In early September, Maroona Murmu, an associate professor at the Jadavpur University’s history department from the Santhal community, faced casteist trolling on Facebook. The trolls accused her of being incompetent because she is a member of a Scheduled Tribe. The casteist hostilities were in response to a post by Murmu expressing her disagreement with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow in-person examinations for final-year students amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an interview with Arunima Kar, an alumna of the Kolkata-based Jadavpur University and a former social-media fellow at The Caravan, Murmu recounted the anti-Adivasi discrimination she has faced in academia. She also discussed how savarnas—caste Hindus—have propagated a myth that West Bengal is a “casteless state.”
Arunima Kar: Can you tell me how the trolling began?
Maroona Murmu: On 1 September, a sculptor and painter put up a suggestion [on Facebook] regarding in-person examinations during the pandemic. I just said [in a comment] that a year in the life of a student cannot be more important than the lives of the students. The lives are in danger if they are asked for sitting examinations. Paromita Ghosh—she is not in my friend list, I didn’t even know who she is—tagged me and she wrote: “How would you realise what a year is to a life of a general candidate? You are a quota professor. A meritless, worthless person.”
Ghosh shared another post, saying, “Today morning, just reminded one ‘Murmu’ a Santhal about her Adivasi lineage. That too in a polite manner. But some people like her, just made me realise that so-called professors are getting fat simply drawing pay cheques.”
I put up a post saying that just because I have a surname called “Murmu,” I am thought to be worthless and meritless because of my ethnic identity. Is it that I cannot express my opinion on anything? The moment I say something, the content is not taken into consideration and I am reduced to my surname.
The next morning, I got a call. A lady said, “Dr Murmu, I am from Bethune college. This girl happens to be my student. I am extremely sorry for what has happened. I am putting up a statement.” Then, around 2 o’clock, she called me up and said, “I am being trolled. There has been a personal tragedy in my family, I cannot take these trolls. I have taken the post down. I am sorry.”
Then, the troll army apparently shifted from her page to my page. There were about one thousand eight hundred [comments or posts]. All asking my credibility to be a teacher in the first place, my academic worth, my ethnic identity. I had put up a [photo in] Panchi Parhan, a traditional dress, standing in front of a Santhal hut—they are making fun of that as well.
AK: Who do you think were the people who trolled you?
MM: I don’t think these are just her friends. How this has reached the number of eighteen hundred, I really don’t know. I believe these people belong to some anti-reservation lobby. They are attacking women’s studies, a professor who teaches in the Jawaharlal Nehru University because she stood by me, friends who are working with P Sainath [the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India]. Everybody who is defending me, they are all being attacked. #SaveMerit, #SaveTheCountry, #StopReservation, #StopCasteBasedReservation, #SaveParomita—these are the hashtags I am seeing. I think I am going to at least try to file a first-information report.
This is all my assumption [but] I would not be very surprised if there is a connection between the Savarna Hindus and the Hindutva brigade that is breeding hatred towards Dalit, Adivasis, Muslims, the Other Backward Classes.
AK: Tell us a bit about yourself. How have you navigated academia as a member of a Scheduled Tribe?
MM: Small incidents have happened—small in the sense, being Adivasi, we are used to being humiliated every day. Small is not the right term. But we have to overlook such things. I can talk about major turning points.
While I was in JNU, [pursuing a doctorate from its Centre for Historical Studies] I wanted to research on the way Bishnupur gharana existed in the 18th century. The Bishnupur gharana is the only Bengali Gharana of classical music that we have in Bengal till date. The chairperson of the centre told me, “Being a tribal you want to work on my culture? You are not even an insider.” He was somewhat reluctant about it. It was so discouraging. I didn’t pursue it.
I moved on. I started working with women writers in Renaissance Bengal [of the nineteenth century]. Despite being Bhadramahila, upper-caste women, they were also marginalised in the literary scenario of Bengal. It is called Renaissance Bengal, but the patriarchal renaissance men were not very kind to the sort of writing that women were doing. This has been published as my thesis, “Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal,” by the Oxford University Press.
I came back to West Bengal and was teaching in a college. There was an advertisement for an unreserved post in Burdwan University—I applied and was chosen for the post. Incidentally, the person who came second is upper-caste savarna. His teacher from Calcutta University [I heard] said, “Maroona Murmu in a reserved post is fine, Maroona Murmu in an open post is not acceptable.” I know that he refused to come into the department as long as I was teaching. I had gone back to Burdwan University for official documents you need when you migrate from one university to another university. This very professor was sitting there in a meeting. He didn’t have a problem going to the department after I left.
That is the sort of academic untouchability that I talk about. Not only to question my merit of being accepted as an open-category teacher, but they also don’t even share an academic seat with me!
I saw casual casteist slurs circulated in official meetings in the initial years here also, at Jadavpur University. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are called “Sonar Chand,” “Sonar Tukro”—derogatory slangs, that these are privileged people because they avail the advantages of quota. I have seen heads of the departments, even colleagues, looking at certain surnames and saying that these people are academically worthless. I have heard that people do not think that I have much to say because I look like an African. I have also heard that Dalits and Adivasis should be given separate crematorium space because they do not lose their ability to pollute the savarnas even after death.