Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why suicide by a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad has caused nation-wide disquiet

by Ratnakar Tripathy

The recent suicide by a Dalit research scholar at the Central University of Hyderabad has justifiably caused a furor across the country among those who care for freedom, justice and democracy. Rohith, a second-year research scholar of Science, Technology and Society Studies Department, was thrown out of his hostel by the university authorities some time ago along with other students after being accused of attacking fellow student Sushil Kumar, an ABVP leader. The alleged attack took place subsequent to the screening of a documentary film ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’. ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ incidentally is an expose of the notorious riots in Muzaffarnagar UP last year that displaced a large Muslim population for months. Following the campus incident, none else but the union labour minister Bandaru Dattareya complained to the HRD ministry about ‘anti national activities’ on the campus and the ‘violent attack’ on an ABVP leader. Within days after the incident, Sushil Kumar, the ABVP leader underwent a surgical procedure for appendicitis which raises many questions over the alleged stomach injury. The HRD ministry however decided that the issue was of vital national interest and showed great urgency in sending altogether five letters to Hyderabad University asking for appropriate response. Increasingly, the top members of BJP are using the label ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-patriotic’ for anyone opposed to the BJP – such frivolous use of the terms and such arrogance after a single decisive victory at the centre shows a hubris that deserves all possible opposition.  At this rate one wonders if the entire parliamentary opposition itself will be branded anti-national in the coming days!

In a deeply moving suicide note, Rohith comes out as a talented student with a dream to become a science writer like Carl Sagan, his role model. His pithy line ‘My birth is my fatal accident’ in the letter perhaps refers to both – his life under the inherited caste identity and the sort of end it came to. As is usually the case a beeline of political leaders including Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Owaisi and Arvind Kejriwal not to mention the media parades have turned up at the university to make a common cause with the Dalits and hopefully to add the Dalit cause to their own repertoire of causes. Quite as usual too, the BJP spokesmen are asking everyone not to make political use of the tragic incident – if one really takes seriously the BJP’s repeated plea after every such incident, there would be no political issues left for anyone to take up and everyone would be mourning and grouching in great privacy forever! It thus seems heartening that rather than make noises in distant Delhi, the leaders are turning up at the university gates to make the crime as visible as possible. Notably, Dalit leaders like Mayawati and Ramvilas Paswan have made the feeblest of noises on the matter.

The suicide note had a precedent. Last December, a month before his suicide, Rohith had written another letter to the Vice Chancellor of the Hyderabad Central University, begging him to give poison or ‘a nice rope’ to Dalit students. In the letter, he also claimed that the persecution of Dalit students on the campus was so widespread that the campus should ‘facilitate euthanasia’ for them, the reason for such strong language being that his stipend was withheld for several months and he was left borrowing money from friends. Rohith’s desperate words are hardly that of an aggressive or unreasonable political militant making use of grievances to perpetrate extreme acts. It is indeed tragic that decades after our independence, we need to spend so much energy on concealing the most glaringly ugly realities of life on the campus – the persistent tormenting of Dalit students who then try to organize themselves only to attract further retaliations.   

Although the police have reportedly registered cases against Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, the University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor P. Appa Rao, and two ABVP activists on charges of abetment to suicide, and violation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, there are now attempts to prove that Rohith did not belong to a Dalit caste. Rohith clearly came from the indigent background of the stonecutter community but that is seen as not backward enough by the upper caste goons!   If a Facebook post is to be relied on, Rohith’s body was cremated secretly by the police after an autopsy following which his profile was allegedly removed from Facebook. The Facebook post also provides a scan of the cremation certificate for all to see. That all this does not augur well for freedom of expression on the Indian university campuses seems an understatement. Earlier the governments at the centre or the state level tried meddling in the institutions of higher learning to various degrees but the BJP seems to be systematically tightening its death-grip on the campuses with an unmatched totalitarian thoroughness. In fact the HRD minister Smriti Irani seems to be good at the one job she has carried out with enviable efficiency under the delusional certainty that her regime is forever. Her reaction to the incident is remarkable for its triteness – ‘do not ignite passions’, and that ‘it’s not a Dalit vs non-Dalit issue’ she suggests to whoever will listen. As for the Hyderabad Central University Vice Chancellor Appa Rao, he claims in the manner of a soulless bureaucrat that Rohith Vemula ‘did not mention his suspension as the reason for the extreme step in the suicide note’ - the death of a young talented man reduced to its forensic skeletons!

On the whole rather than suppress things, the long chain of official responses will simply ensure that a battle rages on campuses for some time to come and may even spill over in wider public life. In reality, the BJP which claims to have a monopoly over nationalism and patriotism is behaving more and more like an external invader aiming to take over the different sectors of public life in India with a hunger like there is no tomorrow. There was a time when the BJP-RSS depended on their ability to convince and convert the public or their generally non-violent methods of disinformation. Once in power they have turned into bullies and loyal representatives of the upper castes and their domineering ethos. Even if one does not depend on one’s own campus experience or sundry anecdotes from friends and acquaintances there is ample proof of continued harassment of Dalits on campuses. An enquiry by the Thorat Committee in 2006 at the elite All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi revealed that the professors at AIIMS routinely intimidate SC/ST students.  The University of Hyderabad too has in the past constituted a number of committees to look into the spate of suicides by Dalit students on its campus.

Unfortunately, the present government at the centre takes greater pride in its thick skin, its ability to put a sly spin on every negative report to mask its general bewilderment, and of course sheer brute power rather than an honest response to popular angst. This angst against a government ‘without a heart’ is piling up on a daily basis like the karma and may turn out to be the most intangible but at the same time the most powerful reason for a washout in 1919. ‘You cannot touch us till 2019’ is the crude message that emerges from the BJP’s overall political communication rather than ‘we deserve a chance to continue beyond 2019, please’ which is more in keeping with the language and the spirit of democracy.   

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