Rohith Vemula’s death is not a stray case of a life claimed by caste prejudice. Atrocities against Dalits have intensifi ed with the rise of Hindutva forces. While the persecution of Dalit scholars in the recent past has gone relatively unnoticed, the spontaneous outburst at Rohith’s death could portend a new movement against the saffron establishment.
Rohith Vemula’s dream of becoming a science writer like his idol, Carl Sagan, ended abruptly at the altar of caste. But his death has raised hopes of a peoples’ movement to prevent reoccurrence of the circumstances that led to the young scholar’s dreams being crushed. Rohith dropped out from the process of anointment by the casteist establishment as a doctor of philosophy, but his suicide note is nothing short of a philosophical commentary on what it means to be a Dalit. Although this 26-year old son of a landless Dalit mother blamed none, Rohith’s death has exposed the criminality stemming from casteist mindsets.
The agitation by Rohith’s fellow students, the resolute support of their teachers, and national and international outrage have forced the conceited administration to revoke the suspension of Rohith’s four comrades. The students have rejected the administration’s awkward overture and declared their resolve to continue their struggle, until the people responsible, including Smriti Irani, are punished. It is not important if the students are ultimately able to withstand the fascist regime’s might, but what is significant is that the protesting students have set forces in motion for the regime’s decimation. The students, who, in their innocence, greatly contributed to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) win in the last elections have come together to say an emphatic no to its casteist and communal agenda. This has manifested in the complete isolation of the BJP student wing, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), in campuses all over the country.
While the saga of crimes against Dalits is an ancient one, the roots of the current episode lie in the false police complaint lodged by the president of ABVP’s Hyderabad Central University (HCU) unit, N Susheel Kumar—who is also the organisation’s state committee member—alleging that 30 Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) members had beaten him up. Kumar alleged that the Dalit students had resorted to such violence to demand an apology for his remarks on Facebook, describing ASA members as “goons.”
ASA had actually condemned the ABVP stopping the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hain in Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College. The students screening the documentary were intimidated with slogans such as “main Hindu hoon, main tujhe thappad maarunga” (I’m a Hindu, I’ll slap you). ASA had demanded a written apology from Kumar, which he gave in the presence of security personnel. However, the next morning Kumar admitted himself into a private hospital, got himself photographed and filed a police complaint. The proctorial board of the HCU did not find any “hard evidence” of violence; the doctor as well as the security personnel also testified that there was no evidence of Kumar being assaulted.
But the board recommended the suspension of five students for a semester, reportedly under pressure from the BJP Member of Legislative Council (MLC), Ramachandra Rao, who met the then vice chancellor R P Sharma. It was Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment BJP Member of Parliament (MP) from Secunderabad, Bandaru Dattatreya, who precipitated the abominable punishment that led to Rohith’s death. In a letter to the Union Human Resources Development Minister, the veteran BJP MP —a dyed-in-the-wool Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activist—complained that the HCU had become the centre of “casteist, extremist and anti-national” activities of the ASA. In support of his charge, Dattatreya alleged that the ASA had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon.
Irani then wrote to the vice chancellor suggesting that he should take action as she had done earlier in response to an anonymous complaint against the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras. As a result, five ASA members were suspended for a semester. This sparked off massive protests, forcing the vice chancellor to revoke the order pending investigation by a new committee. But in an action replete with the symbolism of the Manusmriti, Sharma’s successor as vice chancellor, Appa Rao, expelled the five students from the hostel and banned them from accessing the library, hostels and administrative building.
This episode is not a stray case of caste prejudice. Rohith is not the first Dalit scholar in HCU to commit suicide. HCU is not the only university in the country to have such incidents. That the caste venom pervades the country is testified by several surveys from the 1950s onwards. Atrocities against Dalits have risen from 33,507 in 2001 to 47,064 in 2014 according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The rise can be attributed to the Social Darwinist ethos of neo-liberalism which reversed the welfarist paradigm of Keynesianism.
The rise in such atrocities also bears testimony to the upsurge of Hindutva forces in the country. Caste affiliation, earlier spoken in hush-hush tones, is now flaunted and justified. Hindu religiosity, once considered a mark of backwardness, is today seen as a matter of pride with even professionals wearing vermilion bands on their wrists and smearing their foreheads with kumkum.
This Brahminic upsurge is driving Dalit scholars to kill themselves. Twelve Dalit scholars have reportedly committed suicide in HCU since 1970, but most of them (9) took their lives in the last decade. Senthil Kumar (2008) pursuing a PhD in physics, R Balaraj (2010) pursuing a PhD in Telugu literature, Madari Venkatesh (2013) a PhD scholar in High Energy Materials and Pulyala Raju (2013) a postgraduate student in Applied linguistics are a few names that come to mind easily because investigating committees linked their suicides to rampant caste discrimination. But their deaths failed to sensitise the casteist administration. On the contrary, they were emboldened by the right wing forces in power.
How does such casteism sync with the right wing government’s new-found love for Babasaheb Ambedkar? That is not difficult to fathom. The BJP is desperate to woo Dalits and wants them to accomplish its Hindutva agenda. Memorialising Ambedkar or going gaga over his 125th birth anniversary, the BJP hopes, will fool gullible Dalit masses into voting for it. But a few radicalised Rohiths could topple its apple cart.
It is unfortunate that the Dalits do not understand that Ambedkar never desired hymn singing devotees. He wanted prabudhha(enlightened) Dalits to emerge from his followers. This desire led Ambedkar to risk emphasising higher education over elementary education. He felt that only higher education could create critical thinking and provide moral strength to people to stand up against the free play of caste prejudices. The government is crushing these potential torch-bearers of Ambedkar in every possible manner while singing paeans to him. The strategy of the Hindutva camp is to Brahminise common folks of the Dalits and demonise radical Dalits. As dissenting Muslim youth are branded as terrorists, Dalit–Adivasi youth are being stamped as extremists, casteists and anti-nationals. Indian jails are filled with such innocent youth incarcerated for years under vague charges like sedition and unlawful activities.
Rohith’s death exposed the multilayered injustice of the saffron establishment. The entire student community, barring of course the ABVP, spontaneously condemned Hindutva hooliganism. It exposed the Dalit leaders who failed to speak out against their political patrons in the face of such monumental injustice. Dalits who were fooled into voting for the Hindutva forces have begun to wake up to their folly.
Today, the Hindutva’s camouflage is off. What Dalits call discrimination is natural to Hindutva. The Prime Minister, speaking at Lucknow University, described Rohith’s death as a loss to a mother and shed crocodile tears. But he kept mum over the misdeeds of his own ministers that contributed to Rohith’s death. Showing characteristic ineptitude, Smriti Irani said that a Dalit professor was on the panel that recommended punishing Rohith and his comrades. This provoked all Dalit teachers of the HCU to resign en masse from their administrative responsibilities. HCU’s teachers’ body boldly rejected the vice chancellor’s request to resume classes until the punishment was revoked. Ultimately, the vice chancellor had to lick the dust and revoke the suspensions.
The Government of India has announced a judicial commission to enquire into the episode. This is another attempt to cover the sins of his own tribe. BJP’s Brahminical pride has blinded the party and it cannot see Rohith’s noose tightening around its own neck.