Rohith Vemula, one of the five Dalit PhD Research Scholars suspended by the University of Hyderabad (UOH) under circumstances that can be best described as reeking of casteist authoritarianism, committed suicide day before yesterday. His suicide note contains these heartbreaking lines
“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past…”
These lines poignantly reveal the struggle, ostracisation, and humiliation that Dalit men, women, and children continue to be subjected to even today. It is a matter of great shame that these lines had to be part of Rohith’s suicide note.
The altercation between Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) and the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) at UOH was over the banning of the documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai’ by several right–wing student groups across Delhi University. Chronicling the rise of communal politics in UP, the documentary exposes the bogus claim of “Love Jihad”, the potential for building solidarity between the Dalits and Muslims, and the sexual violence which women are subjected to by men across religious and caste lines. Why this must evoke the wrath of the Hindu right wing, you may ask.
Class and caste have developed co-terminously in our cultural context, and it would be naive to assume otherwise. The idea of a unified, tolerant, territorially fortified India (for many, operating within the framework of benign Hindutva), has been at the core of the inception of our nation state. The idea has often trivialised or ignored oppression faced by certain castes, women, tribals, sexual minorities, and poor, and has exhibited zero tolerance for dissent of any kind, never mind the veracity or form of dissent. Any type of literature, discussion, film etc. that challenges this notion becomes a matter of much vitriol. The social groups that have faced centuries of social and economic exclusion are particularly at the forefront of formulating a counter narrative, especially now that some of them have access to social capital. No wonder then that Ambedkar Study Circle/Students’ Association have come under fire in the past few months. In July 2015, for instance, IIT Madras temporarily de-recognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle for organising a talk on the critical evaluation of the development policy of the government after receiving complaint from the MHRD office. In the case of the UOH, the enquiry committee of the university absolved all the concerned 5 students of any form of violence against Susheel Kumar. The ABVP member had lodged an FIR against them after being confronted on calling ASA members “goons” for their stand on the banning of the documentary. Why then did the BJP Union Minister feel compelled to intervene? It is only after his letter to MHRD that the newly appointed VC suspended all 5 Dalit research scholars in an arbitrary manner. If this was not enough, the MHRD sent letters to the VC demanding to know if there had been any response to the “VIP complaint”. While the students continue with their degree, they were denied stay in their hostels, disallowed from participating in elections, entering the administration building, and from moving in groups. What becomes extremely pertinent here is that all five were students were Dalits.
Expression of freedom of speech was being clamped down by exactly those institutions that are supposed to encourage the growth of scientific spirit. The Dalit research scholars were ostracised and deprived their scholarship. The University did this despite being aware of their caste and economic status. This makes it an act of Dalit atrocity. While some student groups across Indian universities expressed support, there was a deafening silence exhibited by the civil society at large. It took the suicide of a Dalit for television debates and newspapers to take notice. Even then, they parroted, ‘how would you label this as institutional/caste based murder?’ ‘Did Rohith blame anybody in the letter?’ ‘What do you think about the ASA condemning Yakub Memon’s execution?’ The class and caste bias of the Indian media is stale news, but it was disgusting to see how a previous letter written by Rohith to the VC, or the unfolding of events, was being consciously obliterated from the discussion. That anybody condemning capital punishment through the execution of Memon could legitimately be called an anti-national was considered beyond reasonable doubt (all this while watching fifteen minutes of a terrible debate with Rajdeep Sardesai).
This bias is also shared by a large chunk of upper caste social groups. Any discussion on Dalits generally revolves only around reservation; no mention of how it has taken years for some Dalits to gain some access to economic and cultural capital, despite several impediments. It is believed that mere removal of reservation will take away the ugly reality of caste that a lot of us never have had to deal with and never will. Institutions do not provide any mechanism to overcome the class and caste bias that many Dalit (and poor) students have to deal with once they begin higher studies. Across functioning central and state universities, the medium of instruction is English. The remedial classes in some universities, like DU, for English are a farce, and ‘Dalit Studies‘ is not offered across any discipline. The little scholarship money which research scholars get in central universities, so vital for women, the disabled, and disadvantaged caste groups, is being choked at every step without any alternative in sight. We are told that Rohith had not got his scholarship money since September only because of administrative delays, as if that is an acceptable reason. State funding in education is being cut, making it all the more unaffordable for the Dalits and the poor. A typical Dalit research scholar has to struggle all the more to learn, all by herself, things that we take for granted because of being born into privileged backgrounds. And then we have the audacity to pride ourselves for our merit.
The murder of Rohitha Vemula is a deliberate and calculated murder, by the institution, by the state, and by all of us. It is a case of caste atrocity that all of us have participated in at different points of time in our lives, consciously or otherwise. Now is the right time to at least acknowledge it.
Article by Nikita Audichya