JNUTA Lecture Series 1: Democracy and Social Justice: Perspectives from Dalit and Adivasi Movements


The JNUTA protest-cum- lecture series ” Democracy and Social Justice” began yesterday 18 January 2017 at 4 P.M. at administration block. The programme included three lectures and two performances by JNU students. The JNU administration had already put up lines marking the 20 meters distance from the administration block but the protestors were well within the mark. One of the teachers remarked, “you are within the line but imagine yourself outside it, that way you follow the dictates of the administration while subverting it.”

Nivedita Menon started the lecture series by saying that the lecture series is aimed at “widening the scope of social justice and […] to imbibe it.” She added that in the recent scenarios, it is seen that the people demanding the protection of constitutional provisions have been termed ‘anti-national’. She said in strong terms that “this government is hellbent on rolling by the constitution” and “putting forth its unconstitutional policies like the UGC notification which will alter the students’ strength and the nature of students JNU has.”

The first lecture was delivered by Ashwini Deshpande who talked about the “New Grammar of Caste”; this is also the title of her book. Ashwini Pandey is an economics professor at Delhi School of Economics. Expressing solidarity with the protesting students she began her lecture by mentioning the reasons people generally full forth in support of their claim that caste disparities in India are on a decline: “the first reason is that the move to a market economy implies that caste will go away as the market economy has neither any mechanism nor any interest to discriminate on basis of caste and the second reason is that the constitutional provisions like the Mandal commission, and the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments have protected the rights of backwards castes and this would have ensured that there are some gains in the reduction of discrimination.” She added that this idea has been put forth by political scientists like Jafferlot. “However, if one looks at empirical data to analyze this claim like India human development index and its census, one notices that it’s the contrary that is taking place. Significant disparities exist between members of the same caste in material indicator like land, income, etc. More important is the fact that the various castes are not converging towards each other but on the other hand, there is a divergence which means that the disparities are increasing. The only indicator of convergence is in the fields of literacy and primary education.”

Critiquing the current state of the market economy, she said that inequality in labour market wages of the regular employees and caste-based discrimination are also seen in the “top end” of the wage distribution, which means that even the entrepreneurs face caste discrimination. To support her point, she takes another example from Dalit Industries Confederation of India, DICI, where the data argued that most of the Dalit businesses are survivalist (like tea selling) and not entrepreneurial in nature. She concluded her talk by stating that people think that quotas in government jobs and universities are like a magic wand. “It is not,” she declared.  She claimed that reservations alone cannot treat problems like inequality and income discrimination. “They can only ensure that people from lower castes may access to public facilities and must be judged only on that. It is the first step and we have to do much more to ensure equality.”

The second speaker, Bezwada Wilson from the Safai Karamchari Andolan delivered a passionate speech where he talked about Radhika Vemula and her struggles and on the failures of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan. Commenting on the plight of Radhika Vemula he said that when he was young, his mother who had never seen the school, ensured that he went to school to that he can get out of this cycle of slavery but forty years later, he meets Radhika Vemula and she asked him to explain to her younger son Raja that he must never go to an Indian University as she cannot bear to lose another son. He told the moved students that this is where this country has come to. “And the state is not listening as it has developed the culture of criminality.”

He elaborated giving the example of the cow, “which the government minister recently claimed exhales oxygen” which is now a “super-animal” and if so, he pointed out, there are animals that are “not-so-super.” Consequently, we are to make a hierarchy in nature which otherwise does not exist. This is according to him a direct leaf taken out of the caste system elaborated 1000 years ago. Commenting on the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan and the criminality of the state, he said the government has invited so many foreigners to make toilets in Indian villages. But despite the crores of rupees spent there is no mechanism to treat this waste and consequently, “a crore toilets meant a crore septic tanks that will have to be cleaned manually by the Dalits.” He cited the example of recent Dalits deaths in septic tanks, the case of those families that did not even receive 10 lakh compensation; the government had claimed that it does not have money. Outlining his future projects, he said that he and his organization have given a three months notice to the Collector to clear the due compensations for the families of victims who died in the septic tanks.

Archana Prasad gave a short historical account of the recent struggles of Adivasi communities in Chhattisgarh. She started by talking about what she and Nandini Sundar —who along with her was charged with murder by Chattisgarh Police, faced was not even a one-hundredth of what the Adivasis have been facing for decades. She stated that in 2005, the government of the day claimed the biggest challenge to economic development was the environmental laws, and therefore the first sectoral reforms were in the Forest Department. It was also the time, according her, when Salva Judum was formed which was a “group of lumpen educated unemployed Adivasi youth” who were given special protection by the government to ensure that their “illegal schemes” were carried out even at the cost of committing atrocities.  In 2007, there was a case filed against Salva Judum in Supreme court and it was later disbanded but other NGOs that did the same thing sprang up, like Samajik Ekta Group, Action Group of National Integrity, etc. In 2011, 300 houses in three villages in Bastar were burned and ransacked. She differentiated this case from others by highlighting the fact that in this case the villagers “stood up to the might of the Indian State” and in 2015, a CBI enquiry was ordered. When she went to Bastar, Nandini Sundar and her friend were to prepare the villagers for the same case. She stated the situation in Bastar is alarming because of the 2005 Forests Rights Act which states that the people can claim the land in Bastar but if one’s claim is rejected they may be evicted.” In Chattisgarh, 67 per cent of the claims are rejected, and the Adivasis face eviction from their ancestral land.” She ended her talk but explaining why it is said that today the white collar Naxals are more dangerous than others because the villagers that have been termed Naxals are not really doing anything; they have been falsely implicated by the government and it is only the “white-collar Naxals” like journalists, university professors, students, lawyers, etc that can defeat the “ideological claims” and “the narrative of the government.”

Performances were also put up by the students in which they satirized the neoliberal state and the “growing intolerance” in the country.

Gargi Binju is an MA student at Centre for Linguistics, SL and works for The Informer. 


1 reply »

  1. There are successful cases are also there why you do not highlight those? Why only state is responsible , why you don’t talk about bringing social change, change in each individual. people in government or state also comes from society. give solution to change the mindset of current breed.