On September 2, Maroona Murmu, an Associate Professor at the History Department of Jadavpur University, was barraged with casteist abuse on social media when she expressed her views regarding the postponement of exams due to the pandemic. Since then, trolls have started targeting her as well as many who have released statements in her support.
Maroona Murmu is a scholar who did her undergraduate studies at Presidency College and received her M.A, M.Phil, and PhD degrees from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is the author of Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal. She has written extensively about gender studies in colonial India, environmental issues, and caste in Bengal.
Last year, she had written an op-ed on the popular Bengali newspaper, Ananda Bazaar Patrika, where she debunked the myth, created by upper-caste Bengalis who have hegemony over all domains, that caste does not exist in Bengal. She wrote about the discrimination faced by her and other Adivasi academics in the education system, starting from early education where both teachers and classmates isolated them, practised untouchability against them, and denigrated them in the classroom. This was not different at all from the casteist environment in Jadavpur University, which is known to be a bastion of progressive politics, where she wrote that professors would dismiss candidates as being academically worthless based on their surnames and that once, some students had said that they did not have much to learn from her classes because she looked like an “African”.
She has pointed out throughout her writings, the stigma around reservation that is weaponized by the Bengali Bhadralok to insult, isolate, and humiliate Adivasis and Dalits. Denigrating reservations, a constitutional right of communities who have been historically underrepresented in fields like education, often becomes a common point of abuse. Two years ago, Dr Payal Tadvi, an Adivasi medical student, was forced to commit suicide due to the constant bullying she faced regarding reservations.
It was this pervasive form of abuse that Maroona Murmu faced when a student of Bengali from Bethune College, Paromita Ghosh, saw her post about the postponement of exams.
Students across the country have, in recent times, raised the issue of exams during the pandemic being dangerous to the health and safety of students and being exclusionary towards marginalized students. Online exams too, are marked by extremely unequal access. Defences for conducting exams have said that if exams are not conducted, students will lose out on one year. Maroona Murmu’s post was responding to all of this discourse when she wrote that one year out of one’s life cannot be more valuable than one’s life itself.
In response, Ghosh wrote that her ideas were based on ‘quota’ centred thinking and that the issue was not losing out on one year. Rather, the issue for her was that in spite of being deserving, students like her were apparently losing out throughout their lives, to “worthless” and “unqualified” students who got ahead in life, due to the “wealth of caste”. Later, she posted on her own wall, that she had shown to a “Santhal” that after all, she was an “Adivasi”, and suggested that she had held back on using more abusive language.
While the Bethune College Students’ Committee issued a statement in support of Maroona Murmu and condemned the actions of Paromita Ghosh, many other accounts began to troll Maroona’s supporters and anti-reservation Savarnas began to collect and write under the hashtag #StandWithParomita. Sumita Mukhopadhyay, the head professor of the Bengali Department of Bethune College put up a post in support of Maroona but was heckled by a group of students to the point of being forced to remove her post.
The misinterpretation of the purpose of reservation is a deliberate tactic for casteist abuse that has been pervasive amongst Forward castes across the country for years. Reservations challenge the domination and over-representation of privileged castes in all sectors, domination that is obtained not through any inherent form of ‘merit’ but rather historical access to resources and social and cultural capital. Even under reservations, a minuscule amount of opportunities are available to marginalized castes, and after gaining entry into any institution, people from marginalized castes face constant discrimination, isolation, abuse, and harassment whether or not they have availed of reservations. This abuse cuts across differences in positions in an institution, as clearly, even students from upper-castes feel justified in denigrating a distinguished academic and professor, as long as she is from a marginalized community.
Recently, it has become increasingly common for social media to become a tool for further targeting of Bahujan individuals, especially those who are outspoken and politically assertive. The vilest forms of abuse are unloaded from thousands of troll accounts upon a single individual. Social media content moderation does not have any effective method of dealing with this, as reports are often only addressed when they come from a number of accounts, and the redressal of complaints is opaque and arbitrary. Recently, a similar hate speech campaign was faced by the artist Priyanka Paul.