On October 18, 2019, an article published in The Quint blazoned a headline bound to attract attention, “Ambedkar Univ Dalit Scholar Alleges Caste Humiliation by Batchmate.”
An FIR has been filed by a Dalit research scholar from the university against a fellow researcher, under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The article states that there was a committee formed in the university regarding the matter, but there is nothing further in the article that enlightens one about it.
The Quint is not alone in publishing this story, and others have followed suit in what verges on a proverbial trial-by-media. While nowhere have they explicitly passed a judgement, the conspicuous absence of any counter-narrative savours of an implicit, perhaps unintended, calumny against the accused.
The narrative about the alleged casteism in Ambedkar University making rounds on social media is bereft of any context, despite alternate voices on campus bending over backwards to reach out to the media. The media, however, has paid them no heed.
Perhaps their tabloid journalism could learn a lesson or two from Newslaundry, which also published an article about the case. Their article came out after others had already done the damage, but no doubt because of the time they took, theirs is a reporting that is a lot more informative and contextualised, and includes accounts of university officials, information about the investigation at the university level, as well as a more detailed statement of the accused. However, such reporting is not typical of the media at large, and is provably an exception rather than the rule.
Around the end of May 2019, the sanitation workers in Ambedkar University, Delhi were fired unceremoniously. Probing into the matter revealed the casteism and connivance that had been simmering in the university; it turned out that the workers were made to clean sewers without any equipment, and were subjected to discrimination from some authorities as well.
Provoking an outrage and a series of protests and tussle with the administration, the whole incident eventually led to the reinstatement of all the workers. It was a victory all the more significant at a time when casualisation of labour and job precariousness have a stranglehold on the lives of employers.
How does this relate to the current case of casteism reported by the media? The accused in the case had been involved in the protests from one end to the other, and the workers by whom political organisations of all hues on campus stood, are well aware of her politics. However, despite everyone’s best intentions, there were differences between students pushing for the reinstatement of workers – about the strategy and approach of the movement.
This led to a public meeting called by the students to deliberate on the matter. It was in this meeting that the alleged casteist comments, now translated into the FIR, were passed. And while the media, with a few exceptions, took its time before publishing mere anecdotes about that case, journalists are all too quick to report on the current case, with no context, a passing mention of the committee report minus its conclusion, and non-existent efforts to reach out to students privy to the case. Simply put, the media has shed every bit of its responsibility so far as standards of journalism are concerned.
Some students from the Dalit and Bahujan communities on campus privy to the case have issued a statement countering the narrative reported by the media, and have questioned the dubious statements of those leaping to conclusion in a case they know from within.
“We completely see it as a political strategy to suppress the alternative voices of Dalit/Bahujan students and others who stand with them,” read the statement sent by DBA students to the student community of the university.
Moreover, another statement has been issued by students that is intended to shed light on the case in a sagacious manner. Anxious and hopeful that it won’t be taken down, following is the public statement, with the consent from those issuing it.
“We have noticed some media reports regarding alleged casteist behaviour by a woman research scholar against another research scholar. We are well versed with the whole matter and would like to put before certain facts and observations for fair consideration.
The FIR and the previous complaint letter (they are telling different stories) are based on false claims and misrepresentation of facts. The complainant and her organisation’s narrative has already been questioned by many Dalit-Bahujan students who were present in the meeting in which the alleged exchange of words took place, and who are part of the struggle of sanitation workers to get back their jobs (please see their mail which is in public domain).
The whole incident started from difference of opinion regarding two things: 1. how to deal with the administration which had fired those workers, methods of protest, etc.; and 2. whether to accept the administration/contractor’s promise to hire back only 33 workers (later they promised some more jobs, but not all) or to pressurize them and find ways to hire all of them back.
It was being discussed among students where no worker was present. On both these two issues, the complainant and the defendant differed, but they were not alone in taking their respective positions. It has been pointed out that there was no individual exchange, but everybody was talking to everyone.
Ultimately with sustained pressure from the protesting workers and supporting students, all of them have been reinstated, which happened on 14th June. This is a good news in the midst of very disheartening and disappointing stories of workers’ dismissals from across the country. This clearly rejuvenated the spirit of workers and students. This story has traveled wide, congratulatory messages pouring from many parts of the country.
The first complaint written by the complainant was mailed on 13th June which was responded to by the defendant on 15th June. All these letters and responses are there in public domain. But the news reports are based on mere claims, where no attempt was made to reach out to the other side, even to speak to other students present in the meeting of 5th June. The defendant has been cooperating with all the investigation/inquiry into the matter, whether inside the University or with the police.
But the only concern of the social media campaign is to ensure that the defendant is arrested and imprisoned, even when there is no evidence to back the claims, even when the Dalit/Bahujan students present in the meeting have called out the false claims, even when the defendant is participating in all inquiry/investigation. It seems that there is a concerted attempt to intimidate alternative Dalit-Bahujan voices of the University.
One of the biggest victims of this witch-hunt would be the struggle and spirit of sanitation workers of the University. As some of them have said: ‘If (the defendant) gets arrested, no one will stand with us in the future.’ About 41 of them have issued a letter asking for withdrawal of criminal proceedings and appealed to not further punish her for standing with them.
We appeal everyone to maintain fairness in this matter, and not be a part of mob mentality. It is true that any news of caste atrocity evokes immediate condemnation and disgust within us, but before you further the news, make your opinion and comment, we very sincerely wish that you get yourself apprised of all the relevant facts and material on record. Everything has a history that influences the future.
The “accused” also has a history – a history of unwavering activism with and for Dalit-Bahujan students in the University and outside. This is not to celebrate her, but to demand a minimum compassion towards a fellow activist (we might differ in our worldview and mode of politics, but that should not be criminalised), that requires that you please get informed before you judge. We would be happy to supply any information you wish.”
As the statement reads, it is not so much to celebrate the accused that the statement is issued as it is to heed the voices that have been screaming their lungs out but haplessly falling on deaf ears.
The Sulabh workers who got reinstated in the university were keenly aware of the tension between the complainant and the accused, as well as the political differences between the two that surfaced during the struggle against their arbitrary dismissal. At such a juncture, their testimonies bear relevance in deciding whether the alleged case of casteism is merely that, or there is more to it.
Youth Ki Awaaz remained the only option to present what has been denied hitherto. Hopefully, the raison d’être for citizen journalism will remain intact, as this seems the only platform where voices challenging those writing well-meaning, but nonetheless tendentious pieces, can find a channel.
I am a student of the said university and one of the signatories of the statement quoted. I have been privy to the events that led to the FIR, and hope against hope that this piece will find its voice amidst the prevailing noise brewing around the case.