Rohit Vemula Protest

Murder by “Suicide”
Institutional Murder of a Dalit Research Scholar

The India wide protests that have erupted following the “circumstances” orchestrated by the RSS/BJP right wing which lead to the forced death (SUICIDE) of Rohith Vemula. Rohith a Research Scholar coming from the Dalit SC community was pursuing his doctoral studies at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU). His murder by suicide has once again brought to the surface the ugly face of India’s caste ridden hierarchical society. To make matters worse, we have a ruling party that is steeped in an ideology of hate against minorities and the oppressed castes (particularly the Dalits), promoting Brahmanical bigotry every step of the way.

It is not surprising that the HRD ministry under the aegis of ‘Manu’Smriti Irani and another minister hailing from Hyderabad – Bandaru Dattatreya (with an RSS background) had a direct hand in the suspension of the 5 Dalit research scholars. A confrontation between ABVP (RSS/ BJP student wing) and Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in August last year was blown out of proportion when the ABVP goon Susheel Kumar made false accusations against the 5 students and used his connections with the BJP at the highest levels to teach Dalit students their place in the University.

More than a mere clash of personal differences, the radical politics of ASA was beginning to ruffle more than a few feathers. Not only was it challenging the traditional left politics espoused by the CPI(M)’s SFI, but were increasingly confronting issues like death penalty, LGBT rights, beef politics, minority rights including those students belonging to Adivasi, Northeastern India, Kashmir etc. With over 500 members from different marginalized backgrounds and beginning to find an echo across the campus (even winning an election in 2011-12), this must have set alarm bells ringing in a very much conservative institution. Incidentally, Rohith Vemula saw himself as a Dalit Marxist and left the SFI precisely for the same reason that Ambedkar had once confronted the Stalinist CPI (M)– caste (Lal Salaam to Jai Bhim: Why Rohith Vemula left Indian Marxists).

Sanghi LiesHindutva Revival Department under ‘Manu’Smriti Irani

This is not the first time that the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry under Smriti Irani has courted controversy. Last year, the Ambedkar – Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was banned at IIT-Madras following an anonymous complaint. Following a social media uproar, this was later revoked. On a more education related issue, the HRD ministry scraped (now reinstated) all fellowships granted to MPhil and PhD students who had not taken the National Eligibility Test (NET). This gave birth to the #OccupyUGC student movement which is very much alive and has linked up with the present protest movement. Smirti Irani’s tenure as minister has been anything but controversial. Known more for her roles in the (patriarchal) soap operas than anything concerning education, Irani has gone out of her way to please her RSS bosses.

Worse, Irani’s earlier response in relation to the recent events has only fanned the flames by triggering the resignation of over 10 faculty members from the University. Her assertion such as “not a Dalit vs non Dalit issue”, no blame on any organization/ individual in the suicide letter, following administrative procedure regarding suspension and other defensive arguments are simply packed full of lies. Undue interest was shown by the ministry by sending four letters between September to November to the HCU Vice-Chancellor (VC) regarding the action taken against the students.

The other villain in the plot – Bandaru Dattatreya (MoS for Labour & Employement) is equally responsible for Rohith’s fate. Apart from applying undue pressure on the HRD ministry, his letter to the HRD in August last year labeled ASA and leftist political activities in the campus as ‘casteist, extremist and anti-national’. It has become the habit of the present ruling party to call anyone opposed to the them as anti-national or anti-Hindu. Ironically it is actually the BJP (and the Sangh Parivar) that is in fact the den of extremist, casteist, communal elements that is opposed to all that is progressive or pro-people and has done everything to break the delicate social fabric of the country.

Previous probe findings that had cleared the students was summarily set aside by the newly appointed VC Appa Rao (a BJP appointee and with a past record of discrimination against Dalits) and students were suspended restricting their access to hostel, library, public spaces within campus etc. More crucially their fellowship funds amounting to Rs. 175,000 (in case of Rohith) that were already delayed by 7 months (due to cut backs in social spending in education in the last year budget) was causing them undue financial distress. A Joint Action Committee (JAC) was formed by the student groups and taking a step further Rohith and his fellow comrades decided to protest by sleeping in the open, but the authorities deliberately ignored them.

Rohith’s Story

The short life story of Rohith Vemula, hailing from a Dalit background and raised by single mother, would make anyone cry. The double curse of poverty and still more horrendous experience of being born a Dalit in India can never fully be understand or expressed in words, and yet Rohith overcame all these barriers to securing PhD in a prestigious university under general category, not through the reservation route (which is a major argument used by upper caste elite to further discriminate Dalits students), is no small achievement!

The Rohith’s last letter says it all. Even before he took that fatal decision to end his life, we find in his letters not complaints or any display of petty mindedness but a zest for life, wanting to be a science writer like Carl Sagan, echoing one his famous words ‘we are made of star stuff’. The letter stands as a brutal condemnation of the feudal and casteist society that is India, and all that false story build around growth, development etc.

The dignity and magnanimity displayed in the letter should have put the entire ruling political party and its supporters to shame. However, all we get to see is their petty mindedness on full display– from shameless characters such as Smriti Irani, Bandaru Dattatreya or BJP party members and the hordes of Sanghi loudmouths online that are casting doubts such as Rohith is not ‘Dalit’ enough, reservation is all to blame, Rohith was indulging in ‘anti-national’ activities, was psychologically depressed and so on. It is this attitude and arrogance of the present government (& supporters) that is filled with bigots and nut-cases that would surely be the cause of its downfall one fine day.

Marking a change in its confrontational attitude, Narendra Modi (PM) finally broke silence after 5 days expressing sadness over Rohith’s death at a student convocation in Lucknow (UP), but was met by students shouting slogans such as ‘Modi Murdabad’, ‘Modi go back’ etc. More specifically he did not say anything about taking actions against all those responsible. But the damage has already been done, BJP has managed to single handedly alienate Dalits, backward castes and youth across the country. This will surely be reflected in the elections to come in the next period especially in UP were Dalit votes matter.

Dalit Student MurderProtest Movement and Beyond

This not the first time a Dalit was forced to take his own life, nine students (from Dalit or backward castes) have taken their lives in the last seven years at HCU alone. There have also been other incidents of Dalit students committing suicide at elite institutions such as IIT’s, AIIMS etc because of caste discrimination. While the previous incidents did not evoke any protests across the country and were mainly confined to the institutions concerned. But this time there have been massive protests in Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and also in other smaller metros across India.

The difference is the heightened consciousness of many student groups that have been involved in other face offs with the govt. Protests have not been confined to Dalit organizations alone, but many youth from the upper caste background have also shown solidarity.

The other important factor contributing to this is the string of controversies that have been the hallmark of Narendra Modi’s tenure as PM. Apart from his love affair with the corporate elite at the expense of the majority, the governments covert backing of the Hindutva agenda has polarized the country like never before. (See: Is Modimania On The Wane?)

The FTII student protest lasted for about 139 days and the struggle still continues though in other forms. #OccupyUGC movement despite a formal victory, is still continuing with protests for the last 2 months over certain aspects that has not been clarified by the HRD ministry. So it is not far-fetched to expect this protest to last even longer if the core demands of the JAC are not met. Even if this protest is dissipated, the damage has already been done. And next time around, another controversy of this scale could put a question mark on the longevity of this right wing, communal BJP led government.

On the other hand, the BJP is desperately trying to buy its way out such as the ex-gratia payment of Rs. 8 lakh (which has been rejected by the family of the deceased), ordering a judicial commission inquiry and if the worst comes may even drop Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya or take action against some low hanging fruits like the VC or Susheel Kumar. Unless legally compelled or via mass pressure to act on the JAC’s core demands, the central govt is unlikely to go beyond mere tokenism. How this will play out depends on several factors and crucially on how sensitively/ insensitively this govt handles the situation.

The present situation in India can best be described as radicalization of different sections of the Indian youth and working people on the one hand and communal polarization going hand in hand. Failure to meet expectations and lurching from one major controversy after another, Narendra Modi govt. could unwittingly end up causing a mass upheaval in the country. But it is the leadership of the left forces that is really wanting to take advantage of that enormous class anger to challenge the communal, casteist and capitalist forces that are presently holding the reigns of administration.

Hence, there is a crying need to build a genuinely left, viable mass alternative to challenge the present Capitalist, Communal & Casteist regime and pave way for a Socialist Alternative as urgently as possible.

Anand Kumar

Bangalore