“Not Left, not Left Liberals and not even Left radicals. Only radical Ambedkar can liberate us.”
These words attributed to Rohith Vemula, the University of Hyderabad scholar who hanged himself to death after a long battle with the University administration and the ABVP in 2015, are reverberating across the campus yet again. Building on Rohith’s words and ideas, the movement in his name is continuing the struggle.
However, in the ongoing student union elections at the University of Hyderabad, it faces a difficult fight. This fight is not against the ABVP, but between the ASA (of which Rohith was a member) and the Students Federation of India (SFI) – both of which were a part of the “Justice for Rohith” movement.
The UoH elections are yet another example of the growing rift between the Left and Ambedkarites in India, but it is not without its own share of accusations, counter-accusations and intrigue.
There are three major fronts fighting the current election.
The United Front for Social Justice consists of the SFI, the Dalit Students’ Union, the Tribal Students Forum, the Bahujan Students’ Front and the Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika.
The Ambedkar Students’ Association is fighting the battle alone.
The ABVP has joined hands with the Other Backward Classes Association.
The ASA has put up a candidate for only one post - Vijay Kumar Pedapudi is contesting for the post of the President.
The SFI-led front has put up candidates for all posts, with Kuldeep Singh Nagi contesting for the post of President and DSU’s Suman Damera contesting for the post of the General Secretary. These are the two key executive posts.
While the ABVP is facing immense opposition from most groups in the campus following the death of Rohith Vemula, the other two fronts are also trading accusations, blaming each other for the lack of unity.
In a press note released on their Facebook page, the ASA has attacked “so-called progressive groups” (the SFI and allies) for betraying the Justice for Rohith movement. “… as far as we are seen as pitiful victims, everybody wants to show solidarity and extend support. But the moment we start speaking for ourselves and attempt to become architects of our own destiny, barriers will be created for us by the same forces which shed crocodile tears for us,” the ASA said.
The ASA says that only those who have experienced oppression, members of the oppressed communities, can represent them.
Interestingly, the ASA withdrew its candidates for all other posts because the SFI front had put up candidates from oppressed communities. This is why ASA has put up only one candidate, Vijay Kumar.
Also read: A night in Hyderabad University with Accused No. 30 (more about Vijay Kumar here)
The SFI’s strategy seems to be to ask for the Left to be voted in by whipping up fears of ABVP taking power in the campus. Watch this video
The same strategy helped the Left Unity coalition win in JNU.
Zuhail KP, an SFI member and the present President of the students’ union, says that the SFI-led coalition in UoH is not a ‘betrayal’ of the Justice for Rohith movement, but political expediency.
“We were very clear that there has to be unity at any cost. We were willing to accept Dalit candidates for both the key posts, one for ASA and one for DSU. But our other alliance partners like the DSU and TSF felt that we will be able to win against the ABVP only if SFI contests the President’s post,” adds Zuhail.
ASA members don’t accept this argument, however. “We will never allow SFI to decide which posts the Dalits have to take. Why should the post of the President be with the SFI? They have always won only with the support of the Dalits,” says Sunkanna Velpula, a member of the ASA who has since left the campus to work at IIT Bombay.
Sunkanna attributes the differences between DSU and ASA to the larger issue of the Mala-Madiga conflict in Andhra and Telangana. “ASA is a big organization, we don’t have to listen to SFI,” he adds.
The ASA also alleges that the Left has appropriated the Rohith Vemula movement. “We have respect for all the sacrifices of the SFI and other organizations for the Rohith movement. We respect them for that. But that does not mean we have to listen to them. From Gujarat to Hyderabad University, when it comes to sharing power, they are not willing,” says Sunkanna.
SFI denies any appropriation. “We supported them and we always have. And in 2009, the SFI president was a member of the SC community,” Zuhail points out. “We have fought against the ASA before, but at least this year we were hoping we would have unity, so yes we are upset,” he adds.
In the context of the larger political landscape of the country, this is not new. In the recently held JNU Students’ Union elections in Delhi, the Ambedkarite BAPSA fought Left Unity tooth and nail, accusing the Left of being a movement run by the privileged and unwilling to share power with the oppressed. Una movement leader Jignesh Mevani also slammed the CPI(M) in Kerala for their politics recently.
Meanwhile, the ASA has received support from several quarters. From writer Meena Kandasamy to JNU’s BAPSA presidential candidate Rahul Sonpimple, there have been calls to elect Vijay Kumar as the President. But will the ASA be able to beat the SFI front single-handedly? “We have defeated the SFI in the past, we can do it again,” says Sunkanna.