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Lal Salaam to Jai Bhim: Why #RohithVemula left Indian Marxists

  • Jashwanth Jessie
  • |

A member of the Social Fronts and Students Organisation in Nagpur protests against the death of Rohit Vemula, who was a student at the University of Hyderabad and killed himself. (PTI)

Not many people know that my friend Rohith Vemula was once a diehard supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Before he joined the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at the University of Hyderabad, he was a firebrand leader of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), affiliated to the CPI(M).

His disillusionment with the communists happened when he discovered that the boys and girls who had given up faith in god could not bring themselves up to abandon their faith in the caste system. He quit the SFI after he was discriminated for his caste by the so-called comrades who he hoped would deliver him and his people from this wretched social order.

The treatment meted out to Rohith is public knowledge and even Dheeraj Paleri, the leader of SFI’s Hyderabad university wing, admits that he was ill-treated by a few cadre because of which he had to leave the organisation.

After his unsavoury stint with the communists, Rohith would often lash out at the Left on public forums and on Facebook for its apathy towards identity-based movements in general and the anti-caste struggle in particular. He became acutely aware of not just the Brahminical tendencies of individual CPI(M) activists but also the theoretical flaws of the Left as a whole in understanding the Indian social order.

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By the time he decided to cut his life short, Rohith had emerged as a formidable critic of Indian Marxists and had a sophisticated understanding of the Left movement’s contradictions. Impressive, given that he did not come from a social sciences background.

When Sitaram Yechury visited the university, for a lecture and demanded reservation in the private sector for lower-caste people, Rohith responded with a viral Facebook post in which he asked why the CPI(M) hasn’t had a single Dalit politburo member in 51 years.

He wrote: “I hope comrades would have at least a session dedicated to understand what Marx meant when he borrowed the sentence ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. It is a deliberate, immodest blunder from the Left side for remaining blind to the need of Dalit leaders in Indian society.”


Clearly, Rohith had a problem with Indian Marxists, not Karl Marx.

Universities are platforms for struggles and debates between conflicting ideologies. And the ASA was always a leading participant in this churning. Its courageous fight against the Hindutva, Brahminical arrogance of the Hindu Right (ABVP) is by now well-known. What often went unnoticed, however, was how the ASA, under the leadership of intellectuals like Rohith, consistently exposed the indifference of the Indian Left toward addressing caste issues.

In our conversations, Rohith would often talk about how Leftists were ever willing to attack Hindutva fanatics but never challenged the Vedic caste system which forms the bedrock of Hindutva ideology.

Police use water canon to disperse students protesting in Delhi against the death of Rohith Vemula . (Vipin Kumar / HT Photo)

One of the problems, according to Dalit Marxists like Rohith, is that an overwhelming majority of the Indian Left’s leadership comprises the upper caste that has grown up in privileged social conditions. They have no idea or experience of caste oppression. This upper-caste domination of the Left has certainly undermined the Indian Left politics as a whole.

Even the extremist Left, the CPI(Maoist) that consists of a large number of loyal Dalit cadre in the lower ranks, has never allowed a Dalit to hold the leadership of the party. It constitutes a dominant upper-caste central committee which is living under a myth of socialism by completely disregarding the innumerable atrocities faced by Dalits.

All this explains why there is only a thin artificial distinction between the communists and BJP; while the former exhibit liberal Brahminism, the latter display orthodox Brahminism. Both are more or less the same seen from a Dalit perspective.


The other striking similarity between the Indian Left and right-wing politics is their tendency to dismiss Dalit struggles for emancipation as “identity politics” and “non-revolutionary”.

No Dalit revolutionary is unaware of the historic injustice done to Dalits by the Indian Left when they opposed Ambedkar’s call for separate electorates for the “depressed Classes”. In the days leading to the Poona Pact of 1932, where Ambedkar was unfairly pressured to surrender the demand for separate electorates, the upper castes of the Left, Right and so-called Centre came together and spoke in one voice against Ambedkar. No other event in modern Indian history has so thoroughly exposed the artificial divisions between communists and communalists.

Communist leaders like EMS Namboodiripad had even gone to the extent of criticising Ambedkar and attacking him personally by accusing him of dividing the nation on the lines of caste. For all their intellect and fat books in their home libraries, the simple thing that Leftists like Namboodripad failed to understand was that by pushing for separate electorates for the marginalised, Ambedkar was trying to protect them from an already divided society and not divide society further. Their logic sounded very much like that of BJP leader Bandaru Dattatreya who feels that those, like Rohith, who fought against the caste system were casteist.

Fact is Indian communist parties are more inclined towards Gandhian understanding of caste which says that the caste system is a superior economic organisation which facilitates organised production through a systematic division of labour. But Ambedkar says the caste system is not just the division of labour but also the division of labourers which gives rise to the unequal and casteist relations of production.

Caste is very much a part of what the eminent Marxist thinker Louis Althusser calls the “apparatus” of ideology and which is based in material existence. Indian society has caste tied to its actions in every form of exploitation it commits. Indian Marxists failed to analyse that between the bourgeois and working classes there is another section lying in the lower strata, that is the scavenging caste which doesn’t belong to these two categories. It is high time for the Indian Leftists to understand the caste distinctions in Indian society to perceive the idea of working class.

The Russian revolution was predominatly a working class revolution since it occurred in an industrialised society. The Chinese revolution was largely a peasant uprising since it occurred in an agrarian society. So, it can be coherently formulated that the annihilation of caste is the only radical approach to realise a revolution in a classical Marxist understanding of the hierarchically-divided Brahminical Indian society.

The activists who succumb to the state violence by fighting the injustices in various movements are usually called martyrs. But this martyr, my friend Rohith Vemula, is different. His sacrifice has not just reinvigorated Dalit-Bahujan struggles throughout the nation but also forced the country’s intellectual elite to confront the elephant in the room: Caste.

Importantly, the fact that a brilliant scholar was forced to take his own life because of caste discrimination also demonstrates the failure of upper caste dominant Indian Left. As a result, a new political thought is taking shape that combines the theories of Marx and Ambedkar. It is a combination that is bound to accelerate the annihilation of caste.

(Jashwanth Jessie is an independent writer and Dalit student activist pursuing his MA in history from IGNOU. A friend of Rohith Vemula, he is closely associated with the Ambedkar Students’ Association at the university.)

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