Some images never become stale, never lose their power to re-awaken emotion and rekindle anguish. India has been bequeathed an image of this nature by the heart-rending death by suicide of Rohith Vemula on January 17, 2016 on the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU). Rohith Vemula, vibrant activist and promising research scholar, was a Dalit, a member of the social group formerly known as untouchables. In a poignant picture from December 2015 the youthful Rohith Vemula and a fellow student are shown leaving the student hostel from which they have been expelled by the university administration (http://bit.ly/209FLy6). The two of them carry an assortment of meagre personal possessions–a bed roll, folded clothes, a bag and other items. As he looks away from the camera Rohith embraces an outsize portrait of exemplary Dalit intellectual B.R. Ambedkar—principal architect of the Constitution of India, social reformer, wide ranging thinker and writer on weighty issues in economics, politics, nation building and jurisprudence.
The intellectual and activist legacy of Ambedkar is synonymous with his fierce critique of the caste system. Although his life and work were coterminous with India’s struggle for independence, Ambedkar was not primarily a freedom fighter. As a Dalit intellectual Ambedkar recognized that ideas of belonging implicit in conventional notions of nationhood were inapplicable to those outside the boundaries of India’s highly stratified caste system. In an oft quoted conversation with Mahatma Gandhi Ambedkar spoke of the untouchable as a being without a state and a nation: “You say I have got a homeland, but still I repeat that I am without it. How can I call this land my own homeland and this religion my own, wherein we are treated worse than cats and dogs, wherein we cannot get water to drink? No self-respecting Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” If the camera had continued to follow the expulsion of Rohith as he receded into the distance conceivably the portrait of Ambedkar and its modern day bearer might have blended into one. Both were outside the pale of Indian society—the eminent scholar in a metaphorical sense, his young acolyte in a very literal sense as brought out by Rohith’s ousting from his residence at an elite Indian university.
The national media’s intense scrutiny of the circumstances leading to Rohith Vemula’s final and irreversible act has brought out sobering and hitherto less widely known facts regarding discrimination encountered by Dalit students in India’s institutions of higher education. Soon after India attained independence in 1947 her founders created and implemented a program to reverse the damage wrought by centuries of oppression of disadvantaged groups in the caste hierarchy. The goal was to improve the socio-economic conditions of the “backward” or scheduled castes. This program ensures that constitutionally mandated quotas will be available for qualifying members of “backward” classes in centrally funded institutions of higher learning as well as in employment in the public sector. Although the reservations policy gives the Dalit aspirant entry to institutions of higher education, the progressive measure has not been accompanied by genuine change in social attitudes toward those who belong to the “lower” orders. Consequently Dalits often find themselves at the receiving end of discrimination. Such discrimination is said to be particularly acute in institutions devoted to the study of science. In the case of Hyderabad University recent commentary has brought out the fact that nine Dalit students died by their own hand in just the last seven years.
Was Rohith’s victimhood—his suspension from HCU along with four other Dalit students and his subsequent suicide—the consequence of caste oppression? Was his a case of death by casteism? The short answer must be in the negative. Because of the convoluted nature of the path that led to his undoing caste seems to have been an intermediate rather than final or determining factor. The salient elements of the trajectory that took him to his untimely death were his politics as a member of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) at Hyderabad Central University and his activism in questioning the right wing, ultra nationalist politics that gained the upper hand in New Delhi with the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014 after the landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections.
In 2014 the BJP gained a majority in its own right in India’s Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament thereby bringing an end to over two decades of rule by coalition governments. Recent months have brought out the limitations of a parliamentary majority that does not extend to the Rajya Sabha or upper House of Parliament. Nevertheless the BJP and its ideological parent the secretive and sinister Hindu supremacist “cultural” organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) remain intoxicated by their triumph of 2014. A sweeping effort has been launched to dismantle the multi-religious, plural and diverse character of Indian society and culture and rebuild it in accordance with a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist and chauvinist view of India’s history and role in the world. The capture of power over India’s premier, centrally funded institutions of culture, research and education is key to this effort. Accordingly a series of mediocre individuals distinguishe d by their right-wing politics and slavish adulation of Prime Minister Modi have been given leadership positions in former bastions of intellectual excellence. The appointment of a former actor in B grade films and soft porn as chairman of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has been particularly controversial. The appointment triggered months of protests by FTII students. One of their principal demands was for an institution head whose credentials were in keeping with the high standards and sterling reputation of the FTII. The students received abundant support for their cause from eminent personalities in the film world. Encountering only stonewalling from the establishment in New Delhi the students gave up their heroic strike—but not their struggle–and resumed classes.
The remaking or rather unmaking of India and of Indian institutions in a right-wing, majoritarian, ultranationalist mould is commonly called saffronization as saffron is the color associated with the BJP. Suppression of dissent in every form is intrinsic to this unmaking and it has taken a heavy toll on foreign NGOs functioning in India as well as domestic organizations. The Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry (formerly Ministry of Education) seems to have been charged with crushing dissent among student groups operating on centrally funded campuses across India. The tactic of choice involves pressuring the heads of institutions to penalize groups and individuals who question the politics of the regime in New Delhi. One such incident took place in May 2015 when the Dean of the Chennai campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) derecognized a student group called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the behest of the HRD Ministry. In the case of the ASA (Am bedkar Students Association) at Hyderabad University the heavy handed tactics of the HRD ministry has led to irreversible tragedy. As in Chennai there was a conflict between two student groups—the ASA and the student wing of the BJP, a reactionary, right wing group called Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP). The ABVP has chapters on campuses across India and is notorious for its belligerent and intimidating tactics and the disruption of campus events involving progressive politics. A clash took place between members of the opposing groups at HCU. An enquiry held by a university board resulted in a clean chit being given to ASA. Thereafter the ABVP used its political muscle to avenge its earlier setback. Consequently some months later the same board reversed its earlier decision and issued an order expelling five ASA members from HCU hostel for six months and prohibiting them from using public areas like the cafeteria where other students congregated. Driven into a corner, subjected to social ostracism and placed in an intolerable situation Rohith Vemula ended his life.
The inexorable march of events that led to Rohith Vemula’s final irreversible act bring out the implacable nature of the forces arrayed against critical thought and activism in BJP ruled India where dissent is outlawed and majoritarian and ultra nationalist elements call the shots. As has been noted by many observers the BJP is not merely a political party that concerns itself with the political affairs of the land. The party that contests elections and holds office is part of an octopus like entity known as the Sangh Parivar whose tentacles extend into every sphere of Indian life and culture. The reach of the Sangh Parivar can be gauged from the Hyderabad instance in which a campus clash between student groups on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum quickly escalated to a level involving the intervention of two Union Ministers one of them a minister in the cabinet of PM Narendra Modi. The campus group with connections to the corridors of power in New Delhi had the clout to bring about the reversal of a decision passed by the board of a putatively autonomous university. Inescapably one is led to think that the ruthless forces brought to bear on him hounded Rohith Vemula into taking his life.
In his moving and enigmatic suicide letter Rohith has written as follows: “Maybe I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death.” How do we interpret his statement? Did he in his final moments come to think that his activism on behalf of social and political justice had become his undoing? Was he unable to live with the knowledge that he had been undermined by his best convictions? We will never know with certainty. But this much we know. As an Ambedkarite and political person he would have been appalled as he watched the saffron tide coursing through the land. He saw that Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, scholars and rationalist thinkers, were murdered in cold blood by religious bigots. He saw the reluctance to bring the perpetrators to book. He saw the police beating up and detaining FTII students for exercising their constitutional rights and holding a peaceful protest. He saw the crackdown on dissent taking place on all sides and the tentacles of the Sangh Parivar reaching out for him. Those in a position of privilege can afford a comprehensive view of the Indian scene—both the crushing of dissent and the resistance. A victim does not enjoy the same luxury.
On January 21, less than a week after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, Hyderabad Central University revoked the suspension of the previously suspended Dalit students. At a time when saffron is triumphant this is what it took to obtain a modicum of justice in a campus incident involving opposed student groups—an immeasurably tragic death and the cry raised for justice for Rohith Vemula as campuses across India were rocked by protests. For the moment the saffron juggernaut has been brought up short but only at a heavy price—one that Rohith Vemula’s countless mourners would never have willingly paid.
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