On Wednesday, prominent writer and rights activist Meena Kandaswamy joined the students of the University of Hyderabad as they continued their relay hunger strike. Since last Saturday, seven students have been shifted to the hospital by the police. Students, however, say that one set of students would replace each set shifted to the hospital by authorities.
Meena spoke to The News Minute on a range of issues concerning the rights of Dalits in India and the manner in which the debate around Rohith Vemula’s death has unfolded.
Most writers and activists addressed the students but you chose to join the hunger strike? Why?
Personally I don't believe in fasts, hunger strikes and Gandhian methods of protest. I think somebody who is committing injustice should be starving.
The struggle that the students are waging in HCU is not a struggle only for the students of HCU, it’s not a struggle against one individual's death. I think this is a struggle for all of us because all of us have been to universities, are going to universities.
I think this is a struggle is for all of us and we all have to take part in it.
In that sense, I came here to support the students and to participate in Chalo HCU on Monday, so I also felt like joining the students.
Do you think this agitation will get the same attention and support that the intolerance debate got from writers and activists?
There is a big problem but I'm not blaming everybody. I think it is a general problem that people are very quick to condemn Hindutva, saffornization, communalisation, religious problems and stand up for secularism but the same people are very silent about caste-related issues.
So I think there is a general tendency to be silent about caste, partly because of the denial, partly because of the refusal to accept that it is a reality and partly because of some privilege that people don't want to engage in it. So I think when it's a caste issue, absolutely, people will not come with the same vigorousness.
Do you think 'The Urban Intelligentsia' of the country would support the Dalit cause as they did it in other civil rights issues?
I don't think that we have to judge a struggle based on how many celebrities endorsed it. I think this is a struggle on the ground. I have been seeing this protest for the past three days. I think the anger is very spontaneous and it’s not directed by any political force. It's real genuine student anger.
I have been part of it because I have been in the academia and both my parents are also part of it. I have seen what caste can do, how caste can ruin peoples’ lives, how it can have devastating effect within the academia, so for me, it’s like a personal issue.
What are your thoughts on 'saffornization of education'. Do you agree with allegations that centre is trying to discriminate against Dalit students?
I think what is happening is slightly larger than that. No doubt that mostly Dalit students are at the receiving end, but what is happening under this present government is a certain oppression and a hegemony of Hindi and Sanskrit.
In terms of the appointments that have been made without considering merit, the best example is the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan (to FTII). People who support the BJP and RSS get positions.
There is an effort to change the syllabus; all the courses on Vedic history, Vedic science, Vedic mathematics are trying to distort Indian history.
Students who do not feel alienated in the universities are only from upper castes, Brahmins and north Indian males. If you are from the south you feel alienated, if you are a minority you feel alienated, if you are from Tamil Nadu you will feel the same. But I do feel that this government is against Dalits.
What is your opinion on media coverage on Dalit issues or atrocities on Dalits?
This is a wake-up call for Indian media because if you look at the media just last year one Dalit Journalist Nagraj Koppula died. No one helped him financially for his medical needs. So there is no diversity in the newsroom as the newspaper industry is very much supported by the government with subsidies.
No government is telling them to employ Dalits, so the absence of Dalits in the media reflects on the kind stories of carried by the media houses.