator even though they are the ones who are holding all the resources. 

K: They can’t be the neutral benevolent arbitrator. They can’t claim being that. They are the ones with all the power.

I: What if they make you evacuate the premises tomorrow and declare you out of bounds from this place too the way they did it at Mahi-Mandavi?

Omprakash (O): See, again the point is it is not a question of ‘you’ but that of ‘we.’ If they want to throw us, they will have to throw us, as in all of us. Because even yesterday when we went in, we came with signatures of every organization and other individuals saying that we have the strength of everyone and it is not just us, not just me and Karthik, but us as a whole. So if they want to throw let them throw all of us.

K: There are around two hundred people and foremost among them being the elected central panel members, Satarupa and Tabrez … so they are free to throw us out, we will just shift the tents, we may just climb the mountains and put the tents outside, and then maybe India will make us out of bounds and then we will have to choose between Pakistan and China.

I: So this is how you have your food? Usually somebody gets it or…? [A friend arrives with packed lunch]

K: No. Food never comes to us. We actually never get enough time to eat, for the past few days we have been running around…

I: What about classes and everything else?

K: Classes… since this movement started, that is, putting tents at Freedom Square … it started on the eve of Friday … it’s just been three days. Most of the classes have been cancelled … and from the first day it has been like first notice from the Proctor, then the second notice from the Proctor and yesterday there was a Proctorial enquiry, so JNUSU and all the organizations and other students of JNU came for a student’s led protest … and one of the professors cancelled our class … and since that day we have sat in protest…. And so I would like to request our Chief Proctor to not issue more and more notices, I don’t want classes to get cancelled again and again.

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I: Has the Chief Proctor or any representative from the administration tried to take stock of the situation over here? Did they come visit this place or make any attempt to negotiate?

Megha (M): They told the guards to harass us yesterday.

K: Chief Proctor is the ‘chief’ Proctor as in the sense he doesn’t come and talk to you directly. They send us notices. So we had to appear before them, 3 o’clock yesterday and we went and met them individually and we explained them (sic) that the situation.

I: Its precarious living, with all the…

K: Still it’s a living

I: But don’t you think with all the… I mean the administration will be held to account if someone falls sick… out here in the open, with dengue and other things on the rise.

O: If you get bitten by a dog!

I: Yes, just the other day I saw people sleeping on the ground next to dogs….

K: If that is the reality that we are no better than the dogs … If that’s the reality and that if it is difficult for you or say the administration to bear it, then I humbly say it is not our fault.

I am less afraid of dengue and malaria, I am more afraid of the insensitive tendency of the administration for it can crush [a] lot of hopes.

I: So I remember there was a parcha out on Saturday. What was interesting about the parcha was that for the first time in many, many years the parcha featured the name of almost all the political organizations. You hardly ever get to see something like that, even if it is something which requires mass mobilization and affects all in general, one or two would dissent or not choose to cooperate or participate. But here you had everyone supporting and everyone coming together in good measure. What would you say to that? What is your reaction towards the way people are identifying and responding to the cause, though in a sense everybody should identify and respond to the cause in greater numbers? 

K: First, bringing in the stakeholders. We called for an all-org, and because we contacted every organization in the campus, excluding some which we contacted later. We appealed to them that we want an audience and we have some propositions to make. So it was just an all-org meeting, it is not a very original idea theoretically—to assemble all the parties. The sad part is that it is not happening all the time, like say the Right or the Left they don’t want to interact with each other, and they don’t think that the other’s view is worth their time. But as an ordinary student, who doesn’t belong to any party, if I ask for audience it is the responsibility of all the parties to send their representatives and give a fair hearing to me. And then there are a lot of private conversations happening and there are informal talks about what trajectory should be taken from here….

So once all the parties came, we put two proposals and we asked them to express their opinions on these and whatever their concerns were.  So the demands are: alternative accommodation for students who haven’t got hostels and later we added, or provide HRA. Second demand—provide White Paper on the hostel allocation process. Not just a list of vacancies or list of allotments but total schematic transparency, all the process that goes on, what are the dynamics operating inside … like what are the Court rulings that distort or shape the process, or what is the criteria that determines which Centre to allot first, so the entire process from the assessment of vacancy to the allocation of seat…. What are the things that are going on? So these were our demands. Certain questions, certain concerns did arise, but nevertheless the resolution, the demands were acknowledged by the all-org unanimously.

Second, regarding the mode of protest, I am not a big believer of sloganeering and submitting memorandum … rather it should be a confrontation, right? The idea is to confront them, pressurize them in a more direct way. In my mind, by protest it should be something different, I understand it this way … like say to protest against you I can keep mum, I will not sloganeer against you, so breaking the flow. So what if a situation emerges where protest itself becomes routine like in JNU?

I: I think the term is institutionalization or appropriation of the form of protest. 

M: See, it is this way, I got my hostel in this list, so I went to the guard, to get my folio and I was told that I will get it from [the] 23rd. You give me hostel on [the] 19th and you tell me that I will get my folio on [the] 23rd. So anyway I thought I’ll go and kill the time and check the hostel rooms, so I went to [the] Godavari caretaker, he said I cannot let you in until and unless you give me your folio. I told him I have my exam on 24th, just let me see the rooms, they said they won’t allow till I get my folio…. Second thing is Master’s students do vacate at the same time, right? Then why don’t you at least allocate those rooms in one go? And tell us how you are allocating them…. In Tapti, where I was living previously, I vacated in May, it got allotted in last week of August. I can tell you even after the release of the recent hostel list in small hostel like Tapti, in the girls wing there will still be some 4–5 hostel seats vacant…. Also, you know about the conditions of the hostel in JNU.

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I: So the question is not just about shortage of resources but procedural lapses. Also, I was going through the Hostel manual and it seems there are provisions made for representations from student’s body to participate in IHA meetings, which are suppose to be held regularly, to voice out their concerns. Don’t you think it’s also a failure on the part of the students to effectively field out their concerns and constitute a stronger body to address the issues at hand?

K:  As far as the IHA is concerned, the last Gen. Sec. Rama Naga informed that they were constantly informing the Dean to mandatorily have the university IHA meeting. Even after demanding so much, it never happened last year, there should be at least one meeting every year. So that is the kind of insensitivity with which they are operating…. Apart from what Megha said about allotting seats at one go … there is a problem with caste…. There was some reversal that General got 5 and the OBC and SC/ST were stuck at 2. And there are other concerns like some rooms are not being allotted by the caretakers, who have reserved them for some reason … so taking into consideration all these problems we made an attempt to rationalize the whole system … to go to the source of all problems, to go to the logic of this machinery.

I: One final question, I have been here for the last two years, and every year they have some kind of dharna or hunger strike. Like last year, people even tried to occupy the Convention Centre but they were driven out and slowly the movement phased out, either because people lose interest or they get preoccupied with their studies. A major part of any protest or movement is not just solidarity among the protesters but also a sustained interaction and confrontation for a prolonged time to make an impact. Do you think this movement will be able to sustain itself for long? 

K: Regarding the mode of protest, we chose it for two reasons. First, others can consider this as a mode of protest but for us it is a mode of living. And for the time being, it is also a problem. So it sustains us, it provides us with a mode of living even though it has its own problems and at the same time it is troubling the conscience of the rulers of the Pink Palace to search for a better place for us. So the plus sign is that we have a place to stay now, so not only is it a mode of protest but it is an expression of our condition in the campus, and it is the expression of our existence. Little bit colourful, that’s it.

So the basic criteria for our mode of protest, in fact for everyone we would like to suggest is that the mode of protest should be such that it is sustainable, and the demands are honoured. I’ll support hunger strike when you have clearly had the idea that you are going to die for the cause. Otherwise in hunger strike there is a kind of extremism, there is no measure of things, so not a kind of strike or a protest which has no critical introspection or with a destructive element…. We, on the other hand, are not only criticizing the administration for not providing us with proper accommodation but rather we are also evolving or trying to revive or recreate what we call the JNU culture. People are slowly drawing in. It is not about the numbers. But few people, them … it’s a spirit …  and they come in … seems like they were initially sitting in the margins, they came here, on the first day, second day, sitting on the fences, using their cell phones, looking at what’s going on here … and they are constantly evaluating, and they approach with certain caution they don’t just jump in, and then they slowly come in and we haven’t sold the idea to them, they come on their own. It’s not us who are pushing them into it, it’s the idea that’s appealing to them; we think we’ll keep the idea alive. Because ideas survive on spirit, like someone comes and contributes and they think it is good, it is meaningful then they too become a part of the movement as much as we are or any organization.

And yesterday one guy called it radical, but if one thinks it is radical and at the same time it is meaningful. Then there is something in it. Some selective power in the idea of pitching a tent here. Yesterday there were people, and there was music and they were playing the dafli, and we did not organize it. They were sitting there and chatting till 3–4, they belonged to different parties and from different Centres whom we had never met before … and there was this guy who was sleeping right there on the middle of the road under the sky. This is what the culture is, you don’t think that anything is alien to you, you internalize that this place is yours, it belongs to you. We couldn’t have imagined this six months ago but now what we are trying to ensure that there should be some communication among students to resolve problems collectively. This is a thriving ground for collective action. Yesterday, again this interesting thing happened when two people who were floor-mates for two years in the Tapti hostel were talking to each other for the first time here. It’s like a long love-story; this is the instance that sanctions their conversation. We expected that kind of lot (sic) of relationships here and most importantly that gives us an organic root to this movement.

JNU’s is claiming to fight for the entire Milky Way, okay they haven’t reached there … say the whole world, fight for Palestine, Egyptians, Middle East … India you don’t even have to mention. I’m not saying it is wrong to fight, one should show solidarity, but in order to show solidarity you should have a core of your own. We should establish our strength, make sure that you are competent enough to solve your own problems first. Like if you are unable to establish meaning and effective communication between students and the administration, who has more configuration of power than you, then what are you preaching? The core is hollow. Until you fight your own battles, right? We learn from the movements, right?

So that kind of creative ways to engage with power should be there, that should be the strength of any revolutionary progressive community… I feel that here to a certain extent it is institutionalized and coated with rhetoric, but I am not devaluing it … For me even though these are performances, they are performers. I can see that such kind of things can be done, you can raise slogans, you can do the politics of making noise, you are free to express, you are free to question. So this is a performance and it is a method [of contesting]. So whatever content I put in this is a different matter, I am criticizing the content but the form is good in a way. It is being disabused that is a different thing.

The Informer correspondent. 

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