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Rohith Vemula – The annihilation by caste

The controversy over whether Rohith Vemula was a Dalit or not is a red herring, a disgraceful attempt to discredit his politics.

Even as we come to terms with the death of Rohith Vemula, we are witness to the unprecedented churning that he set in motion even as he left — educating, agitating, organising in death as in life.

From all his writing and his associations, there is no doubt whatsoever that Rohith identified himself as a Dalit son of a Dalit mother; as a Dalit Ambedkarite scholar and organiser; and as a co-traveller encountering the oppressions, discrimination and exclusion experienced by his Dalit compatriots on the university campus and outside. For those uneasy with his erudition, his performance, and his total identification with the Dalit identity, there had to be some way to discredit his politics in death.

Searching for this crucial flaw was even more important because what Rohith’s treatment amounts to, resulting in his death, comes within the meaning of caste atrocity, under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and has grave implications for those named in the FIR registered after his death. Whether or not Rohith named people in his suicide note is not material at this point. What is important to consider is whether the chain of events leading to his death gives reason to presume the possibility of discrimination based on caste coming within the meaning of atrocity and leading to his death by suicide.


Caste as the core

There is no dispute about the facts. Contrary to what Ministers Smriti Irani or Sushma Swaraj might assert, this entire issue has to do with discrimination based on caste — the struggles of the Ambedkar Students Association; Rohith’s political and personal struggles; the institutionalised discrimination that Dalit students have been subjected to at the University of Hyderabad; curricular and co-curricular neglect of the social basis of discrimination in institutions of higher education; constant and disproportionate punitive action against Dalit students; their academic neglect and isolation; the simultaneous stigmatisation of “reserved” candidates and the vilification of Dalit students like Rohith who qualify in the open category but persist in identifying themselves as Dalit; the unusual and excessive interest of the Union government in the criminalisation of Dalit student activists who organise as Dalits on campuses; and most importantly, the institutionalised humiliation of Dalits in academia. Ministerial ignorance cannot be excused.

Dalit or not?

Officers and reporters have ferreted out his father and paternal family in an overzealous attempt to roll back the demand that this is a Dalit issue. The old patriarchal argument that since his father was Vaddera, he was Vaddera, negates Dalit women’s struggles in a caste order. In this case, it obliterates the experience of struggle against bondage, violence and humiliation of two generations, Radhika Vemula and her children — their fortitude and determination to defeat the oppressions of caste at all costs. And when they are on the threshold of an unimaginable victory, we witness, yet again, annihilation by caste. An injustice compounded and bolstered by the institutional and political denial of discrimination or atrocity.


There is no need to labour the point about whether the actions that led to Rohith’s suicide prima facie attract the provisions of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. All that is needed at this point is to understand whether the act of suicide by a Dalit points to abetment by a non-Dalit. A complaint may be registered invoking the Act if this fact is established. If the police refuse, the court can intervene. Rohith has a non-Dalit father and a Dalit mother. While there has been a long line of cases in the various high courts and the Supreme Court on this question, the most recent one, decided by the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai, is the law. In Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika vs State Of Gujarat & Ors. (decided on January 18, 2012), the question before the Supreme Court was “what would be the status of a person, one of whose parents belongs to the scheduled castes/scheduled tribes and the other comes from the upper castes” (para 1).

The concluding paragraph of the judgment is self-explanatory: “In an inter-caste marriage [i.e., a marriage between an SC/ST person and a non SC/ST person] the determination of the caste of the offspring is essentially a question of fact to be decided on the basis of the facts adduced in each case. It is open to the child of such marriage to lead evidence to show that he/she was brought up by the mother who belonged to the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe” (para 43). Did his father’s non-Dalit status give him an “advantageous start in life” or did he suffer “the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged?” Additionally, was he treated like a member of the community to which his mother belonged not only by that community but by people outside the community as well?


Rohith suffered the exclusions, humiliation and discrimination along with other Dalit students on the campus and in the wider community. Yet, he refused to allow caste to break or confine him — and that was his most poignant struggle. The most important aspect of this struggle — its defining feature — was that it carried forward the tenacious struggles for a life with dignity for her children by Radhika Vemula, who pointed her children to the stars daring them to dream. In a moment of utter collective regret, irreparable loss and grief, this family points the way to the annihilation of caste.

(Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad.)

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