by Asang Wankhede
My mind is agitated right now, and my emotions are indeed guided by anger, but my words in this piece are based on reason and reason alone. I know how it feels to be called an ‘anti-nationalist’ for voicing your opposition in a democratic nation for reasons similar to those for which Rohith and his peers were considered anti-national. On July 30, 2015, I wrote a poem titled “Mockery of Black Head Cover” in protest of the death penalty given to Yakub Memon. Folks on social media branded me as ‘anti-nationalist’, ‘mullah’ and used other glorified adjectives. A disclaimer: Actions and writings of us anti-nationalist are not meant to hurt any particular religion, political ideology or caste; they are voices and opinions to question the portrayed truth. They are meant to uncover the veil of reality, and discover the other side of the narrative.
On 17.01.2016, Rohith Vemula, PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, was murdered. He killed each one of us when he hanged himself, making each one of us liable to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions and face some inconvenient realities. I seek to put those questions and realities before you. Harsh as it may sound, it seems that we Indians require dead bodies to awaken our lulled conscience, and ‘shock treatment’ to understand that India remains a caste-ridden society, that fellow Indians are being murdered by institutions and that no one fancies committing suicide; she/he is made to take that step.
It will not be long when our protest, our activism and our solidarity will be “Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams”, and we will resort to our comfortable “summer dreams”, waiting for another Rohith’s corpse to make us suddenly grow grey with fear and quiver again to restart the stream. Yet some forces will continue struggle without coverage from the mainstream media, and blood will continue to spill unnoticed.
At the outset, I intend to address three fundamental problems arising from this incident, each one of it inclined towards the larger issue of rampant caste prejudice and discrimination and the failing education system:
- The Suicide Note
- Government’s defence and the Casteist Angle
- Reactionary vs. Action-Oriented struggle
Before considering these problems, a brief discussion on such incidents is necessary. As many as 20 students have committed suicide in past four years, and the number surges when you go deeper down the decade. Central University, Hyderabad, has been a hub for casteist practices and institutional casteism, where in 2002, 10 Dalit students were rusticated when they protested the demotion of a Dalit warden to “sanitation and gardening” The common point between the incidents in 2002 and 2015 is that all the students involved were leaders and members of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Students Association (ASA), all of them were children of agricultural labourers, poor labourers and first generation university students, and most importantly, all of them were meritorious. Out of the 10 rusticated students, 5 had passed UGC-NET exams, with four of them being UGC/CSIR fellows; they had publications in international journals, and most importantly, they were emerging Dalit intellectuals and leaders. Is this sheer coincidence? No. How dare they rise from their untouchable dirt? Let’s keep them alive, but let’s kill them otherwise. This silent yet obvious new form of ostracism demands the creation of casteist spaces in the temples of learning, and ensures that there is virtually zero outcome of the reservation policy. Autocratic university administration cannot prevent Dalit entry through the reservation policy; they are powerless at the entry level. However, the outcome is under the complete control of the administration, which ensures that aspirants, struggle-oriented young men and women are either detained multiple times, expelled on fallacious grounds, and/or when a student cannot be tamed, immersed in circumstances which causes her/his murder with no strings attached. This is the ‘Manuvadi’ oriented reality of our educational institutions, and the striving “Kill Merit” strategy. How can PIGS (Permanent Illegal Guests, the term used for Dalits in UoH) become empowered? The dirt must stay on them.
The Suicide Note
Ironically, the attempts of the BJP government, ABVP, the Vice-Chancellor of the University and all the other individuals involved in the incident to control the extent of the damage has only served to further open the wounds and fan the fire. In an attempt to avoid any liability, they quote the concluding paragraphs of the letter, reiterating that “The document which is being circulated as Rohith Vemula’s suicide note does not mention any name or MP or Minister, or any organizations name, etc.” In light of such ignorance and flawed interpretation of Rohith’s words, a rebuttal and display of truth is sorely needed.
The clarity in the note is chilling and untainted. When he wrote “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility”, he was referring to the stark discrimination and ostracization he faced due to his ‘Identity’ as a Dalit. He told each one of us that what is valued today in our society is your caste and religious identity, not your intellect or your excellence. He reiterated the existence of ‘contemporary casteism’ as a continuous manifestation of a 3000-year old practice of discrimination, he told us about his branded identity of ‘anti-nationalist’ and ‘extremist’. Rohith reminds us about what the expulsion from his college, hostel, and the withdrawal of his fellowship did to him. It made him believe that he would be happier dead than alive. Rohith wanted to touch the stars-“from shadows to the stars” he said, disappointed by his own polluting shadow of a Dalit he sought to embrace light, he did so by commencing the journey.
The formalities mentioned at the end of the article are indicative of who actually instigated him and how he forgave them. The circumstances surrounding the event make it crystal-clear that he didn’t commit suicide, he was murdered by the system. He suffered an extreme form of marginalization and social ostracization; with his fellowship revoked, his career was nothing but darkness. And yet, he forgave his enemies, making us realize the lies which are told to us by dictators, and his refusal to breathe in this world.
Government’s defence and the Casteist Angle
It is no wonder that the hashtag #ManuSmritiIrani is currently trending on social media. The esteemed HRD minister recently held a press conference to defend the Government and reject any role that she or her fellow party members had in this incident. Ms. Irani flimsily stated that this issue is not a “Dalit vs. Non-Dalit issue” as “The student (ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar) who was attacked was himself an OBC student.” There is a very obvious difference between Dalit and OBC. OBC never can be equated to Dalit, and vice-versa. Hence, this argument is unsustainable. As facts stand today, there was no attack of any kind on the ABVP leader. This issue has a casteist face, as the crisis was triggered by the Ministry and the BJP and Sangh Parivar stooges on the campus, the ABVP. They were discriminated against because they were members of Ambedkar Students Association, and because according to ABVP and MP Dattatreya, they were “casteist, extremist and anti-national”.
The hon’ble Minister’s primary defence of following the official procedure while sending repeated requests to the University, seeking a response to the actions taken against ASA, needs due attention. In order to support its claims, the Government cited Congress leader Hanumanth Rao’s case, where the Ministry, in a similar manner, had carried out the official procedure of sending repeated letters. Hanumanth Rao’s complaint was about the incidences of discrimination against Dalit students in the UoH campus. The Government tried to justify the repeated sending of letters to the UoH by showing that it is the usual procedure adopted by the Ministry and there is nothing unusual about it. This stance taken by the government is strikingly illogical and self-contradictory, as these two instances are different from every angle and justifying equal treatment for them is per se wrong. The Ministry received the representation from BJP minister Dattatreya about the anti-nationalist, casteist activities after the Congress leader’s complaint. While following its official procedure, the MHRD should have first done a fact-finding and conformation of the alleged ‘anti-nationalist’ remarks against the Dalit students and then committed to its official procedure. As now it is clear from the news reports that there was no truth in the claims and complaint of BJP MP Dattatreya. The alleged anti-nationalist activities warrant criminal action, and when such follow up procedure may possibly affect the civil liberties of students, due diligence should have been exercised. However, it is evident from the past practices of the Ministry that it never conducts an inquiry to know the truth and nature of the incident. Hon’ble minister’s line of thought was incorrect when she stated, “If they [Congress] had fixed the problem four years ago, perhaps Rohith’s life could have been saved.” Such statements only create conflict between the parties, and further politicise the debate. Blaming Congress for their inaction leading to Rohith’s death should be directly weighed, examined and crossed-checked by the BJP to ascertain the role of their own actions leading to such an event.
BJP General Secretary Muralidhar Rao yet again branded Rohith. He said that the suicide was committed because Rohith was “psychologically disturbed”. One of the hypocrisies of defence tactics in India is that almost all victims of a crime seem to be psychologically disturbed, mentally unsound, or mad. Rao’s statement is flawed, as the hon’ble member fails to consider the reasons for Rohith’s “psychological disturbance”. The constant harassment by the University and ABVP members may have lead to such “disturbances”. Also, Mr. Rao should consider the plight of students who are expelled from hostels and colleges, as these students have to take refuge on railway station platforms, streets and public places, adding to their social boycott and psychological troubles.
Finally, in order to prove the fairness of the decisions of the Proctorial Board and the Executive Committee of the UoH, Minister Irani cites the presence of a Dalit member on such committees. It has been brought to light that Ms. Irani was mistaken about the existence of such a Dalit member on the committee, and no Dalit representative was present on the Committee. Besides, fairness in a quasi-judicial process via an administrative inquiry has to be determined on the basis of the Principles of Natural Justice and not because a fellow caste mate is present on the Committee. Was the principle of Audi Alteram Partem (hearing the accused) followed? No. Were they given a chance of fair representation? No. Hence, at the outset, fair procedure was not followed – the initial decision of the Proctorial Board, where no fault on part of the expelled students was established, was completely overturned in the final report.
The caste angle evolves from the conflicting strains between the Hindu Right and Dalit-Bahujan ideologies, which depict the mammoth fault line which has existed due to the archaic arithmetic expression of the former. The Sangh Parivar, through its ruling party and student and militancy outfits like ABVP, Bajrang Dal, etc., stands against equality, whether between castes, religious communities, or the sexes. The ritual hierarchy and patriarchy as laid out for centuries in the caste system, demands brutal opposition of dissent and the promotion of fascist majoritarianism in both social and political spheres.
As stated above, the caste angle is evident from history and events which have unfolded over the past 6 months, ultimately leading to the death of one of the five expelled students.
Reactionary vs. Action-Oriented struggle
It is evident from Dr. Ambedkar’s struggle against untouchability and for empowerment of depressed classes that he was always actionary or action-oriented. To clarify further, the present Dalit struggle has majorly been transformed into a reactionary one, where fractions of Dalit population react to the actions of Sangh Parivar and Manuvadi forces. Effects of reactionary struggle are short-lived, as the ‘main-issue’ loses its effect when any kind of compensation is provided or when judicial process begins. It is not my case that the present agitation and struggle demanding justice for Rohith’s murder is of no benefit or does not have any positive outcomes. However, there is an urgent need for transforming the nature of struggle to that of an action-oriented one. The Khairlanji massacre agitation in 2006, which was that decade’s biggest mass agitation in the country, ended in nullity. There was no net outcome of such an intense agitation, as the Dalit mass fought for a reactionary issue. It is evident from the statistics that the atrocities on Dalits have escalated, rendering the outcome of the mass agitation meaningless. The present agitation should not be limited to only getting justice for Rohith – the orientation of this agitation should be to avoid such incidents in future and to perpetually end caste discrimination. If the core is not pierced, then the disease will stay, killing more and more young aspirants in the name of suicide. Agitation should demand implementation of the UGC guidelines, development of peer support mechanisms, compulsory English proficiency classes and establishment of zero-tolerance for caste-based discriminatory practice.
Don’t let Ekalavya(s) die
In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya was denied admission by Dronacharya because of his status as an outcaste. Drona’s discrimination made Ekalavya strive harder, and he eventually became an excellent archer on his own. When he turned out to be better than the Kshatriya prince Arjuna, Drona asked for his thumb as the reward for his teachings. Ekalavya died that day. He lost his hard-earned skill, and was not allowed to become an archer even by his own efforts.
This slow poison of dismantling years of social labour and community investment, which makes and establishes a Dalit student, is an open display of curtailing and killing students’ capabilities through systematic marginalization and casteism. The job of the universities is to encourage and recognize Dalit students as a new social force and a valuable national asset. This idea in itself is unimaginable, as looking at our thoughts through the lenses of contemporary casteism and social discrimination trends, it is clear that more suicides are to follow and more agitations are to shake the system.
(The author is also the coordinator of APPSC, NLU Delhi, and the editor of Savitri magazine.)
 Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley,
“Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams…
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day…
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey with fear…”
 Instances like banning Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras, withdrawing the non-Net fellowship to research scholars makes it clear.