Rohith Vemula suicide: Raising Dalit voice inside a 'Brahmin stronghold'

'Discrimination' is the catchword. No doubt, it exists.

 |  7-minute read |   22-01-2016
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"We do not want to do research on your Ram, Sita and Ganesh," said a speaker from JNU, New Delhi on stage at the protest site in the Hyderabad Central University.

"It is a brahminical institutional murder of Rohith" - slogans at the protest site on campus.

If the number of people at the protest site has sharply dwindled from day one and two to day five, it is partially owing to this kind of shrill rhetoric, bordering on unpleasantness and intolerance. The expressions change, there is cringing at the "YOU killed Rohith" narrative. In the initial days, a large number of non-Dalit students, faculty and employees also turned up to show solidarity and mourn the loss of a brilliant student because there was genuine empathy. But the finger-pointing is beginning to touch a raw nerve.

"I want to go back to the classroom and the lab. We are losing precious time," said an impatient MSc student who did not wish to be named for obvious reasons. Fear indeed is a factor. The Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) comes with a reputation. As does the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). The extreme positions taken by both student bodies give little manoeuvring space to neutral minds. The "you are either with us or against us" has "George Bushed" such students into a corner. Staying away is a safer option.

The chatter on social media platforms is revealing. Classroom WhatsApp groups which exhorted students to come in large numbers target absentees in not very polite language. "We criticised the vice chancellor. Instead we should have criticised you" went one message to those students who stayed away, asking, "Where is your humanity?" Disinterested students call it "terrorism of the intellectual kind".

"Look at these shameless BJP chamchas, V-C's chamchas. We are telling these professors to go back, yet they are not budging" (A protester said this on the microphone when senior professors arrived at the protest site on Thursday evening as representatives of the vice chancellor to talk to the students.).

"Mata Pita Guru Devam" - something we learnt early on in life, I realised on Thursday, is no longer relevant. The "guru" is now a subject of hatred, abuse and vitriol especially if he is from the "***ing brahminical order". Wonder if BR Ambedkar would have approved.

"Discrimination" is the catchword. No doubt, it exists. The Vinod Pavarala committee report that investigated the circumstances that led to the suicide by Senthil Kumar, a Dalit Ph.D scholar in 2008, pointed out that there were instances of teachers shifting goalposts to trouble the Dalit students. The pass mark would be changed at the last minute to ensure the Dalit student fails. It is a huge challenge for Dalit research scholars to find guides.

Dalit students and faculty point out that all decision-making is done by non-Dalits at the university. "From the beginning, it has been a Brahmin agraharam," says one professor, the contempt for the upper castes, clear in his choice of words. But non-Dalit faculty argue that to tar the entire faculty as "Killers of Rohith" is like shooting at random.

Many Dalit intellectuals, however, are not happy with the emphasis on caste. It is not possible to maintain the momentum like this, they say. It would have been much better if it had been built up as a students' agitation, taking all parties on board. Right now, even though it is officially under the aegis of the Joint Action Committee, gradually it has metamorphosed into an ASA platform, with other outfits like the Students' Federation of India (SFI) and National Students' Union of India (NSUI) not in the forefront. Critics wonder if the ASA is using this occasion to build itself up, especially in light of the fact that it lost the student body elections in Hyderabad Central University (HCU) last year.

"We were five, you reduced us to four. Now do not make us three," said a protesting student on stage.

"Just what did they mean?" a representative from a political party who has cut his teeth in student politics wondered aloud, when he heard this. This kind of a loose comment, coming when people - both those who knew Rohith and did not know him - are mourning his demise, was irresponsible.

Meanwhile, Rohith's suicide note has been sent for forensic analysis to decipher the words in the paragraph that he had cut out. The portion of the paragraph that Rohith decided not to articulate to the world contained words like "bad water". It said: "ASA, SFI, anything and everything exist for their own sake." Was he expressing his frustration at being associated with student unions and the futility of such campus politics?

Police sources tell me it will also be examined by a handwriting expert if the paragraph had indeed been struck out by Rohith himself. This even though Rohith has signed at the end of the paragraph that he had cut it out himself.

You can smell mistrust in the air at the HCU. The decision of the university to end the academic semester by April 10, instead of May 10, is being linked to the administration's reluctance to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14.

The decision to stop consumption of beef - allowed since 2006 - at the annual university festival "Sukoon" was seen by Dalit students as an indication of an authoritarian approach of the vice chancellor. Sardar Patel's birth anniversary on October 31 began to be celebrated as Ekta Diwas, which was resented. Similarly Vivekananda Jayanti was also observed, something Rohith also objected to, in a Facebook post.

The problem is when in the heat of the moment, half-truths get showcased as the absolute truth. One activist claimed on stage, not once but twice, in the presence of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Thursday that the WiFi and LAN connections were cut by the university authorities. Not true, said neutral students, proceeding to show the WiFi connectivity on their mobile phones. Incidents like this dent the credibility of the protesters.

A majority of teachers and students alike are now asking one question: "how long is this going to continue?" Both sides want classes to start, a proposal rejected by striking students and some faculty members, who argue this will mean a victory for the vice chancellor Prof Appa Rao. They want the V-C to resign while Rao has said he won't. The decision to appoint a judicial commission with a time frame of three months to submit its report is seen as a time-tested bureaucratic way to bury the issue.

By Friday, beneath the veneer of bravado, panic had begun to set in. Most political leaders from across the country (barring Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu) had marked their attendance before TV cameras at the "Dalit Ghetto" that has been set up at the protest site and SOS calls were made to the second-rung politicians to ensure the momentum does not sag.

The funds are also drying up. Reliable sources tell me, a political party will keep the fire burning because it sees in it an opportunity to tap into the Dalit vote. The plan also is to move the agitation out of Hyderabad University and move it either to a more central place or even to New Delhi.

On December 18, Rohith wrote that stinging letter to the V-C. He wrote: "I request your Highness to make preparations for the facility 'Euthanasia' for students like me. And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever."

Is that an indication that Rohith had made up his mind on that day? Exactly 30 days later, on January 17, he decided to "rest in peace forever".

Rohith mentioned "solution for Dalit problem" as the "subject" of that sarcastic letter to the V-C. The jury is, however, out on whether the chest-beating on display would help achieve Rohith's last wish.

Writer

TS Sudhir TS Sudhir @iamtssudhir

The writer is a journalist.

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