On 14th April 2016, on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Koonal Duggal, a Dalit PhD scholar in the Department of Cultural Studies, EFL University, and a guest faculty at the S N School of Fine Arts and Communication, UoH, for the first time learnt that he was no longer welcome on University premises by order of the Proctor, Prakash Kona Reddy.
That morning, Koonal had joined fellow Ambedkarite students and members of the SC ST Employees’ Association to participate in a small function paying homage to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Koonal was one of the invited speakers. He spoke about why our engagements and convictions in Ambedkar have greater relevance in today’s context where young Dalit scholars, like Rohith Vemula and others, are being isolated and alienated to the point of self-annihilation. He then sang a revolutionary song by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, “Hum Dekhenge..”, when four security guards entered the venue. As soon as he finished the song, the security guards surrounded Koonal, grabbed his hand and attempted to take him away from the programme. When students and faculty intervened, they said that they were acting on orders from the Proctor, who had given specific instructions to disallow Koonal from entering the premises except with permission of University authorities. Students were not given any explanation or shown the official circular with details of the disciplinary action. In addition to the fact that by then the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations had come to a standstill, the atmosphere had become chaotic and the audience could not pay attention to the rest of the speakers. The security guards were then told to at least respect the sentiments of the participants and wait till the end of the programme.
Eventually, because of the students’ intervention, Koonal could not be removed from campus but it could do little to alleviate the immense humiliation and harassment that he had been made to undergo. This was made worse by the fact that Koonal was made answerable to his fellow students about a crime that he was not aware of. He had not been personally intimated of the disciplinary action or its basis, nor was he given a chance to defend himself in front of the proctorial authority. Koonal, who has been a student at the University for five years, whose academic research has only enriched the intellectual archives of this mediocre university, was immediately set aside from the student community for a “crime” that appeared to be so grave that it could not be articulated in a decent social setting. One can imagine the kind of fear, insecurity, shame, anger, self-doubt, embarrassment and loneliness that Koonal had to undergo until his decision to do something about it, to stand up to it and file a police complaint against the Proctor under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
I am Koonal Duggal, and they say I am “anti-university”
“I have been part of the Department of Cultural Studies, EFL University, as a JRF scholar since 2010. When I joined the University, my engagement with the social sciences was relatively new having just completed one year of MPhil at the Centre for Study of Social Sciences, Calcutta. I have sometimes spoken to my friends about how I found it difficult to come to terms with my Dalit identity. Growing up, I felt embarrassed to reveal my caste. My apparently upper-caste surname often relieved me from the confrontations of discussing my Dalit identity. But despite my attempts at veiling my Dalit identity, I found out that my caste was questioned and I was marked as a Dalit. It was during my time at EFL University, first as a student of cultural and subaltern studies, and through my continued engagement with the Ambedkarite organization DABMSA (Dalit Adivasi Bahujan Minorities Students Association) where I was a member of the Drafting Committee, that I began to embrace the political imperative of my identity as a Dalit scholar and artist. The exposure for the first time to an Ambedkarite organisation where the leadership was with Dalits and Adivasi students who openly talked about their caste, their backgrounds and experiences made me comfortable with my own self-identification as a Dalit. For the first time I was in the company of people who talked about caste politically, and not with stigma.
Most of my time at EFL University was spent reading and introspecting and participating as a research scholar in seminars organized by the University and by students’ organizations. In fact, one of the first times I spoke up in a public domain was during the protests against the rape of a girl student at EFL University in 2014. I spoke about the gender insensitive atmosphere at EFLU and how it had personally affected me. (The anger that drove me to speak can be traced back to the suicide of Mudasir Kamran in 2013 who was again pushed to commit suicide because of the insensitive homophobic and anti-minority behaviour of the university administration that is interlinked to my coming out as a queer individual). Since the submission of my thesis titled “Crossing Religious Boundaries: Representation, Caste and Identity in Contemporary Punjab”, I have been teaching as a guest faculty at the Fine Arts Department, UoH. I have been engaging with the politics of caste discrimination in institutions of higher education, especially in relation to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the ongoing movement around it. The movement, in fact, gave me a more immediate context to write about my own experiences of discrimination at CSSSC. I wrote about how I felt that “[T]he larger society and its various forms of discrimination are very much present in the functionings of CSSSC and that of some of its teachers.”
Just when I was beginning to firmly locate myself in the public space and discourse as a politically educated and empowered Dalit-Queer individual, and when I was writing and speaking more about it, my political self-realization and assertion is broken and violently disrupted by the EFLU administration that has been historically known for discriminating and harassing Dalit students. It is as if such upper caste institutions will not stop persecuting dalits for their caste identity, whether they run from it or whether I embrace it.”
On 15th April, Koonal was shown a circular by the security officials stating that “Mr. Koonal Duggal, registered in the PhD programme at the Department of Cultural Studies, EFL University, has submitted his thesis in September 2015. However, he continues to trespass on this campus, indulging in anti-university activities. Therefore, his entry into the EFL University campus, which includes the hostels, is strictly prohibited except with the permission of the Proctor.” Neither Koonal nor the student community has the slightest idea as to what anti-university activity Koonal has participated in. Was it the song that he had sung during the peaceful solidarity gathering for Justice for Rohith Vemula outside the University gates or was it the fact that he was one of the students cleaning the Ambedkar statue on April 13th?
So what is it that makes Koonal such a threat to today’s university spaces? Upper caste institutions will do everything to victimize a Dalit and then when they are faced with the radical potential of the Dalit identity, they do everything to take that away as well, just as we have seen in the case of Rohith, so we see in the case of Koonal, who is being asked to prove his Dalit identity (because apparently Duggal is a surname whose ownership lies only with upper-caste Punjabi Khatris). Koonal is a Dalit queer student who wouldn’t choose to keep quiet when a Kashmiri Muslim student was murdered by homophobia, when a girl is raped in his own campus, when fellowship cuts affect a research scholar and when a fellow Dalit student is forced to commit suicide in another campus, and when he himself is subjected to humiliation and discrimination in the institutions he has been part of. He knows he has got to speak.
~ EFLU-Joint Action Committee with Koonal Duggal