They reduce me to a “meritless” Adivasi: Maroona Murmu, Jadavpur associate professor

Courtesy Maroona Murmu
10 September, 2020

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. 

This time, [with the remark on examinations] I was just airing my opinion. I was concerned about my students. A student who is far off in Kashmir is very concerned about the exams. He was afraid he had to come all the way from Kashmir. Everything was at the back of my mind when I said that examinations cannot be more important than lives of students. This is [the response]—I am a quota candidate; how will I realise what merit is; what a year in the life of a general candidate is. 

That’s my academic journey, I believe. Whatever I have done, has been reduced to me being an Adivasi, a “meritless” Adivasi.

AK: Does being a woman add a dimension to the discrimination you face?
MM: This is obviously a patriarchal society and things might be gendered. I am not sure but, maybe, the multiple marginal positions that I have emboldened people to speak from their entitled social locations. 

AK: Have you faced similar attacks before for speaking up about caste and anti-Adivasi violence?
MM: This has been very common. There is a common perception—a carefully crafted perception—that caste does not exist in West Bengal; it’s very progressive, liberal since it has had a long history of the Left rule. 

I have been writing about caste issues in West Bengal ever since the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. I have written in newspapers like Anandabazar Patrika and each time I write, my Facebook page is flooded with these sorts of assertions. In July, I had written about a Supreme Court verdict that even SC, ST and OBC candidates—who are, in legal terms, called meritorious reserved category—can apply in open posts and I was trolled. I am used to 400–500 [such comments or posts] but I have never seen 1,700–1,800. The trolls I have faced were all regarding reservation. 

But this time the difference is it was very personal. Since my father happens to be the first Santhal IPS officer of India [Gurucharan Murmu] it was like, “So, your child is also going to get reservation, your father is an IPS officer, you are a professor”—without even finding out whether I am married or not, even if I am married, whether I have a child or not. Things have gone really nasty and personal this time.

AK: As you mentioned, there is a perception that West Bengal is casteless. What has your experience been of identity-based discrimination in urban Bengal? 
MM: I would say West Bengal has always been casteist as I have been working on the caste question. I have [interviewed] various Adivasi individuals—people who teach in schools, people who teach in universities, people who are there in the bureaucracy. Everywhere, it’s the same. 

A teacher who has been teaching in a school for the last twenty-five years said nobody sits with him while he eats because of the notion of purity. Everybody attacks him because of his reserved category. 

I have interviewed another Adivasi professor who teaches in a university in Calcutta. When she was in her college hostel, she saw a bucket overflowing, she closed the tap. The person whose bucket was overflowing, came and overturned the bucket because the water was touched by somebody of an impure status. Her roommate’s mother used to call her “Santhal girl”—she was not even called by her name. Last year, she got a job in the university and her head of the department told her that students do not want to take her theory paper because they felt that Adivasi academics are not so strong in theory. 

Even Adivasi bureaucrats [have] told me that they are posted in places which are not very important in running the government. Their efficiency is not only questioned by the senior officials, but even junior colleagues. 

No matter how much we try, nobody is satisfied with whatever we do. If we had some other surname, even if we had put an iota of the effort we are putting in, it would have been recognised. There is always a casteist glass ceiling. Nobody appreciates what we do. 

I would say this myth [of being casteless] exists because it’s only the savarnas who keep saying that “this is a casteless state, this is a liberal state.” It’s only recent times we have started talking about the sort of caste discrimination because we feel so belittled by this. 

Right from second standard, I have faced discrimination. But I have never spoken about this—you feel ashamed that you have actually swallowed so much and you are not being able to voice your protest in public. Think about this experience—just because you haven’t spoken, you have silenced yourself so that you do not alienate yourself farther. There is a sort of self-censoring. 

I am speaking out so that there are no more Payal Tadvis, no more Rohith Vemulas in this country. [In 2019, Payal Tadvi, a tribal second-year postgraduate medical student at Topiwala National Medical College in Maharashtra, killed herself.] Also, because I have been informed that I am the first Adivasi who is teaching social science in a university. I think it’s my academic responsibility to speak up. 

AK: What do you think about the prevalence of casteism in spaces commonly perceived to be liberal, like Jadavpur University? 
MM: There are sentences being uttered which make it really evident that there is casteism. I think things have become better but these are there. 

I have a lot of support from the student community but it’s also time we introspect; it’s time that we do not hide things. There was an effort for caste awareness [at the university] even though at a small capacity. Interviews were taken among students of the engineering and science faculty, [which found that] there was widespread resentment against caste-based reservation. 

The problem is people do not understand entitlement and privileges. I work with drop-out students, Adivasi students in Hingalganj block of the North 24 Parganas district. Their parents are migrant labourers in different states, apart from the fact these are first-generation school-goers. They do not have anybody to take care of the education at home, they do not get food to eat. If they happen to pass school, nobody is there to guide them—where to study, what are the opportunities available, what are the government’s avenues that they can take up. Empathetic teachers, students—these are all lacking. 

The entire question of merit has to be revisited—just because you are born in a savarna, social location does not make you meritorious. In today’s world, let us be very particular about the education system as well—you buy merit. You go into various competitive exams on the basis of excessive private tuition that you take. Then you top this exam and that exam. Adivasis, Dalits—they do not have the money to get into that sort of coaching centres. The entire question of merit completely disappears when people pay lakhs and lakhs of rupees to get themselves admitted into private engineering colleges, private medical colleges by paying capitation fees which Adivasis, Dalits cannot pay. 

This is coming right from the trolls. “This is why we choose not to build our houses by SC engineers.” “We choose not to go and show patients to Adivasi and Dalit doctors.” “These are all quota doctors, these are all quota engineers.” That is the [common] mindset. 

Most of the debate is going on in Bengali—so it’s not like people from outside the state are coming and fighting people from this state who are doing this. How can you not say that academic space, social space, everything, is casteist in West Bengal?  

AK: Do you think there has been a rise in caste-based violence with Hindutva thought on the rise? 
MM: I have been writing that it’s the Brahminical mindset that has to be questioned. Dalit, Adivasis, Muslims are lynched because of their identity—of course, there is a rise of hatred. It’s like a different sort of a reverse identity politics where people are persecuted for their identity. 

Even during the pandemic, if you look at the Aurangabad train tragedy—did we ever notice that many of them were Gond Adivasi? We made a mockery of them saying, “What sort of people are these? They were sleeping on the track.” Do you even realise who are these people? Who had to face this sort of displacement when there was a four-hour notice [for] a lockdown? Had this been an aeroplane crash, everybody’s name would have come out, national media would have stood in their support. 

We continue [to be] faceless numbers. We don’t count. We are very happy saying [things like] “73 years of independence,” “We, the people of India.” There is a huge movement now in which we should uphold the Constitution, but what is actually happening? Are we actually considering Muslims, Adivasis and Dalits as a part of the “we?” And with the NRC movement going on, [referring to the protests against a proposed National Register of Citizens] the Adivasis do not have papers. How will they show their citizenship status? You have the Forest Rights Act, [but] you are evicting millions of Adivasis.

AK: How can students be made more aware of these realities?
MM: Sensitisation is required. Why is reservation given? Four thousand years of deprivation is being synthetically addressed through reservation. You cannot ask people who are standing five thousand miles from the starting point and ask them to come and run the race. 

Why is social justice necessary as a concept and why is there so much eruption? I can talk about the 2018 RTI that shows that in 40 central universities of the country, for professors and associate professors, more than 90 percent are all savarnas. So, what reservation? People are not there anywhere. 

People should be made aware of the reality. Whatever [Ghosh]  said, I am not taking it personally. One shouldn’t abuse a teacher on the grounds of her identity—that is wrong, but still, I will say that she is also a victim of social hatred that is engineered. That is what is being passed over—this sort of a hatred, seeing reservation as an undue advantage. Even if I write, people are not willing to accept. How can you sensitise people? 

AK: Over the years, have you seen any change in the students you have engaged with on issues of caste identity and religion? 
MM: I am completely overwhelmed by the sort of support that I am [getting]. There is rising caste awareness about the fact that you can’t write off somebody because of one’s identity and difficulties. I think that’s hopeful. What I am undergoing is very sad, but at the same time, the solidarity shows that there is awareness. 

Even if I am a reserved candidate, I have my [opinion]. This is a constitutional right which has been given to me. I am constitutionally empowered to be a teacher, having the same worth and being given the same dignity as any other teacher. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.