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A Dalit Employee’s Death and Its Aftermath – in a Central University

 Solidarity for Amar Singh

by  Subhash Gatade 

The following is a guest post by SOLIDARITY FOR AMAR SINGH

We are writing this quite late. On 27 July 2015, a Monday, a young person named Amar Singh passed away in Lucknow. We came to know it very late, only on the other day, since we no longer reside in the city and, to confess, do not remain in regular touch with the happenings there. A leading Hindi daily’s Lucknow edition had reported this death two days later in a small column which we have just recovered. The report provided information about his father as well as about his native place, Faizabad. Though the daily did not state his caste in its description of what could be discerned like an accident, it made a note of his name, his age, his father’s name, and the job he was doing. But we knew Amar’s background. Amar was a dalit. He was Hela by caste and hailed from a poor family. His death could well be an accident, though what exactly happened remains mysterious. People who know a little about the incident are however emphatic that it was not suicide. But what appeared very intricate is how his death was reported and how the whole incident was handled since then, in the well-known public spheres—not only of Lucknow but also of other places.

The daily, Dainik Jagran, indeed reported it on 29 July 2015, stating that on Monday night at Nishatganj, a young man passed away under mysterious circumstances, and that he was a sanitation worker at the Moti Mahal lawns. It also informs that his relatives had asked for an investigation by the police. The report reads further like this: “Originally from Faizabad, the son of Ram Ratan, Amar Singh (23) had gone to his employer’s house at Nishatganj on Monday. Soon after leaving the premise there, he was found on the road in a state of unconsciousness. The passersby took him to a private hospital where he passed away.” The report ends there. It had appeared as an insignificant column at the left bottom of page 9 of the daily, with one of the most common headings one can come across, “a young man dies under suspicious circumstances”. But who was this employer here? Who were the passersby?

For around five years, Amar was employed on contractual terms at the Lucknow Campus of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFL-U), a central university established by an act of the parliament in 2007 but that had existed as the reputed Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL) prior to that. As is well-known, its main campus is in Hyderabad and the university as a premier institution is exclusively devoted to conducting masters and research programmes in English and foreign languages and areas like philosophy, film studies, social exclusion and cultural studies. Its Lucknow Campus, though less known outside, has been functioning since 1979 in the heart of the city of Lucknow; to be precise, in the rented buildings of the Moti Mahal lawns, just adjacent to La Martiniere School, K.D. Singh Babu Stadium and the Saharaganj Mall, and in the close vicinity of the elite market of Hazratganj. The campus offers bachelors and masters programmes in English and evening programmes in Spanish, French and Russian and a post-graduate diploma programme in the teaching of English and a research programme in Linguistics. It is headed by a director whose position is equivalent to the position of a pro-vice chancellor in any central university. Besides members of the teaching faculty it has a handful of non-teaching members on regular, ad hoc and contractual terms. Its students hail from places all over the country. Amar was, till his death, an employee of this university campus, appointed for attending to sanitation work. He was appointed by the authorities of the university campus through a contract with a private job agency in the city. Does the employer, the university in this instance, have a house then, where Amar was said to have gone on that day, as the daily reported it? Is the university a person who owns a house? Why did the daily mention “employer’s house”, in the first place, in the case of an individual who was found unconscious on a Nishatganj road? How is that information relevant?

Amar used to work in the campus, undertaking not only the job of cleaning the classrooms, library and their immediate premises but also the rooms in the hostels located inside the campus. When the daily reports that Amar used to be “a sanitation worker at the Moti Mahal lawns”, it appears shockingly strange. This may be mainly because Moti Mahal lawns has been one of the best known and expensive marriage venues in the city whose maintenance and bookings have been managed by a private trust called the Moti Mahal society. The society is, in fact, ironically better known than the campus of EFL-U, the central university, in the city. If one hires a three-wheeler to go to the campus, one has to ask for the marriage lawn. Once the person reaches the lawns, someone will direct that person to the building that houses the university. The boards of the university are hardly visible unless one struggles to see them. For a while, the news daily may be granted the benefit of doubt: its lack of interest in the university is a social phenomenon in Lucknow. In another respect, its ignorance about the existence of the campus could be more pressingly the product of the campus administration’s own preference to be cocooned, and of its reluctance to open its spaces to facilitating scholarly public debates or to collaborate with other active institutions. All that still does not make it possible that the university’s employee was also the employee of a marriage trust or a mass-caterer.

It is also known to everyone on the campus that the employees of the lower-grade were repeatedly called by the former director of the campus to his private residence and were made to clean the house and do other countless jobs, without any payment. One would remain unseen for days in the university campus. This continued even after the director retired in June 2014. One cannot also simply say that it is up to the employee to say ‘no’ to the work he is given privately after the office hours. It is worth noting that the practice of making the office employees work for the personal matters of the director did not in general face any objection. The dalit employees do not enjoy a free will in actuality. The employees themselves could not refuse the work for a handful of reasons.

First, it is the former director of the campus who employed the person at his residence and never paid them for the extra work; his authority has not been just a technical matter and did not end with the former director’s retirement. Second, the director had good enough contacts with the agent who provides the personnel for the university; the director’s word, even if made off the record, would be enough to make the agent drop an employee from the pay rolls. The employee lives in this fear and is unable to refuse the work. After his retirement, the former director’s authority became a shadow one and was for that reason more threatening. Third, there is already a grievance filed with some authority by another dalit employee, Bhai Lal, whose services in the university were long terminated through the agency that recruited him for the campus. His grievance had stated that the former director had employed him and his wife at his residence after the university hours and had not paid anything to him or to his wife for the work they did. The details of this grievance never came to light although they were known as a blasphemous topic to speak about, nor were they made available for anybody on the campus. It was never part of any discussion or meeting in the campus. Moreover, as a general everyday practice, it was a sight in front of the campus in the forenoons that the peons run up to the director and his son, and touch their feet on their arrival at the office. It was widely thought that these practices would come to an end once the director completed his term in the office. These practices are well-known to the present-day campus authorities. The present director and the university as a whole have a role to play and summarily issue an order to stop such practices (practices they call “customs”). Taking note of the older practice, the campus authority can ask individual employees to refuse personal work assigned to him/her by any employee, superior in post or caste. But Amar’s death and the way it was handled by the university unfold a bitterer episode.

It is significant that Amar died when he was very much an employee in the university. What the daily, Dainik Jagran, says and what the people in the campus say do not match. According to the employees, Amar’s body was found fallen on the ground in Metro City, an elite gated-enclave on the banks of river Gomti near Nishatganj in the city. It is the same enclave where two of the university employees reside – the director himself and the senior project assistant who runs the library in the campus. It is said that Amar made an entry in the register at the security gate of Metro City on Monday, 27 July, and mentioned the name of the staff in the library whom he wanted to meet. The staff reported that she had sent him back because she had to move out and was unaware of what had happened since then. As she reported it to the office of the campus, the authorities immediately sent the office car and Amar was taken to the hospital. He was unconscious but within a couple of hours he passed away.

The moment of Amar’s fall is unknown. Was he ill? Did he have access to any medical help? Why did his family demand for a probe? Under the circumstances mentioned by the daily, their demand for a probe was certainly a reasonable one. In addition to that, the university should also have asked for a probe, either in its own level or at the level of the state. After all, the “passersby” were the university people; it was they who took him to the hospital, after sending the office car for the purpose. He was reportedly taken to the hospital in the office car that belongs to the university campus. Naturally, his unexpected demise should have been a matter of concern to everyone in the university. However, it is a general complacency that seemed to have gripped the thoughts of every group in the campus, be it that of students or others. Why didn’t the campus director raise a demand for an enquiry in black and white, at any level?

It would be unfair to say at the same time that the university did not do anything at all, as response to Amar’s demise. It had managed to pool a fund which was to be given as compensation to Amar’s family. But the fund was collected by the members of the faculty purely at their personal level. Each member contributed around two thousand rupees. It must be noted at the same time that including the director, the strength of the faculty in the campus is limited to a mere seven. The concerned member of the staff in the library took care of the hospital expenses and contributed at her personal level a sum of fifty thousand rupees. The university has also employed Amar’s mother, on contract, in its girls’ hostel. The agency also paid a compensation of rupees fifty thousand. It is also heard that the agency would pay the mother a monthly pension of rupees two thousand or three thousand from the near future onwards.

The compensation is far from laudable when compared to anything that we would expect from a joint venture of a central university and an established private agency in the city. It is obvious that a central university would not get into a contract with a poor and unstable agency. So the agency must be a sound enterprise to pay a higher compensation in any case while the university could have also generated a much greater amount from one of its emergency heads than making it an enterprise of Victorian philanthropy and an ideology of ethical individualism. But interpreted more rigorously, one can understand that the personal charity route—probably managed off the records—has allowed the university to disown Amar and, at the same time, erase its name from the news if it wanted. Its approach to Amar reflects its fundamental principle of administration itself. The vision of the campus administration is so narrow and rigid that it often interprets a situation in which it can act affirmative as a situation that brings ‘bad name’ for the campus. It seems it wants to hold on to the impracticable and false record of running an unblemished administration. It seems it wants to erect a facade of a problem-free utopia of a campus. At present, the campus does administration to the extent that it saves itself from answerabilities; it bothers about its own “safety”, “security” and “stability”, rather than about the problems faced by students, lower-grade employees and dalits in the campus. In all these endeavours, the contractual arrangement of employment that is the trade-mark of the capitalism of our times serves it best.

The media report suffers from a short-narration of the incident and a terrible twisting of the story. Who are the people who spoke to the media? Did the media persons reach the site where Amar was found fallen or the hospital where he was taken to? If they could not reach the place, did they reach the university, later on, to learn about it? Doesn’t this look more probable? Why did their report totally exclude the university from the entire picture, and instead represent Amar as a cleaner of the lawns? Is it possible that they excluded the university on their own goodwill to the institution, when they suddenly learned that there was a university like this near Hazratganj? Is it possible that no one spoke about the incident from the university? What explains something that appears as a deliberate suppression of some knowable facts? The tragedy is that these are questions which may not be furnished by anyone with easy answers now, after this much lag of time. Nonetheless they are significant.

Till the first week of August this year, technically it was vacation for students. But the admissions for the new batches took place around the last week of July itself. Most of the students of the incumbent batches returned from their home in the last week of July itself, after their “boring” three-months’ vacation in their native places. So, Amar’s death had certainly happened at a time when the campus just got back into its buzzing student life. These students knew Amar as “Amar Bhaiyya”. However, while probed, they said that the most they knew was a story that Amar had a cardiac arrest, that he had passed away subsequently, that all this happened “long back”, and that “even his parents did not care much”. They do not know anything regarding the compensation or the lack of it; but it may still be granted that they do not have an access to the office sources though they have an association. These are people who are regular on the social media network, with their active Facebook and WhatsApp groups, reporting every small personal detail of the student life on campus. Amar’s death did not find a space of mention in any of their media.

Yet we must qualify our comments on the students here. As some students say, there is a significant absence of motivation that they receive from the authorities there in order to take up issues such as Amar’s death. Partly, the atmosphere in the campus is that of keeping students under a system of patronage and constant vigil. As we have stated above, its understanding of a situation is regressive: to be clear, its understanding is akin to notions of how a schoolboy should be disciplined. In tandem with the moral police of the Moti Mahal trust, whose buildings have been hired by the university to run its programmes, the campus administration indulges in imposing vigilance and curfew, especially on girls. After the class hours, girls are not supposed to be seen strolling with boys and they are strictly prohibited from entering the vast lawns where anyway lawyers from an adjacent court and employees of the university bask during free hours and in the evenings. The campus could well shift into an exclusive location in the city rather than prevailing as a permanent tenant of a moralist regime and as a mediating agency to implement someone else’s cultural presumptions upon students. In addition to the tenancy, its own false notions of an ideal administration that “protects” its students lead it to discourage, and guard itself against, any debate that carries political edge. It bothers to “protect” the girls, in particular, to the extent that it finds it the most effective means to protect itself. In a bizarre twist of subjects, it takes initiatives in teaching gender studies and psychoanalysis in order to ensure continuance of its fundamental administrative principle. It appears that the campus would continue to find its zones of comfort in teaching a distant Shakespeare or Milton and the insane psychologies of their canonical protagonists, as well as in comparing the so-called objective features of human communication with those of the one among animals. That explains for a while how a collective modern enterprise sinks into, and settles on, such a demoralising complacency and self-obsession.

The young Amar’s demise pains all of us. It pains us further in the context of the kind of posthumous treatment meted out to him by a central university campus which he had sincerely served for a long time. He had done the errand work of many people on the campus without showing a face of refusal. And it is possible that he did the latter because of an unstated system of compulsion though he might not have expressed its pressures. This is not to suggest that a refusal to refuse is an admirable creed but to demonstrate how even that trait failed to make the campus and its administration sensitive to his death. The other day too, we expected him to be just around there, minutes before we were told that he was no more. On this late occasion, our objectives in this matter are also limited. We want the incident to be known to people in the entire university, in all its campuses, as well as in the academic, social and critical world outside the university, so that the university becomes careful and accountable in its treatment of lower-caste and poor employees from now onwards. We want that the story of this compensation be known to a much wider public. We want that the university asks for a probe. We want that the university uses its financial mechanism to generate a fund that gives Amar’s family a respectable compensation and develops a contract that includes the resources to meet the exigencies of such casualties, though the loss faced by Amar’s family is irrecoverable by all such possible means also. He was very much part of the English and Foreign Languages University. Amar’s death should be the loss of the university too.

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