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They cannot stop me from teaching Marx and Ambedkar: Prof. K. Satyanarayana

‘The entire university, faculty and students, came out in support, standing outside my house in the rain.’

‘The entire university, faculty and students, came out in support, standing outside my house in the rain.’   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

In the attack against activists, the professor sees a larger plan to destroy Dalit perspective and knowledge that people like him are trying to create

On the morning of August 28, a large platoon of police officers from Maharashtra and Telangana descended on Professor K. Satyanarayana’s house, one of eight simultaneous raids on activists, lawyers and academics across the country, for their alleged involvement in the violence in Bhima Koregaon.

Satyanarayana is a professor of cultural studies and dean at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad, where he has taught for two decades. He lives on campus with his wife, Pavana, also a college teacher, and their seven-year-old daughter.

Known for his longstanding work in building the field of Dalit studies and for his analyses of caste in social and political movements and in literatures, Satyanarayana has, by his own account, been totally focused on his academic life and work, which have been the site of his political praxis, he tells me when we meet at his campus home.

The arrival of the police, therefore, was unexpected, as was their inquisitorial approach to his life and work.

Satyanarayana’s family is from Amalapuram in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. Through most of his childhood, the family — his parents and four younger siblings — lived in Tetagunta village near Tuni. He went to the village school and cleared Class X with a first class, “a big thing those days.” After graduating from a Kakinada college, he joined Hyderabad University for further studies because his English was not very good, and he wanted to go to a place with English-medium instruction to fulfil his father’s dream.

“My father, a Panchayat clerk, always wanted me to become a district panchayat officer or a collector because they are the two most powerful positions in a district.”

Hidden truths

Till he joined university, Satyanarayana had thought himself a good student, although not a topper. He hadn’t thought much about caste. He had a vague idea that his family was different because his father had cautioned him against telling people that they ate pork and beef, or that there was toddy in his grandmother’s house.

“The moment I came to university, though, the first thing brought home to me was that I was a reserved category student. Until then, at no point had I felt inferior to others.” It was brought home in various ways — the star mark against candidates admitted through reservations, the teachers’ assumptions, their advice, invisible harassments, the gap between them and metropolitan students.

My father was always trying to hide things. I understand it now, after reading Dalit writing, but at that time I didn’t

Of course, there had been discrimination in the village — but it was so normalised that Satyanarayana barely recognised it. He knew where to go, where not to, there was some sort of unspoken consensus, he reflects in hindsight, guided invisibly by his father and others in the village. There were subterranean discomforts, he realises now, because “my father was always trying to hide things. I understand it now, after reading Dalit writing, but at that time I didn’t.” He felt relatively free, possibly because of his father’s job.

At university, Satyanarayana experienced for the first time what it meant to be Dalit. “Mandal broke and everything changed.” He recalls Arun Shourie’s articles opposing reservation, the suspension of classes, and the pro-Mandal debates on campus; it took him a while to realise that all of this was, in fact, about him and his rights to higher education.

Inspired by people like K.G. Kannabiran, K. Balagopal, Varavara Rao (the activist-poet-teacher, whose daughter he later married), Bojja Tarakam, G. Haragopal and Gaddar, he made a conscious decision to join academics after a life of activism, rather than the IAS. “We went to their houses to talk to them. They shaped our thinking and what we wanted to do.” He then made a conscious decision to join academics after a life of activism. It was Tejaswini Niranjana and Susie Tharu who showed him how he could be political in academics.

His father was unhappy with his choice of a lecturer’s job. But that morning when the police occupied his house, when the entire university, faculty and students, came out in support, standing outside Satyanarayana’s house in the rain, “I wanted to tell my father, ‘Look at this. As an officer, I would not have got this kind of recognition.’”

Yet, it’s his respectable standing the police ridiculed that day. “They kept addressing me as ‘professor’ all the time, but they were also insulting my position: ‘Have you really read all these books? Do you need a university like this? What is its use to society? Girl students wear short dresses, this is a campus following foreign values,’ and so on. The assaultive gaze moved from me to my university, my students, my cultural life, my values; they wanted me to be somebody else. It was very clear they wanted to humiliate me, and to book me. My real worry is that they will frame me in the Bhima Koregaon case.”

Caste in motion

The attempt also, as always, was to reduce him to his relationship with Varavara Rao. Both to humiliate him — how can a Dalit marry above his station — and also to accuse by association. Satyanarayana recalls applying for a passport in 2000 and being told there was an adverse police report on him. When he approached the High Court, Justice Jasti Chelameswar called for the police report. On it was a single line: ‘He is Varavara Rao’s son-in-law’. The court ordered that his passport be issued without delay.

In this police operation, Satyanarayana sees a larger plan to destroy the Dalit perspective and Dalit knowledge by delegitimising, isolating, stigmatising and criminalising people like him. But he is resolute: “I will continue to teach as I used to. They cannot stop me from teaching Marx, Ambedkar, Phule. If they think by threatening me and intimidating me, they can stop me, they are mistaken.”

The writer is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 7:45:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/they-cannot-stop-me-from-teaching-marx-and-ambedkar-prof-k-satyanarayana/article24894047.ece

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