Thrilling episodes of India's political fights and social tensions are now set on college campuses. Student union elections have become so competitive like the larger ones outside the campus.
The famed Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) held its student union election early last week and the formal declaration of the results are awaited amid a legal wrangle. Though the results are withheld, the whole campus and the larger world know who are likely to win as the trends of the counting got leaked.
Meanwhile, various colleges that are part of the JNU also held their own polls to elect their student unions and the winners may include future political leaders. One such prospect is Afreen Fatima who was elected as a councillor from the School of Language and Cultural Studies on the panel of the political alliance named Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association–Fraternity Movement, popularly known as the BAPSA-Fraternity.
BAPSA, which had its birth on the JNU campus in 2014, avowedly works for student rights and the issues affecting Dalits, Adivasis and other minority groups. It is in alliance with the Fraternity Movement, as they set to challenge the Left Unity and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students' organization of the right-wingers.
Considering the political climate when the right-wing unions are on the ascendancy and the domination of Left unions still continues on several campuses, the victory of an assertive Muslim woman from another political camp is significant. Does Afreen represent the progressive community among Muslim women who lack space in mainstream politics? What all challenges she expects on the campus and how she plans to go about while trying to be the voice of the oppressed, as she herself claims?
Afreen shares her experiences and views with Onmanorama.
How do you feel after this victory against the Left and right-wing student unions?
I'm thrilled and very happy but at the same time I feel a sense of great responsibility. I wholeheartedly thank my voters and congratulate them for ignoring the Left's fear-mongering rhetoric of 'vote for us or ABVP will win'. With such a campaign it has been maintaining its position on the campus for the past many years.
Do the students from minority communities face any problem on the JNU campus?
The main issue here is about asserting one's identity. If you stand behind the Savarnas (caste Hindus) it is fine but as soon as you assert your identity outside their group, they start labelling you and branding you. Dalits who are the victims of casteism are labelled casteists and Muslims who often become victims of communal violence are labelled communal.
What are your views on the possibility of a new political awakening on the campus?
We hope to represent the politics of the oppressed and we hope and plan to do so unapologetically. We'll assert our identities and fight for the other marginalised as long as they are not treated equally and as long as the layered casteism and Islamophobia reign on this campus.
As a Muslim woman yourself, will you to take up the issues faced by students from minority communities on the campus?
I hope to deliver to the people of my community a new discourse by which they are free to be themselves or they don't have to mould themselves or cut out pieces of themselves to fit into the so-called progressive environment of JNU. If a person has to change himself or herself to fit in then it is not progressive. That is what is aimed at by the camp which thinks only people like us are progressive and everyone else is branded for one thing or the other.
This is the third year since Muslim student Najeeb Ahmed went missing from the JNU campus. Do you suspect the role of any anti-minority group behind it?
Of course, there is deep-rooted and layered Islamophobia. It's not something you can look directly at, it's in the culture of this campus. As soon as a Muslim person comes and talks about Muslims and their right to be on this campus and assert their identities outside of the binary of Left and Right, s/he is a communal person. Only Muslims from Left organisations are secular enough to be progressive.
(Najeeb Ahmed , a first-year MSc Biotechnology student, went missing under suspicious circumstances on October 15, 2016 from his hostel on the JNU campus. His fate is still not known.)
Is it the underlying Islamophobia in the society that prompts the muzzling of the voices of the oppressed?
Yeah, it is. People fear us as if we carry guns in our bags. We're normal human beings trying to fit in a society that is not ready to accept us for what we are.
What about the dominance of Left unions on the campus?
The Left is very much dominant on the campus and, in fact, it controls how the students think. They control the discourse and always manage to use it to their benefits. But their ideology has gotten weak after this year's elections. They might have won the elections but have clearly lost ideologically. Students have started to question them as well.
What about pluralism and counter-hegemonic politics in the JNU?
The Left has never allowed plurality to breed on the JNU campus and hence organisations like the BAPSA and Fraternity had their genesis on the campus to counter this hegemonic politics. The JNU is moving towards a dynamic change and this year is only the beginning of it. The unity of the oppressed does not intend to be like that of the Left after winning. We have and always will give space to others as well. We simply want a seat at the table which has for a very long time only been with the Left and a few times with the Right.
What is the relevance of a space for self-expression among the oppressed community when there is a hesitancy to speak on caste politics and such issues?
The space for self-expression of the oppressed community has widened since the very inception of BAPSA, and more so this year. This year has been a turning point in our struggle not just because of the call for the oppressed unity but also because we managed to get the second highest number of votes. This means that a lot of students are willing to look at a newer discourse. They are supporting and in fact discuss caste politics and issues.
What are the challenges ahead?
The real challenge is to prove myself and the organisations I represent. I might face a lot of hurdles in the way but I hope to get through with it.
Do you have to put up with trouble from Right-wing student outfits while championing the rights of the oppressed?
Like I said, they label us. They won't let us speak and raise illogical allegations against us; they just expect us to answer their questions and justify ourselves.
How does your personal political stand match up with BAPSA- Fraternity in the JNU? Tell us more about BAPSA- Fraternity as a political bloc of the students.
The alliance is a natural one. It is a bond that is made out of years of oppression faced by both. BAPSA-Fraternity are political organisations that stand for the oppressed and are also of the oppressed students. My personal political stand is very much similar, for social justice to prevail we need to bring forward the marginalised and give them space right between the privileged.
Any difference between the politics of the Left and the right-wing on the campus with regard to the oppressed?
Both use the oppressed and marginalised for their political gains. Right does that openly but the Left disguises itself under the banner of social justice which is scary because it's not differentiable.
What are your plans? Can you be the voice of the voiceless among the marginalised students in the JNU?
Students voted for me and helped me to win in a school that has always been a supporter of the Left. The Left, in fact, claims to own the School of Language. So, my victory symbolises hopes of students for a new and fresh politics. I'll try my best to be the voice of the voiceless.