Shehla Rashid Shora: Arrests of the Dalit sisters in Thalassery were unnecessary

Shehla Rashid Shora is the Vice President of the Students’ Union at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).  She is also a prominent face of the All India Students’ Association (AISA), student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) Liberation. Shehla rose to fame during the JNU sedition controversy that had led to the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, President of the JNU Students’ Union. She led the protests for the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and others.

Shehla hails from Srinagar. She graduated in computer engineering from the NIT, Srinagar, and has also pursued a course on “India-Women in Leadership” at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. Currently she is pursuing her MPhil in Law and Governance at the JNU.  In this conversation with Raghul Sudheesh, she talks about Kerala, the agenda for the newly elected LDF government, rise of right-wing politics, relevance of the Left and much more.

How do you find Kerala?

I love this place and the people! That is why I have extended my trip. The good thing about Kerala is that there is a tree in every house. It is not artificially curated greenery but natural greenery. This makes it so much of a better place to live in compared to Delhi.

What do you think that makes Kerala a hard nut for the BJP to crack?

The right-wing is completely clueless and silent about the basic issues of people and is only interested in manufacturing mischief and communal riots. The Left in Kerala has delivered on basic issues of livelihood. That is why I keep saying that if the Left has to grow, we have to bring back the focus to basic issues. Basic issues like land, housing, employment, education, health, transport, etc.; all these things in the North are completely privatised.

If an operator stops running a bus, then there is no other way for the people to travel. If someone falls ill, you are at the mercy of private hospitals and charitable societies. Nothing more than that! You are left on your own to die. The State has stopped taking responsibility for anything. It is when we raise the consciousness of the people to the level of basic issues, including gender justice and caste issues, that the communal politics of love jihad and ghar wapsi won’t hold ground.

Are you indirectly saying that the Left is essential to maintain secularism in this country?

I am not saying the tendency of communalism cannot be there in the Left. If we look at the three or four streams of politics, BJP is openly communal, Congress plays on Muslim insecurity, and the Left has actually worked for the Muslims. I would say that the conditions of Muslims under the Left are better, similarly for women. There can be shortcomings, but it is surely better. Congress has only created a rhetoric of minority appeasement and the right wing has played on it. If you take the example of Shah Bano case, Congress took the side of the powerful within the community. They never took the side of women in the community. It was people like Brinda Karat who raised a voice against this.

In JNU also it’s the same; the Left has worked for the minority and the minority issue has to be seen as an issue of social justice. AISA took up the issue of the admission of Madrasa certificates. Earlier, Saraswati Shishu Mandir certificates were accepted but not the Madrasa’s. We got the Madrasa certificates acceptable. AISA recognised this as a social justice issue. The Left has a potential of getting people to rise above their own narrow concerns and work collectively and stand up for one another.

What do you have to say about the decline of the Left? Is the Left not appealing to the youth?

I think the Left has left out a lot of spaces, like cultural spaces, facilitating access to social services and the use of technology. The space of cultural/religious activities is where a lot of youth are involved and we do not go to religious events. We have not developed a counter culture and this is one of the biggest shortcomings. We need to think on these lines and need to check what we can do.

At one point, Indian People’s Theatre Association was very strong. Today, we can think of uniting the filmmakers. We can probably have a progressive filmmakers’ association, around issues like Udta Punjab censorship, appointment of Ganjendra Chauhan, etc. We should raise the consciousness of the people there and probably influence Bollywood to reflect concerns of the common man. Bollywood has distanced itself from the common man and it is a huge cultural determinant.

Next is about the schools. In the last twenty years, government schools have been shut down, paving way for private schools. Meanwhile, the RSS has been building schools, even in tribal areas. They are moulding the minds of young people in a very communal way. This is another space we have left out. We need think about creating progressive schools, alternative economic systems, and model constituencies.

We haven’t even sold our existing models well. The deeply flawed Gujarat model, which is ridden with inequality, malnutrition, communal violence and low HDI indicators, has been sold blatantly, that too after the violence against Muslims there! We have a Kerala model, we have a JNU model. We have lagged behind in communicating the beauty of our models. The Left also needs to proactively address the issues that mar our models. For instance, in Plachimada, the water bodies of Dalits have been polluted and we must focus on this issue. It also points to the larger issue of where and in what conditions Dalits live. Arrests of the Dalit sisters in Thalassery were unnecessary. If we rectify these issues, we will do well.

And we need to simplify the language and that is where someone like Kanhaiya Kumar becomes appealing. You are not talking in very complicated Left terminology but on basic issues.

Is there a need for a leadership overhaul in the Left?

I think there is a lot of new thinking happening in many of the Left parties. I would not say all. A lot of questions are coming and the young people are posing questions to the older generation. In some Left parties, we have the space and in some Left parties, we do not have it. Right now, the faces of the Left have changed. The Left has found new spokespersons and most of them are students. In student movements we take issues of gender justice and social justice very seriously. I do not know if our parties are doing the same, if they are doing it well and whether what is being done is being projected well. I do think that there is a need for young people to come to leadership in the Left.

What do you think on the growth of regional parties?

I don’t have any negative feeling about that. I think they have done a good job at resisting many policies of UPA/NDA which go against the interests of the people. Within the regional parties, however, there is a feudal way of working and they have even harboured the sand mafia, mining mafia, etc. But I do believe in political plurality. In a diverse country like India, you need to have plural parties. Otherwise there will be a lot of discontent. In that plurality, I would want the Left to be triumphant, just like it is in JNU. It is wrong to say, for example, that JNU is Left-dominated. In JNU, you have every ideology, from the far Left to the far Right represented. But we are chosen, because people exercise their choice rationally during elections.

Has the minority appeasement politics played by Congress led to the growth of the BJP?

I do think so, but I do like to qualify that. This minority appeasement is a metaphor they have generated through their pro-minority rhetoric. It is just that. Congress has done nothing for the Muslims. They have only played on the insecurities of the Muslims. They have only played on the BJP scare of Muslims. As a matter of fact, the minorities are very scared under the BJP government.

If you take the housing for Muslims, for 60 years Congress has ruled this country, and they (Muslims) are living in the most pathetic conditions. I would not be shy of saying that. The privatisation and globalisation has negatively affected the Muslims as they were into traditional crafts, etc.

I will tell you how the Congress operates. They cannot reach into the communities as the Muslim communities are so enclosed. They take the help of the religious leaders and they will address the concerns of the religious leaders as in the Shah Bano case. And then at the time of elections, these leaders will issue Fatwa to vote for the Congress and say Congress is the only alternative to BJP.

I think we need a genuine Left alternative.

What do you have to say about the cut down of UGC Fellowships?

The cut in fellowships is an ideological attack on higher education, because we students start to question things, once we have an education. No government is happy with JNU because JNU questions everything. I don’t understand why the BJP government expects that we will cut them any slack. Every year when the budget is presented, the next day our Economics Professors at JNU hold public meetings and present their budget analysis. The mainstream media gives one kind of analysis and we have our own analysis. We do not spare any government and why should we? The purpose of education is that we learn to question and not to become Modi Bhakts. In Delhi University, the attack is on teachers, as we have seen in the recent Gazette notification, because the Teachers’ Union is predominantly Left. Wherever the BJP is unable to capture political space, they are launching such attacks.

The government is running on a simple motto: Don’t study, don’t allow others to study and only engage in religious indoctrination.  When people don’t study they will not question the communal politics of the Sangh. This government is creating a political divide among people and that is what they have learned from their masters, the British. The British also did the same – Divide and Rule. Now, the RSS is taking this policy ahead.

The attack is not limited to JNU alone. Even in Banaras Hindu University, it’s the same. At BHU, the ABVP shields the corrupt administration, so they do not allow any student politics other than ABVP’s and do not allow student union elections to take place. If there is a scam going on in JNU, the students’ union will expose it. Alternative student politics is not being allowed in BHU so that their castles of corruption do not fall down.

The Modi government is attacking all the social security measures and diverting funds to the corporates. This is where the UGC fellowship money is also being diverted. Why are they not collecting the Swachh Bharat Cess from industries that are polluting our resources? Where is all the money going that is being collected from the Swachh Bharat Cess? I have not even seen a single dustbin being put up anywhere under the Swach Bharat scheme. If one crore Indians have given up their LPG subsidies, has the number of people entitled to LPG subsidy under the poor category been increased? No. Then where is the money being diverted? The UGC fellowships were supposed to be increased but they have been limited. Where is this money going? Globally the fuel prices are down, but why are we still having high prices?

What do you think of caste discrimination in Universities?

There is discrimination on several grounds in the Universities – gender, caste and language. Of course economic status also, which is mixed with the other factors. In campuses, we do not have any means of sensitisation of people towards these issues. It is a very sad fact that we do not have good humanities training where people could interact with these issues.

I come from NIT, Srinagar. When the Rohit Vemula issue happened, I could recall one of my classmates, M. Vemula (name abbreviated). He was from an oppressed caste and we could make out that from his physique and self-confidence level. Language was also a barrier for him. While the girls in the class would try to help him with things, the boys (especially from the Hindi belt) would bully him. He was bullied so much just because he could not speak Hindi. These are the kind of issues which the MHRD should be focusing on rather than suppressing the students. This is why need a Rohith Act. The BJP always speaks of national integration. How will national integration happen when we discriminate against people in the Universities? Universities are places for cross cultural exchanges.

What do you think on the rise of AAP? Are people seeing it as an alternative to the Left?  

I think they can be an alternative to the Congress. When Yogendra Yadav, Anand Kumar and Prashant Bhushan were there, there was a pull towards Left but now that has gone. Under the garb of the common man, they are playing on the feudal forces. The pretence of the Left has also gone now. In the first phase, they were giving tickets to social activists, etc. Now they are giving tickets to landlords, people with money, people with criminal background, etc.

They should have a clear ideological stand. They can’t say they stand for everyone because then they are standing for no one. There are good things in them. I do not think they are totally bad. I think opposition should be issue based. Odd-Even formula was a good step. So was increase in the education and health budget in Delhi.

As someone who has worked much on Juvenile Justice, what do you think about the recent amendment lowering the age of juveniles?

This kind of repressive law will not help. We have to work for social betterment. We have to have a proactive engagement with the masses. If juvenile crimes are rising, as a society we are not taking care of our children is what it means. We need to have education and safe circumstances for them to grow up rather than lowering the juvenile age.

The BJP government has done a massive disservice to the country by lowering the age. They wanted to take credit for the ‘December 16 movement’. It was never a demand of the ‘December 16 movement’. They just created the hype around the juvenile being a Muslim and the most cruel. Now this law will be specifically used to target Dalit boys and Muslim boys. It will be used in cases of inter-faith marriages also.

What should be the agenda for the Left in Kerala?

I would like to highlight few concerns. One is putting an end to political violence. We are not able to defend it. T.P. Chandrasekhran’s case was the epitome of it. If the Left wing does it, we cannot attack when the Right wing does it. The present government should work towards putting an end to political violence. It would be a feather in the cap of the new government.

The second issue is with regard to land. The government can think about a second land reforms programme, especially for the Dalits and Adivasis. We went to Jisha’s house, it was a small hut built on an agricultural canal. This raises concerns of safety. Are our people safe in such houses? This brings us to the third issue – tribals. Tribals have been repeatedly displaced. Where is the rehabilitation for them? Especially in this Athirappally area, they have been displaced thrice and are now under the threat of displacement again. Protecting our resources is another concern. Water is going to be the new oil. Growing infiltration of the Right wing is another concern. I feel Kerala is generally safe for women but there are concerns. We need to address them. It will only strengthen us and draw more women towards the Left movement.

What do you think about the Athirappally project?

Everything has alternatives. People are asking the government to focus on Solar or other renewable sources of energy. There is a cultural issue of the tribals. Do not think in economic terms or ecological terms alone. What does this mean for the tribals when we displace them? For them, a forest means more than a resource. It has been a way of living for them. When we displace them, it is not just a physical displacement but a psychological/emotional displacement. We have to think of alternatives and there are no easy answers or shortcuts. We have to take into consideration their concerns.

What do you think about Narendra Modi’s comparison of Somalia with Kerala?

I do not agree with this Somalia comparison. Kerala is a State that is doing so well on human development factors and it is much better than Gujarat. There is malnutrition in Gujarat and when Narendra Modi was asked about it, he said, “These Gujarati girls are figure conscious and they do not drink milk.” He is representing the concern of the upper caste people. There are so many poor people in Gujarat who does not even have clean water to drink and what does Narendra Modi or Amit Shah have to say about them?

I think the comparison is ridiculous. You can make that comparison for the rest of India, not for Kerala.

What are your thoughts on Muhammed Muhsin’s victory in Pattambi?

I have high hopes for him. We discussed many things with regard to what we should do. There is a tremendous potential in him, being a JNU student. We should develop Pattambi as a model constituency and project it to the world. I wish him all the very best for his tenure as an MLA.

What is your message to the people of Kerala?

I would salute them for their courageous resistance against the Right-wing, but we must proactively keep seeking issues that will make us a better society. And we will become a better society only when the issues of the most marginalised are at the forefront.

Featured image © Ankit Banerjee

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