From Bonded Labour to Academic Heights: Dr Vikram Harijan's Saga

In an interview with The Mooknayak, a teacher at Allahabad University shares his struggle with caste discrimination and his undaunted resolve against Brahminism.
Vikram has been vocal on the discrimination meted out to Dalits in the Universities
Vikram has been vocal on the discrimination meted out to Dalits in the Universities

Prayagraj— Vikram Harijan, an assistant professor at Allahabad University, was in the news recently when he said that he is called a 'traitor' because he has a portrait of Dr. Ambedkar in his office. The son of a poor bonded labourer has come a long way from eating "Gobarha rotis" (rotis made after extracting wheat from cow dung) and animal carcasses. He is now an assistant professor at Allahabad University.

Although the word "Harijan" is quite derogatory, and its usage has been banned by the Government of India, he got his surname from his father, Raghunath Harijan, who initially was a bonded labourer in the eastern Uttar Pradesh district of Gorakhpur. "Life was quite sub-human at that time," he recalls, but later, he migrated to Bengal, where he worked at a coal mine. He didn't escape casteism even in the 'casteless' communist state of West Bengal. He was subjected to casteist slurs by North Indian settlers there.

Vikram Harijan at his hometown Gorakhpur
Vikram Harijan at his hometown Gorakhpur

The JNU alumnus recalls that he was a rebel since his school days. In class XIII, he revolted against the casteist statement made by his teacher to his classmate Ravindra Dushadh. The teacher said, "We (upper caste) people pay income tax, and you people get reservations," and that he was a "gandi naali ka keeda" (worm of a dirty gutter). This statement left Ravindra sad. The next day, I questioned the teacher about his behaviour the other day. This left him enraged, and he sent me out of the class. But I kicked open the door and entered the classroom. Invoking Kabir's lines, he said that you teach caste equality through these Dohas but practice casteism and discriminate against us. He paid him back in his own words by calling the teacher "gandi nali ka keeda." Later, both Ravindra and Vikram were suspended. Meanwhile, the activities of the school remained suspended during this period.

At protest against the fee hike
At protest against the fee hike

Later, with the help of his friend Diwakar, he managed to get the SFI (Student Federation of India) intervention in the case. The SFI activists gheraoed the principal named Hemendra Kumar Ganguly and demanded action and an apology from the Brahmin teacher. The teacher apologized but didn't teach Vikram in the next 2 years.

Becoming an Atheist

By the time this rebel reached class 10th, he had transformed into an iconoclast. Still, unaware of Ambedkar, he was attracted to Ram Mohan Roy and opposed idol worship. His belief was challenged by his friends, who dared him to urinate on a Shivling. Vikram says he accepted the challenge and urinated on the Shivling at Gosain Dham in West Bengal. Though this daring act had no consequences then, recounting this incident at Ambedkar Jayanti function invited death threats on social media, to the extent that he had to demand police protection.

Life at JNU: From Communism to Ambedkarism

When he passed his high school, he moved back to Gorakhpur village. He was the only one from his Chamar community to achieve this feat. Jawaharlal Nehru University was a different experience for this Gorakhpur University graduate. Life was very tough because of abject poverty. Besides, he was infused with an inferiority complex because of exposure to the wider world of English-speaking people. Some donations from Gorakhpur, scholarships, and financial help from friends and colleagues helped him ride out the tough life in JNU and complete his MA.

At JNU, he became acquainted with Bahujan ideologues like Ambedkar, which reinforced his resolve to fight against the caste system. His poetry against the Hindu caste system, like "Hindu Nahi Kehlaunga" and "Chamar Chamar Main Hu Chamar," was published in Hum Dalit. The poems were widely appreciated, and with the help of a friend, Aditya Pant in JNU, he managed to get a job at the Hastakshep section of Sahara. His stint in journalism also helped him tide over his financial crisis. But the word "Harijan" attached to his name ensured that the mark of caste remained with him everywhere, subjecting him to discrimination.

Discrimination at the Workplace: A Reality

Vikram managed to get a job at Assam Central University, but personal problems forced him to resign. Subsequently, he landed a job at Shimla Advanced Studies, where he was the first person to celebrate the death anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar. His next job at Allahabad University brought him closer to the rigors of the caste system. "Caste is embedded in the mindset of people here," says Vikram. Sensitizing the students about the caste system in the classes irked the people from BJP, and he was confronted on this issue several times.

Vocal Stand Against Caste Isolated Him

"I organized a seminar on the History of Leatherworking Classes, but people mocked it by saying, 'What kind of seminar is on leather? This is a seminar of the Chamars,'" he recalls. Later, the Assistant Professor also organized a seminar on the occasion of the death anniversary of Jyotiba Phule titled "Problem of Caste in India: Investigating the History and the Historiography." He found himself in the midst of a controversy when he said that "The students at Allahabad University are given marks based on their caste." The statement generated a lot of debate, and the SC/ST commission sought a reply from Allahabad University. The university, in turn, sought a reply from Vikram. He was isolated as no student came to his defense. "Perhaps they were aware that coming forward could jeopardize their career, and I also felt that it is good for them," he says.

When a video of his references to urinating on the Shivling went viral, he faced death threats and absconded from the university for 52 days. He got police protection with the initiative of the then SSP of the city, Siddhartha Anirudh Pankaj, who was also an alumnus of JNU. The security was later withdrawn after the SSP got transferred.

As a student, Vikram was burdened with the privations of life, and therefore he understands the pain of the poor students. In 2022, when Allahabad University hiked fees for the students disproportionately, he was the only faculty member who took up the cause on behalf of the students. He was threatened with disciplinary action.

Disdain Against Hinduism

When asked why he is selectively against the Hindu religion, given that every religion practices caste in India, he asks, "Which religion designated me as a Chamar, which religion forced me to eat Gobarha roti, which religion assigned me a place lower than that of an animal? It isn't Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, etc." He supports Stalin's statement on Sanatan citing Ambedkar, who in "Annihilation of Caste" said that "Hinduism is a disease and that the origin of caste is in the Hindu scriptures like Ved, Ramayana, etc." The scriptures, he says, are "sanctified by Hindu scriptures, and this religion is quite explicit in espousing caste."

He says, "My life is nothing but the story of Caste." It's time to be upfront about your stand. Having foregone promotions because of his vocal voice against injustice, he does not approve of the policy of compromising for the sake of currying favor with the authorities. "If the RSS and the BJP can be quite blatant in their propagation of Brahminism, why should we feel intimidated? I know I can be killed because of my stand, but I am steadfast in my opposition to Brahminism and Hindutva." "I have faced a lot of hostility because of my views on caste, and I have often heard the students call me a traitor because of the portrait of Ambedkar hanging in my chamber. The image and ideology of Ambedkar singe them inside," he says.

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