Journalist Nikhila Henry’s debut book, The Ferment, opens with her speaking with Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar whose life, and death, was to become the defining symbol of youth unrest in India under Narendra Modi’s rule. Sitting on a desolate rock overlooking the palatial vice chancellor’s lodge at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), Vemula summons the unlikely topic of one’s post-death wishes: whether to be buried or to be burnt. Vemula desires to be buried, so that he can be visited by his people, he tells Henry. But even this modest wish of his would remain unfulfilled, just like his ambition of becoming a science writer – “like Carl Sagan”, as he wrote in a letter written before he committed suicide.
Vemula ended his life in January 2016 after persistent harassment and humiliation. A suspension of his fellowship for the seven months leading to his death had made him financially vulnerable. In a classic example of social ostracism, he, along with four of his comrades in the Ambedkar Students’ Association, had been barred from using the university’s hostel and other public spaces by the university administration–a move that was likely prompted by members of the Modi cabinet. In the end, the Hyderabad police would take his body after post-mortem and cremate it without his near and dear ones present to bid him farewell.
The unprecedented ferment that spread across the country in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s death, and the underlying tensions that gave rise to India’s numerous youth movements, are the subject of this new book by Nikhila Henry, who had reported these stories over several years. The Ferment, in the words of the author, is “a guided tour through the youth battles” in the country. These battles, however, are not sporadic protests, but fierce expressions of discontent and outrage against systemic neglect and, worse, injustice.
Rohith Vemula’s death created a wave of anger, particularly among students. The University of Hyderabad’s shopping complex, known as Shopcom, became a site of pilgrimage for activists and opposition politicians. Students and youths formed joint action committees for ‘Justice to Rohith’ across the country and did their bit to keep the issue alive. As the protests intensified, the University of Hyderabad’s Vice Chancellor Podile Appa Rao disappeared, ostensibly on leave. When he returned after two months, protesting students attempting to enter his home were beaten mercilessly by the Telangana state police, who also attacked faculty members who tried to intervene. The police eventually arrested 25 students and two faculty, who were detained in jail for nearly a week, and charged, before being released on bail. The central government, meanwhile, formed a one-man judicial commission, ostensibly to investigate the circumstances in which Vemula committed suicide, but which seemed intent on proving that he was not a Dalit. Faced with a hostile government, the protests for Justice to Rohith withered away within months.
Meanwhile, those accused of abetting Vemula’s suicide under the Prevention of Atrocities Act – including Vice Chancellor Appa Rao; Nandanam Susheel Kumar of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student organisation affiliated to the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS); and Bandaru Dattatreya, the then labour minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet – have faced no serious consequences. Appa Rao, once accused of academic plagiarism, has been honoured by the prime minister. The ABVP dominates the University of Hyderabad campus – partly due to divisions between the Ambedkar Student’s Association and traditional left student groups. Dattatreya, who was an MP from Telangana and wrote to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) complaining about ASA’s “extremist and anti-national politics”, has completed his parliamentary tenure unscathed. Smriti Irani, the then minister of HRD – who was not named but arguably played a role in the process that led to Vemula’s suspension – has been given two portfolios in Prime Minister Modi’s new cabinet.
The struggle for justice for Rohit Vemula is not the only student agitation to have been repressed in the past few years. The BJP-led government views universities not only as spaces of dissent, but also as potential threats to their plans of ideological hegemony. While university administrations can be captured by installing amenable people – as has been done in several other institutions – the student community, among whom the leftist groups have a strong presence, could challenge such moves. Such a challenge might not be confined to university campuses alone, but could spread beyond, posing a fatal risk to the political designs of the BJP. It was, therefore, vital for the ruling dispensation to target left strongholds – such as the UoH or Jawaharlal Nehru University – and crush dissenting students’ collectives, so that others might be terrorised into silence.
One of the best-known instances of these repressive tactics was the arrest and persecution of three PhD students of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2016: Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid. The arrests were in response to ABVP’s complaint that a programme organised by the left-dominated JNU student body, to mark the legally questionable hanging of Afzal Guru, was seditious. Even as the veracity of these claims was being questioned, the police arrested the three students. Kumar, who was then the president of the university’s student union and a remarkably articulate leader, became a particular target for the Hindutva rage. When he was produced in the Patiala Court in Delhi, some individuals in lawyers’ costumes beat him inside the court premises even as he was being escorted by the police.
Earlier, in June 2015, students led a 139-day protest at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), over the contentious appointment of the actor and BJP supporter Gajendra Chauhan as the institute’s chairperson. But the protest had to be withdrawn after a protracted and bitter face-off with the government.
Other examples include the protests following the disappearance of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed, who went missing in October 2016 after a scuffle with ABVP; the Pondicherry University protests in 2016 against attacks on editors of a student magazine; and the anti-fee-hike struggle at Punjab University. The book also provides chilling details of the Indian state’s systematic brutal violence against its own people, particularly the youth, in areas with Maoist insurgency, and in Kashmir. Henry notes that in Kashmir, “a total of 10,000 young men had gone missing after they were picked up by the law enforcers of the land” since 1990. According to her, five thousand youth have been arrested on various charges in just three years between 2008 and 2010. Draconian laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers of Act (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act have given summary powers to the army, the paramilitary forces and the police.
The only exception to this series of movements has been the one at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras in May 2015. Following an anonymous complaint to the Ministry of HRD claiming that a student group called Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was critical of the prime minister, the IIT Madras administration banned the group. But in the wake of widespread condemnation, and perhaps unsure of the political repercussions, the institute rescinded its ban on the APSC. However, the group states that it has been marked for surveillance as intelligence agencies have reportedly attempted to link it to the banned CPI (Maoist) party.
So why could such movements not sustain themselves? The answer to this question requires examining a larger question about resisting contemporary regimes: what do people do when the state unleashes its naked might to repress them into silence?
The Ferment also contains developments beyond university campuses. One such was related to the Bhim Army, an organisation in western Uttar Pradesh (UP) that has been working for Dalit rights. In May 2017, the group suddenly came into prominence when it protested against a procession of the upper-caste Thakurs in Shabbirpur Village in UP. Bhim Army’s protest was in response to the Thakur community’s opposition to the installation of a statue of Ambedkar on the premises of a temple in the village.
In the melee following the protest – and the ensuing torching of around 60 Dalit houses by the Thakurs – one Thakur youth was killed. The police arrested over 25 Bhim Army members, including its leader, a young advocate named Chandrashekhar Azad. Despite being granted bail by the Allahabad High Court that found all cases against him to be politically motivated, the state government of Yogi Adityanath maliciously rearrested Azad under the draconian National Security Act (NSA). After being detained for over a year without charges, he was eventually released in September 2018.
The Bhim Army’s rhetoric of radical political action was similar to that used by the Dalit Panthers – a group of Dalit youths in 1970s Bombay that was inspired by the militant civil-rights activism of the Black Panthers in the US. However, unlike Dalit Panthers’ capacious definition of ‘Dalit’ to include all oppressed classes, the Bhim Army celebrated its members’ Chamar identity (a Dalit subcaste traditionally involved in tanning for their livelihood). For example, the group put up a signboard that read “The Great Chamar” in Hindi at the entrance of a village in their stronghold of Saharanpur. This approach was more constricting than even the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party’s (BSP) bahujan – the assemblage of lower castes and religious minorities to conceive of a very broad electoral constituency.
Despite its apparent contradictions, the Bhim Army inspired Dalit youth and several progressive allies. However, the ferment it created could not be sustained. The Bhim Army appeared no different from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), with neither an alternate, affirmative political vision nor strategy. Mayawati alleged that it was a BJP ploy to divide Dalit votes. Chandrasekhar refused to align with the progressive left or other emerging Dalit leaders. He seemed to hark back to the politics of subcaste-upliftment that had germinated and thrived among certain Dalit castes like the Mahars before Ambedkar transformed the disparate struggles of what were then called ‘depressed classes’ into the Dalit movement.
The July 2016 incident in Una – where self-appointed gau rakshaks (cow protectors) brutally flogged seven members of a Dalit family – could have ended as just one among the innumerable caste atrocities perpetrated in today’s India. But the protests that it provoked were turned into a strategic response. The Una movement used the apparent weakness of Dalits as their strength, transforming a threat into an opportunity. The Dalits resolved not to do their traditional vocations and boycott the removal of animal carcasses. To make a point, they left some carcasses in the district collectorate’s premises. The stink of decaying carcasses forced the administration to act, with the then Chief Minister Anandiben Patel reportedly assuring each of the victims five acres of land and government jobs, on which, of course, the Gujarat government reneged.
This shift in the vision of Dalit emancipation – from a focus on identity and dignity, to addressing the material deprivation of Dalits – was a remarkable move. But it failed to go beyond winning Jignesh Mevani, its progenitor, a seat in the Gujarat State Assembly. It should have woken up Dalits all over the country, but was met with a cold response from educated Dalit youth, who could take such ideas to the masses. Why the book’s protagonists faded before the politics of identity is a crucial question that will likely haunt the readers.
The Ferment does not merely note the unease among the youth, it tries to locate its cause in the policies of the government, providing statistics to indicate the economic reasons behind the unrest. Since the adoption of neoliberal policies by the government in 1991, the floodgates for privatisation of education, particularly higher education, have been opened.
These reforms, based on the premise that open-market competition is a panacea to India’s myriad problems, disregarded the question of social justice. Following the adoption of these reforms, efforts were made to redefine education as a good that is to be traded in the market. While existing higher education institutes continued to be public, they were asked to increase their revenue through internal resources. The resultant increase in fees for these institutes drove them beyond the reach of many in the country. India’s educational market, estimated to be worth 180 billion dollars in 2020 – and its higher-education sector estimated to be worth 35 billion dollars by 2025 – provided a huge investment opportunity, as evidenced by the influx of notable corporates and the foreign institutions piggy-backing them.
The neoliberal answer to the problem of unaffordability is given in terms of another market – the credit market – where the services of the latter are biased towards degrees and institutions deemed more ‘creditworthy’. The percentage of students getting jobs, even with such professional degrees as Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Master of Computer Applications (MCA) – once seen as licenses to a job – is declining. Henry’s book provides indicative statistics: in 2015-16, the approved intake in technical education was 3.8 million students, but the enrolment in the institutions approved for technical education reached only 2 million. Of these, only 1.58 million passed out, and less than half of them, 668,000 students, found jobs.
This joblessness is reflected in the increase of outstanding educational loans and non-performing assets (NPAs). From 2013 to 2018, outstanding educational loans increased 50 percent, from INR 48,382 crores (USD 7 billion) to INR 72,839 crores (USD 10.6 billion). Meanwhile, bad loans in the education sector have exploded – up 142 percent from INR 2615 (USD 380 million) crores in 2013 to INR 6336 crores (USD 922 million) in 2016. More than 90 percent of these educational loans were given by public-sector banks. These figures spell crises not only for the government’s financial situation, but also for students, who face rising cost of higher education, and worse, the threat of default. Even when meeting its mandatory budgetary expenditure on higher technical education, the government funnels large sums of public money to private institutions.
Resistance or reaction?
Henry ends her book with a significant discussion of the much flaunted but grossly squandered ‘democratic dividend’. As she points out, at 35 percent, India has one of the highest proportions of youth (those between 15 and 34 years). But this demographic advantage is being wasted by the ruling classes’ utter failure to provide young Indians with quality education, meaningful jobs, and engage them in challenges facing the country.
The ferment, mainly caused by the fascist onslaughts of Hindutva forces, and tacitly backed by the might of the state, has been episodic and reactive in nature, and thus unable to coalesce into a radical movement for change. In places where these forms of resistance have taken militant shape – such as in Kashmir or areas with Maoist insurgency – it is met with excessive state repression. Three decades of neoliberal order have pulverised society into a collection of discrete, atomised individuals – more so the millennials – who are in brutal competition with each other. Many youths, therefore, either consciously desist from political engagement, or run after the developmental mirage that might bring them a better future. Some, who have neither of these options, could be pushed towards violent politics. The rise of a virulent nationalism and the construction of a ‘Hindu majority’ in a country of minorities marked by castes and creeds has been a major factor in BJP’s unprecedented electoral success. Whether this will afford space for future ferments is a big question.