Dr Suneetha is an independent researcher based in Hyderabad, working on diverse issues such as higher education, civil liberties, gender and religion, Muslim politics in Telangana, etc. Aura spoke to her, reviewing political and social issues that have cropped up over the past year.
Background and journey: I have a PhD in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad. I worked on Gender, Power and the Family – Women’s Experiences with Domestic Violence, and then on Institutional Responses to Domestic Violence between 2000-03. As part of this work, I strayed into the Muslim politics arena. My colleague and I were looking at community adjudication mechanisms among marginalised groups. I looked at whether there were any adjudication mechanisms for women, such as sharia panchayats, and landed at a big women’s madrasa in Hyderabad. That’s how my journey began. I also looked at Muslim women’s activism, which I found extremely interesting and different from the activism with which I was familiar. I went into the arenas of gender and religion, madrasa education and later, Muslim politics. Civil society activism around Muslim reservations, Muslim literary activism in Telugu, and a study of AIMIM also happened along the way. I have a background in civil liberties. I became a member of the Civil Liberties Committee in 1995 and was a founding coordinator of the Human Rights Forum, Hyderabad. My activist interests and research interests constantly intersect. I worked at Anveshi for a while.
University as a public space: Why are they under attack? In 1990, when I joined, the Mandal Commission report was released. That was my initiation into political activism, in the sense that I got to hear debates and arguments supporting reservation. Until then, I had never heard of them. As a young person, particularly if you’re from a privileged background as I am, you don’t hear these debates. Once I heard these debates and arguments regarding why reservation is necessary, I became a convert! So, public universities provide the privileged and the underprivileged to come together and hear each other. Public universities are one of the few places where affirmative action policies and reservations are discussed. Education in democracies is a public good, which has various effects. It enables future citizens to invest in the idea of the public good, in the idea of democracy, the Constitution, republican values and various related things, and thereby spread democratic culture. In a society like India, if I had not gone to HCU, I would not have met Dalit colleagues or fellow students. We all were part of the same student organisation – Dalits, non-Dalits, women and men of all communities and castes. This is unimaginable in the small town college I came from or any other space. As a society, we have not grown to the norms and values envisioned by Dr Ambedkar and other founders of the Constitution. We have not come together to sit with and listen to each other. That sort of community is yet to develop. Public universities have played a major role in developing that sort of community – a truly national community. Because otherwise, in our social lives, we are divided by castes, and we do not invite each other into our spaces. We are also a gender, caste, religion segregated society. We do not even see each other as equals. So a public university, perhaps apart from the bureaucracy or the army, is a space where we can see, encounter, and listen to each other. I am not saying there are no problems; there are huge problems. I believe the current onslaught on the public university is also to disable this process of developing a truly modern, national community. India is finally becoming a sort of a nation.. The current onslaught is an attempt to push us back into small, private, self-interested domains where one is supposed to only take care of one’s self-interest and pit people against each other. It’s also a part of the dangerous broader neoliberal attack on all public institutions.
Gender and law and lessons from the women’s movements: One should remember that the law is very different from the implementation of the law. The implementation brings a whole lot of machinery. These are laws that are different from general criminal laws. Though laws preventing violence against women and Dalits are per se a part of the criminal laws, these laws have been introduced due to popular movements. In the hierarchy of the state and police, these laws remain secondary. Many times, one needs to be cautious whether one wants to take an issue into the domain of the law itself. One must ask – are there any other remedial measures or courses possible? Most women approach the law as a last resort because they know it is they who will have to pursue the course of the complaint alone. We know how many resources are required. Secondly, the law will protect if there are resources and if one can push for it. Organised attempts to use the law always succeed rather than individual attempts. Thirdly, in the course of the proceeding of the case, rather than the actual proceeding, many things often fall into place. For instance, in domestic violence cases, many women were unwilling to proceed. But for 25 years, there have been many out-of-court settlements, their parents’ attitudes have changed, some prevention of such violence has happened at the level of the police station, etc. So, fourthly, we need to focus on how the culture also changes, apart from the law. Specific kinds of laws inaugurate some kind of societal and cultural change. All our movements have had to work on this larger cultural change. Without this change, the text of the law will not be taken in the right spirit.
The Uniform Civil Code, majoritarianism and the women’s movement: All nation-states and particularly, republican states try to bring about uniformity and commonality in laws. So that is the kind of push that the Indian nation-state has also been doing – for example, laws against sexual and domestic violence. All these are laws that are related to gender, that impact family and personal life. So, one part of the law has become common for everyone. But the other part is the personal law, which is very embedded in the political history of the country, in the way relations between the majority and minorities are shaped. The constitution makers and later parliamentarians are also aware that laws cannot be pushed down the throat of minorities against their wishes. That knowledge and awareness have made law-making democratic. Democracy has intervened in this law-making. In the early days of the 1990s, there was a lot of enthusiasm for the UCC. There were many drafts of it circulating because everyone thought all patriarchies are the same, every woman experiences a similar kind of patriarchy and all religions impose similar restrictions on women, etc. So there was a certain kind of innocence at that point. That innocence kind of went away once the BJP took up the mantle of the UCC. I don’t think anyone in the women’s movement now would even touch the demand for the UCC with a bargepole. The way it is being used is fully majoritarian and a way of disciplining minorities. India is a nation of minorities – linguistically and otherwise. They are also hesitant to implement the UCC due to the many personal/customary laws prevalent in the North East. That is an actual impediment. But they have weaponised laws to penalise minorities. It has nothing to do with gender, because Muslim women are at the forefront of every struggle not only for the community, but the nation. The hijab protests and Shaheen Bagh are clear evidences. I would say it’s not even a majoritarian demand, but a fascist move, like how the triple talaq bill was pushed through the Parliament without anyone demanding it, save one or two organisations.
Madrasa education, stereotyping and pushing Muslim students out of education For the longest time, even during the UPA regime, the whole thrust was on the ‘reform’ of madrasas: schemes were introduced, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan also entered the madrasas and funded the modern so-called state-sponsored education. They provided Urdu textbooks. Madrasa students were studying both this and that and their teachers suffered doing all this work. They pushed all these so-called scientific subjects into the madrasas. For example, in Hyderabad and North Karnataka, many well-funded, well-structured madrasas have expanded into huge institutions offering both kinds of education, aiming to produce modern ‘ulema, which I feel is a very relevant idea. Madrasa education is undergoing a huge change, which people do not understand! It is not a static or uniform field. It is very diverse, especially in states with resources, where Muslim entrepreneurs have come up and want to expand education. They are doing it in innovative ways. Secondly, this madrasa reform was championed by people who said that Muslims should be going to modern schools. So these decisions regarding MANF and pre-matric scholarships are ironic. I have friends who have spent months making their children apply for these scholarships, just to ensure that the students stay in school. Muslim students in Telangana, for instance, have suffered for decades because soon after the Police Action, all Urdu medium schools were closed or converted into Telugu medium, and consequently, Muslim children dropped out. So for three decades, they were pushed back. Only in the 1970s small private schools came and re-started their entry into education. So not only private schools but madrasas as well since the 1980s and 90s have played an important role in improving education levels, doing what the government schools were supposed to do. Coming to higher education – access to it creates the modern elite. It is one of the ways of creating a modern elite who can have a ‘spread effect’, who can lead the community, who are articulate, and who can formulate arguments – this is one of the aspects of forming national communities. I can clearly remember that when I was a student in the 90s, Muslim students were minimal in number at the University of Hyderabad. Now, going back as a teacher, I can see lots of Muslim students. This is such a heartwarming phenomenon. Once you bring people from the community, the research expands. When Muslim, Dalit, OBC, and Adivasi students come in, they bring unique perspectives that are organic, perspectives that are not there yet in their fields. Perhaps, that is what seems dangerous to the current regime!