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This Professor’s Experience Clearly Proves How Casteist Our Academic Institutions Are

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Written by Ekabali Ghosh for Dalit Camera

In 2012, Maroona Murmu received her doctorate from the prestigious Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Dr Murmu’s road to the PhD degree was not easy. A trained classical musician, Maroona had decided to work on the history of the Bishnupur school of classical music in the second half of the 18th century. The Chairperson of her centre had responded with, “being a tribal you want to work on high culture? You are not even an insider.” The taunt made her rethink her decision and finally, she completed her thesis on the marginalized Other in the Bengal Renaissance: the genteel women.

Professor Dr Maroona Murmu. Photo: Facebook File

Born to a Hindu caste mother and an Adivasi father, Maroona’s childhood was by her own admission filled with loneliness. Neither the caste bhadroloks of her mother’s family nor the Adivasis would accept this inter-community marriage. She recounts the hullabaloo she saw among her parents when she was in the eighth standard over whether she should possess an ST certificate. Her Adivasi father, Gurucharan Murmu, a first-generation school-goer and the first Santal IPS officer in India insisted that this was an essential step towards affirmative action.

Since then, Dr Murmu has come a long way. She is an Associate Professor of History in the prestigious Jadavpur University in West Bengal, the only Adivasi professor in a social science discipline at that level of seniority in the state. She was selected to teach in Burdwan University in an unreserved post, following which there was an ecosystem of disapproval by savarna academics. Of course, these academics would never openly say something so blatantly casteist, rather they would limit their anguish to their dinner table conversations.

Following Dr Murmu’s own claim, we can argue that the violence inflicted on Adivasis and Dalits in educational institutions in West Bengal is symbolic.

The backlash against these caste and indigenous groups have nothing to do traditional ritualistic religious bigotry and everything to do with blocking access to traditionally casteist spaces like academic institutions. As savarna hegemony is threatened, savarna academics, students and researchers find it imperative to symbolically remind Adivasis and Dalits from time to time that they are after all, inferior. This symbolic violence is inflicted to remind them of their “proper place”. The extension of casteist practices from traditional Hindu ritual and casteism’s ability to perpetuate itself in the field of social capital is also why we find so many casteists among atheists.

For Dr Murmu, the problem is three-tiered. Not only is she an Adivasi, but also a woman – an Adivasi woman who is unapologetic about her identity and does not mince her words in her criticism of the bhadroloks. For this, she has been subjected to condescending comments, defensiveness due to usual savarna fragility, questions about her “merit” etc. More recently, this has escalated into blatant derogatory remarks about her identity and name-calling.

On September 3, 2020, Dr Murmu posted that examinations during the pandemic are a bad idea. She claimed that the loss of one year is nothing compared to the loss of life. To this post, a woman called Paromita Ghosh, a student of the Department of Bengali, Bethune College, Kolkata objected saying that those who accessed reservations were “meritless idiots” (“jogyotaheen opodartho”) who only came forward due to their caste.

Since Dr Murmu too is an ST individual, she and all others who access SC, ST and OBC reservations were insulted through the student’s comments. The comment also calls into question her credibility as an academic. Further, the student accused Dr Murmu of only centering her thinking around quotas. She also accused Dr Murmu of not providing hard labour. The implication is that what would an ST teacher know about hard work?

An Adivasi academic who carries within herself a history of centuries of hard exploitative labour, including the labour of Adivasi women, the heritage of which has been passed down through mothers and grandmothers (or through the father in her case), what would SHE know of hard work?

Think for once, the labour put in by generations of Adivasis to educate one family member in the western school system. And now imagine the audacity of the savarna woman who dares to school an Adivasi woman on the value of hard labour.

But the student did not stop there. In another Facebook post, she reminded Dr Murmu that she was after all a “Murmu”, a Santhal. She and others like her, who had condemned Ms Ghosh’s behaviour were simply drawing paychecks and getting fat from them. This is as Dr Murmu has herself pointed out, symbolic violence in order to keep her in her “proper place”. The presence of an Adivasi woman in a hallowed hall of academic learning threatens students like her.

Those familiar with the academic system in West Bengal would know how hierarchized it is. Students barely ever speak up against teachers even when there are legitimate grounds to do so (inappropriate conduct, sexual harassment etc.). In a system that is this hierarchized, we are forced to ask the question, why go after Dr Murmu?

A similar insult would never be thrown at a savarna academic. Some politically conscious academics condemned this student’s statement. As soon as outrage started growing, the student started defending her statement. How could she be a casteist? After all, she has respect for this other minority professor teaching in the same university. Such logic assumes that minority academics are replaceable.

Respect for one minority person does not automatically translate into dignity for all marginalized minorities. Moreover, such statements create a binary of who can and cannot be respected. And the angry Adivasi cannot be respected.

This ridiculous defence was served with dollops of victim-blaming. If Dr Murmu did not want to be insulted, she should drop her surname and the “benefits” she gets from her ST certificate, just by waving her surname everywhere.

Does the student know that there is a proud tradition in Dalit activism of dropping surnames and accessing SC reservations as one’s right, and not as alms from the savarnas? I do not think we can find out but since our school syllabi do not teach us a word about the illustrious politics of Dr Ambedkar beyond heading the Constituent Assembly, I am inclined to think she does not.

Add to that caste pride, an ecosystem of self-righteousness and self-pity and you will be served with cases like Dr Murmu’s where casteist students insult DBA academics with impunity.

The Head of the Department of Bengali, Bethune College published a post on Facebook condemning the student’s behaviour. Due to vitriolic attacks, she too had to remove her post. And yet the utterance of casteist nonsense will still be defended by uncritically citing the freedom of speech. Despite the vitriolic attacks, Dr Murmu insistently places her hope in intersectional politics. She responded to us, “Unless one understands the intersectionality of class, caste, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, language, location to understand deprivation and marginalisation, and acknowledges privilege and entitlement that accidental birth endows a person with, the society and polity would never move towards equity and equality.”

This is exactly the kind of politics that Dr Murmu has been attacked over before – the need to see oppression as not just a function of class but all other power structures.

When she wrote the post-editorial for Ananda Bazar Patrika, various ‘Bruncles’ (Brahmanical uncles) from the old left attacked her over her unflattering evaluation of the CPI(M) led leftist regime with respect to caste discrimination. At that point, she was accused of selling out to the liberal media house, Ananda Bazar Patrika.

One Brahmanical critic claimed that this was not her opinion but something ABP had manipulated her into writing. The need of the hour was the largest unity of the oppressed and not identity-based attacks on the left, effectively pitting caste and class politics and projecting himself as the sole legitimate commentator on class. According to the same critic, real Adivasi emancipation would only arrive when Murmu women would be married to Brahmin men and carry Brahmin children.

The assumption of Brahmin male entitlement over the bodies of Adivasi women is staggering.

Ambedkar Students Association released a statement of solidarity with Dr Maroona Muru. Photo: Twitter.

These half-read attacks on identity politics are nothing new in the old left. The new left too suffers from it as evidenced by the experience of many Dalits, Adivasis and Dalit feminists in the student-led left. Through her own work, Dr Murmu has advocated against the myth that caste does not exist in West Bengal. It does. And the attacks on Dr Murmu only prove her correct.

About the author: Ekabali Ghosh is a queer research student and JRF scholar in the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She is a feminist activist with about four years experience of organizing survivors of sexual violence and queer individuals. She is the founder of Women Against Sexual Harassment, a platform that supports survivors of sexual violence and Queer Studies Research Cluster, an interdisciplinary nationwide network of researchers in the field of queer studies. Her alter ego eats cheese and pasta.

The piece was first published here on Dalit Camera.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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