How the Indian Left failed Rohith Vemulas
Any observer of caste and the political Left’s disturbing ambiguity towards it will tell you the Dalit scholar was right.
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On January 19, two days after Rohith Vemula’s death, MAIL TODAY published an article titled: "Red, saffron hues in student suicide". My colleague Siddhartha Rai reported that though the political atmosphere has become one in which the Dalit discourse - of which Vemula was a votary - is at loggerheads with the rightwing. Vemula was as critical of the Left ideology as of the Right as his Facebook posts suggest. “While in his suicide note Rohith has not held anyone responsible for his extreme step, the circumstances that led to his death indicate that he was dejected with the developments in his life. While Vemula was extremely critical of the Hindu right and the Narendra Modi-led Central government, he did not have words of appreciation for either the Left or its leaders. His only mascot was Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, and to a large extent Jyotiba Phule. His October 28, 2015 Facebook post read: Not left, not left liberals and not even left radicals. Only radical Ambedkar can liberate us,” the report read.
Like Snowzilla, the monster blizzard that has snowed in large chunks of eastern America, the Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts, Op-ed columns that followed Vemula’s suicide after being expelled from the hostel at the Hyderabad Central University, buried the fact that the dreamy-eyed scholar was as critical of the political Left as he was of the openly discriminatory and casteist sentiments of the Right. Rai’s report says Vemula seems to have grown disillusioned with the Left movement on the HCU campus. He had been a member of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the students’ arm of the CPI(M), but had resigned from it and had joined the Ambedkar Students Association. In one of his posts on Facebook, dated October 23, Vemula also accused the SFI of “trying to pitch Dalits against Dalits” and called the SFI “casteist”.
Any observer of caste and the political Left’s disturbing ambiguity towards it will tell you Rohith was right. While paying lip-service to a classless, casteless society, the Left has not only been guilty of criminal negligence to the Dalit cause but of atrocities against them as well. I have little knowledge of the politics and social realities of Andhra Pradesh, but let me recount the hypocrisy and criminality of the Left Front in dealing with Dalits in the 34 long years it ruled and ruined West Bengal.
In the late 1970s, soon after the Left came to power, an about-toretire head of the department of Sanskrit at a reputed university in Kolkata threw a fit over an application for a lecturer’s post. The applicant was a Namashudra, a Dalit, and the professor told his colleagues that a shudra couldn’t be allowed to teach Sanskrit. Mind you this was the ’70s and reservation for SC/ST/OBCs was still a chimera. The candidate, a first-class degree holder, had applied purely on the basis of merit. The professor, a cardcarrying Left ideologue, garnered tacit political support to scrap the application. No reason was cited for the refusal. All that the candidate got to know was that ‘a more deserving candidate’ had been selected.
It may be tempting to gloss over this incident as a one-off instance of prejudice that shouldn’t mar the bhadralok ethos that the Left celebrated during its rule where any display of caste was scoffed at. But there’s more.
In November 2004, students at a primary school in Birbhanpur village in Bankura district refused to accept mid-day meals as the cook was a bagdi woman, an untouchable. As Op-ed hacks from Kolkata newsrooms cried ‘Disgrace’, politburo member Biman Bose issued a statement: “The matter has been resolved through detailed discussions.” But when a similar incident took place in Purulia district’s Dumurdi village soon after, a quick solution was offered by the village education committee comprised of local Left leaders: Hire another cook, an upper caste!
After the mid-day meal incident Anandabazar Patrika ran a series on the plight of Dalits in Bengal villages (panchayats in most of these were ruled by the Left). The findings were alarming: In village after village, the survey found Dalit families were marginalised, Dalit kids were made to sit separately in school and denied access to libraries and other facilities.
But it is the carnage at Marichjhanpi, a tiny island hidden in the Sundarbans archipelago, that remains a classic example of the Left’s caste bias and should be recounted every time Left leaders protest when a Rohith Vemula is evicted for being Dalit. The arson, rapes and murders that form the backdrop of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide resulted in the forcible eviction of nearly 10,000 settlers, most of them lower caste Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Around 6,000 huts were set on fire, plainclothes policemen opened fire and killed unarmed refugees, refugee women were abducted and gangraped in police stations. All under the watchful eye of the Left Front government.
So what prompted an elected government to evict a people who had started new life in a godforsaken island? The official explanation was Marichjhanpi belonged to reserve forest area and refugees had no business being there. But Janata Dal MPs who visited the island after the carnage said there was no reserve forest there to begin with. Why then?
Some of the survivors of Marichjhanpi who I have interviewed for my book on the carnage say the Left Front had began the process of building its Muslim vote-bank in the Sundarbans by giving ration cards to Muslim migrants from beyond borders. It had no space for Dalits!Rohith Vemula is dead. The political Right has lots to answer for. But will the Left look into the mirror?