Student Government Elections: A Conversation with Esther Larisa David

Edited by: Tanvi Achwal (UG 2021)

Esther Larisa David, a second-year undergraduate of Ashoka University, became widely celebrated in the student body after they generously gave away free hugs and volunteered to do others’ makeup for them. When the list of the candidates standing up for the elections came out for this year's House of Representatives, seeing their name on it was a delight for a lot of people. We’ve known them for being an active member of The Feminist Collective and for wanting to make the campus a “nicer” place for all. What was their journey like to being an Independent Candidate for the elections? Here’s a detailed narrative of who Esther is, where their politics stands and what they look to sculpt Ashoka into.

 

Before interviewing them, I went to the candidates' debate in order to show support and gauge their agenda for the House. Their speech was received with a lot of applause and cheering. They listed the following goals that they wish to achieve if they are elected to be a member of the house. What left everyone in awe was their beautiful remark; “I may be independent but I am not alone, I will do everything in my power to achieve these goals, whether or not I get elected”.

1. Peer Counselling Program: in an isolated campus like Ashoka it is harder to navigate various mental health issues, having a peer counselling program would provide a better support system for students who are in need.

2. A professional psychiatrist at the CWB: there is a need for a psychiatrist to diagnose, care for, and prescribe medicines to students who have serious mental illnesses and cannot acquire their medications without a prescription.

3. Support Staff Care: there immediately must be an implementation of a shuttle for the support staff to go to-and-fro from the nearby villages, where they reside. Traveling alone at night, especially for women, is dangerous and it is a matter of their basic human rights.

4. Gender Neutral Bathrooms: These bathrooms are needed in all residences, on each floor, they are required to create a more inclusive space for gender non-conforming and trans people on campus. (Note: They have worked with The Feminist Collective and the last Student Government to push for gender neutral bathrooms and succeeded in getting two of them installed)

5. Sensitization of everyone on how to use these bathrooms; once the installation has happened: There needs to be a sensitization for everyone, including the support staff, as to how to use and occupy these bathrooms without invading anyone else’s space.

The moderator at this point inquired why Esther wanted to specifically be a part of the House in order to achieve these goals. They accurately replied that being in the house grants you direct access to the administration which makes it easier to push for these goals. They realized the same while working with the Student Government for the gender neutral bathrooms.

I hurried from a quick lunch at Dosai , nervous and confused about what I am supposed to ask. There was an air of nervousness around us when we met. However, their big eyes, wide smile and unapologetic beauty quickly convinced me that we’re going to be okay. I asked them to speak freely and ask for cues if they are stuck. This was not a platform for me to ask questions, but for them to talk. This was our chance to take back the stage from the men who have been at the forefront of Ashokan politics for so long. We started what would quickly become the most stimulating part of my day.

(Credits- Esther’s Facebook Profile)

 

The following is a narration of what Esther spoke, with moderate paraphrasing:

E: It started as an idea, a question, “Why not?”I thought, “I could join a party, it is not that big of a deal ”. However, that thought soon felt impossible because being part of Banjaara was hectic and too much to handle. I kept thinking, “This time I am not going to care about anything else, and only focus on academics”. It wasn’t that easy to give up on that thought though, but I also knew I couldn’t go through the induction process of the parties with the toxic mud-slinging. I just could not be a part of that. I went back and forth on my decision a lot. On the day we were supposed to stand up for the elections, I just went along with it. I gave my name, and that was it. I couldn’t back down now. It was nerve-wracking but I told myself that even if I don’t get elected for the house, this is going to be a life changing experience. I am going to learn how to debate, speak in public, be visible all the time and it will be great for my self-esteem as well. When the candidates list came out and I was the only independent candidate, I was so nervous! There are so many people to guide the candidates that are part of a party, who would I turn to for help? So, I prepared a lot for the debate. On the day of the debates, I finally felt,“Hey! I am going to be okay, you know?”

 

S: What was the role that The Feminist Collective played in influencing you to run as a candidate?

E: I get asked that a lot, many people think that I am “running from The Feminist Collective” but that is not true. They never forced me to do anything and they supported me on my decision, but I participated by my individual choice, not because I belonged to a collective and wanted to represent it. Yes, one of the main reasons for me wanting to be a part of the House was because there were not enough non-cis men voices in the House. That is not to say that I am participating for any sort of tokenism. I want to be there because of the goals that I have; my identity is just a part of me and if it increases the representation of a group of people who have been in minority in the house, then I am more than happy for that. I remember a previous HoR member telling me that Manisha Koppala (UG 2017) narrated how a group of men in the house were talking about issues faced by women and giving their opinions. Only a good while later did they realise that they should probably ask her about her experiences and opinions on it since they will obviously be more nuanced. Incidents like these are what became the last push for me to go forward with my decision.

 

S: How did people change their attitude towards you after it was public that you are a candidate? What kind of support did you get?

E: My friends and loved ones have given me so much support. As well as people I am not really close to, they have been so sweet and appreciative. I don’t have too much faith in myself as yet, but when people like my RA or a TA, people I have had classes with, come and wish me luck, it really helps me build that faith in myself. When I was introduced by the moderator at the candidates debate and got such good reception and applause, I was shook. I am not letting it get to my head; getting the votes is one thing but actually doing the things you want to do is something else. I know I shouldn’t bank on whatever public image I have — it would incorrect of me to deny that I do have a certain image. I should also focus on how I will go forward and implement my goals if I am elected.

 

S: What about other party members? Did they show support?

E: They did! I have never had any political background, no family member in politics, have never been on student council in school, so this space was intimidating at first. Then I spoke to a lot of women, specifically, from the various parties and they really helped me navigate campus politics better. For instance, you shouldn’t wait for someone to ask you to speak, if you have a point just go ahead and say it, even if you have to interrupt men, because they certainly do it all the time. I talked to the independent candidates also because the strategies one would use as an independent candidate are very different and they all have had a good track record of getting in the House.

 

S: How was the Ashoka you imagined it to be like before coming here different from the Ashoka you have experienced till now?

E: It is really not as diverse as I thought it would be. There are so many people from the metropolitan. It makes me think whether I came here because of my own merit or only because I belong to a certain place. Recognizing my privilege has been a huge change. Once you realise your privilege. you shouldn’t wallow in self pity and think you don’t deserve what you have. Instead, use it to make a difference. One of the things I wanted to cover in my speech, but couldn’t because I was coughing and hacking my way through it (chuckles)- - was when it comes to town halls and open houses, if it is concerning specific minorities on campus, the people who are part of that minority should be given a chance to speak. Regardless of who is more eloquent in speaking about it. There is a lot of tone policing and gaslighting which is pretty disconcerting. A lot of times people think that if those who are at the top are inclusive in their behaviour, it fixes everything, but that is not how it works. For example, Madhavi Menon asking and choosing women to speak in class sometimes at the expense of men, doesn’t mean that now a divide between them (men and various marginalized genders) doesn’t exist anymore in an internalized deeper level. I think there is a need for a bottom-up system to unravel this internalized self-doubt and power dynamics that have existed over the course of history.

 

S: What do you think about people making artwork and graffitis on walls of campus and the administration being against it and painting over it?

E: All I have to say is, go ahead and make them graffitis!

 

S: It is great to have someone running as a candidate say things straightforward and take a stand for what they believe in without tiptoeing around and walking on eggshells!

E: At the debate when we were talking about affirmative action, I had a lot to say. I didn’t because I wasn’t able to formulate it well. I went for the town hall about it and Professor Bittu said something that really stuck with me; “[C]alling it affirmative action instead of reservations makes it sounds like you’re granting someone something or doing them a favour instead of giving them what is their right”. Just because we are in Ashoka, in this supposed “bubble”, doesn’t excuse us from being aware of the prejudices, stereotypes and discriminations in the society that we live in. We can’t unlearn what we have been taught our whole life. Reservations are necessary. We tend to tiptoe around topics like caste, class and gender but we should just say it like it is. Yes, we are caste blind, and we should recognize the privilege that we have. Just the very fact that we can afford to be caste blind is a privilege. Once you are aware of this, don’t try to appease the people in power.

Esther during the Candidates Debate (Credits-Rohan Surti (UG 2021))

 

S: What are your thoughts about people correlating caste and class, especially in Ashoka?

E: This came up at the candidates debate also. We all have have unconscious biases and I am personally learning to take a step back and recognize them everyday. When it comes to doing things for welfare, it is not a competition. Sometimes you just have to go out there and talk to someone who is really affected by casteism, and most of the times - I can guarantee - they will be very open to talking about it. You can say, “I am sorry if I say something wrong or offensive”. A lot of times people can recognize whether someone is saying something out of years of learned and integrated casteism, classism or misogyny. Do not, for any reason, say anything demeaning intentionally, everyone can recognise that as well and it makes you , lets just say, not a good person.  

Even some of my close friends end up referring to me as “she” instead of “they”, and it is okay. However, it would deeply hurt me if someone goes out of their way to say that Esther is “actually a she”. Don’t feel bad when someone is asking you to be sensitive about a part of their identity. Don’t say that they’re being too much for wanting you to think about caste, class, ethnic diversity or gender being real and discriminatory. Yes, it happens everywhere, even in Ashoka.  

There is not a lot of representation for disabled people on campus. One time I was getting off the shuttle and I guess someone from the YIF program, who is visually impaired, was also getting off at the same time. They were trying to get on the station and were clearly not able to steer properly in that crowded area. People from Ashoka were just bumping into them and rushing to the station and nobody was trying to help them. They can see that they have a cane, yet nobody is sensitive enough to help. People will talk a lot in class but when there are real things happening where they need to take a stand, like getting an RSS person on campus, they forget their politics. Ashoka does exist in a context, in a larger world. There is not a lot we have choice over- so when we are choosing to give a space to someone who is already in power and has lots of spaces to talk, it doesn’t really make sense to do that.

We should also check the tone we use with the people at the food outlets or with the housekeeping staff—people do not respect them.. There have been instances when I have been shocked to see people advertising themselves as being part of community engagement programs but still, in their personal capacity, treat the staff really badly. Not to neglect that there are a lot of people who talk to the didis and bhaiyas properly, which is really heartwarming.

(Credits- Ashoka Bulletin)

 

S: I think the question about lack of inclusion of some issues International students face in the manifestos got sidelined during the entire debate. Do you want to explicate more on what you mentioned there?

E: As I said at the debate, it should be addressed where everything starts - that is the orientation week. It is a practice that all the international students are termed as one group. I find it really ‘pigeon-holey’ that there is one night just for the international students to meet and talk to each other. Why can’t there be induction nights where we all get to know each other and talk about the different experiences we have had? Sometimes a resistance to communicate with them also comes from a place of not knowing how to be culturally sensitive. However, there is a simple answer to that: JUST ASK! There is this huge other-ing when it comes to International students - and I am guilty of doing the same right now by congregating all as “them”. I really think there should be better cohort leadership. When people accuse the international students of not applying to be a cohort leader- I have one response, “Why would they?” They probably didn’t feel the kind of inclusion and warmth that say, an Indian student got. What do they have to gain from pandering and working for a system that increasingly alienates them? Stop and think for a moment about why they are not volunteering. Last year there was a lot of dialogue with the help of AUISA, Ubuntu, etc., and there should be more events like that! They have so many issues living in another country; sometimes their bank accounts don't work and they have to borrow money from Indian students. That is a whole headache that even the Student Government can’t do anything about - so just lending them money or being helpful to them goes a long way. People will not have meals with International students, there is one area in the upstairs mess extension where all of them sit together- and they are just left out. We should make an effort to talk to them. If, for example, your neighbour is an International student, it is easier to build a friendship on that. Just ask them once in a while, how they are and how things are going. They have to face the burden of being the “international students”. I am glad some international students are taking a stand but they shouldn’t have to! Why don’t we try from our side? Someone mispronounced an international students’ name at the debate and another person called them out for it. People judge them by claiming that they are making a big deal out of nothing. It is important to understand that it is not just about mispronouncing a name, there is a lot of history that comes with that action. It is a privilege we have that we don’t have similar experiences as them. Sometimes a lot of things that are wrong in Ashoka comes from people not knowing what exactly is wrong - again, just go and ask people what they’re facing. It is disheartening that people from a place of oppression - for example, one group of minority who have had years of being discriminated, are so quick to recognise discriminatory attitudes towards their identity but they fail to recognize when they do the same with the international students. That is so wrong!

I understand that I have also not been fully cognizant of some issues on campus- for example, the religious minority issue that Sabah brought up was something I hadn’t thought about and I really felt bad that there is no prayer room. Assuming that everyone in Ashoka is not religious is very reductive. Religion is not often talked about here and it is taken for granted that everyone is non-religious. People automatically assume that being religious means that someone is not smart - there is a person in my batch who is the best at everything and people really admire him. He is also very religious. People sort of look over that fact and he also probably feels bad or chooses to not talk about his beliefs. Even I think at times whether I would be a bad feminist if I talk about my religious beliefs? There are famous people though, like a Muslim lady, Amina Wadud, who is religious and a renowned feminist. People like her make me feel better about my intersectionality.

 

S: What are your thoughts about appropriation?

E: Appropriation is debated a lot- many people think it doesn’t exist. If someone from a minority is asking you to not use something that is culturally sacred or important to them, just don’t do it. They have all the right to reclaim their own cultural affiliations. If you think they are making a big deal out of it- just get over it and listen! If you want to do something which is considered to be appropriation- don't do it, it is really not going to affect your life that much. It is not just the use of a symbol from a culture that is not yours but it is also inherently about a power dynamic.

There are a lot of people who do actually learn from what they are told, for example, a lot of people on campus used to say the word “triggered” left, right and, center and now that they realize that it is a genuine problem that people with mental health issues face, they have stopped using it. In that respect, there are many people who have gotten over internalized prejudices which I think is very nice!

 

S: That was an intense and productive discussion, are there any last comments that you would want to end with?

E: Please get out there and participate! If you’re not voting as a form of protest- that is another thing- but stop being lazy and then complain about everything wrong that is happening on campus.

 

I took a deep sigh, hugged them goodbye and left to go back to my room. When you meet people who are unafraid to voice their opinions, it leaves you speechless. There has been silence around many issues for a long time. With Esther now in the house (the results were announced after the interview was conducted), there is a hope for me, at least, that opinions of some of our representatives in the House are clear and strong. Let us try and work with Esther to make this campus nicer!