A Case of an Institutional Murder

For a dalit Scholar, even in an institution of higher learning it is not that easy to have a smooth sailing without being humiliated. This is the real face of the ‘biggest democracy’ of the world. The suicide of Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula of the Hyderabad Central University, on January 18, 2016, at the age of 26, reflects among other things that caste discrimination is an integral part of Indian governing system. What was true in 1950 when India became Republic is equally true today despite break-up of some old social structures in many places. Ironically, the Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Government of India advertised itself with much fanfare that ‘‘the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015 comes into force on 26th January, 2016’’. And President Pranab Mukherjee in his customery Republic Day address kept the people in good humour by issuing his sermon that ‘‘To complain, to demand, to rebel, too, is a virtue of democracy’’. It cannot be abolished by enacting more ‘welfare laws’ while continually accommodating a tiny segment of dalits into the elite club of rulers. ‘Never in the past were dalit students socially boycotted in the institution they were studying in and never were their scholarship amounts withheld, for months as it happened in Rohith’s case’. Reservation is no answer to this social evil called caste. Social evil is to be fought with social reforms.

In truth Rohith’s suicide is continuation of growing intolerance against the growing assertiveness of the underprivileged. Then the dalit identity is not the sole factor that precipitated the Hyderabad University crisis leading to the death of a scholar. Any voice of dissent at any level seeking an alternative way of looking at things is silenced by brute force or by selective discriminatory treatment. Dissent is dangerous to powers that be. Rohith’s fault was that his organisation—Ambedkar Students Association (ASA)—protested against the death penalty of Yakub Menon, an alleged participant in 1993 Bombay Bombings in which 257 innocent people were killed. It’s a question of principle that they like many human rights bodies, demand total abolition of death penalty. Almost all human rights outfits and civil liberties platforms across the world are against death penalty. Even Amnesty International doesn’t support death penalty for terrorists. And their stand doesn’t make them a ‘terrorist’ outfit. But Bandaru Dattatreya, Bharatiya Janata Party’s MP from Secundrabad and the Modi government’s Minister of Labour and Employment found in ASA’s opposition to death penalty an unpatriotic act. As contradiction between ASA and Bharatiya Janata Party’s student-wing ABVP got sharpened over contentious political issues, campus violence was the logical culmination. So Dattatreya came to the rescue of his saffron brigade by writing a letter in August 2015 to HRD Minister Smriti Irani urging action against unpatriotic elements while claiming that ‘‘Hyderabad University has in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics’’. Dattatreya’s statement was a clear provocation and his saffron crusaders in the campus got the message. Rohith’s suicide occurred after a prolonged controversy which stretched over a few months, starting July 2015 when the University stopped paying him the fellowship money. In September 2015, the University authorities actually escalated the campus conflict by suspending five leading ASA members, including Rohith.

Faced with stiff agitation by the students and growing solidarity across the country, the University authorities finally revoked suspensions of Rohith’s four co-researchers. The noted poet Ashok Vajpaye returned his DLit degree awarded by the University in protest against partisan and discriminatory circumstances that led to the tragic death of Rohith Vemula. As the solidarity support for the dalit issue was spreading, the Centre finally decided to set up a judicial commission to go into Rohith’s suicide and announced an exgratia payment of Rs 8 lakh to his family. But campus agitators refused to withdraw their indefinite hunger strike demanding resignation of Union Ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya and the Vice-Chancellor P Appa Rao.

For all practical purposes the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act mocks at itself. Mere booking—Dattatreya has been booked under it by the Cyberabad police—is unlikely to address the gravity of the problem.

If political parties from Congress to CPM, are so vocal about Rohith’s suicide it is because they see in it an opportunity to grill the Modi government and cash in on the tragedy in vote. So CPM’s general secretary Sitaram Yechury demanded to treat the death, and not quite unjustifiably, as plain ‘murder’. But the BJP in turn accused Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi of trying to divide society over suicide of a dalit scholar. The fact is that all parties—ruling and opposition alike—are indulging in ‘cheap politics’ over the death. Communal polarisation apart, casteist polarisation too is necessary to reap dividends in electoral politics. The communist left, irrespective of the ‘pre-fixes’, has a consistent agenda against communal outfits, more precisely against Hindu communalists, but they don’t know how to fight the casteist divisions. Their Marxism has no answer. Once they thought caste would automatically wither away with the advance of class struggles and, industrialisation coupled with urbanisation would break the age-old feudal institution. But they no longer talk of class struggle, even of their kind. Nor does their caste-class equation, explain the ground reality.

For one thing, Dalits are mainly persecuted in the ghettos in the fields and work places in brazen violation of pro-Dalit Acts. Their women are being sexually assaulted every now and then, by socially and economically privileged persons. Their slums are torched under flimsy pretexts. But most political parties don’t react the way they are reacting now because this time attack is on the articulate section of Dalit community.

No doubt top intellectuals are expressing concerns about the growing intolerance in social affairs, in religious matters and in areas where the persons in power feel threatened about their unjustified and illegal privileges. But they do hardly offer any concrete challenge to the ideology of divisive forces.

Unless the under-privileged and eternally persecuted who are mainly dalits and representing the marginalised communities get united for a society without caste, shedding tears for the dalits’ agony won’t force the authorities to make any amendment to the ‘unwritten constitution’ through which the privileged, both socially and economically exert their influence and systematically resort to undemocratic functioning. Communist parties in India are in the main without any mass-line and yet they think they could bring in oppressed masses in their millions in popular struggles for radical change. In their world outlook ‘social reform’—or for that matter religious reform—tentamounts to pure ‘reformism’, devoid of any revolutionary content. But social reformers of yester years played a crucial role in radicalising the orthodox society. They cannot offer a vision for a better future for the youth in general. The hard reality is that their policies are too abstract, if not vague, to motivate masses. The noises against Rohith’s institutional murder will soon subside making it yet another statistical footnote in the long history of caste oppression.


Vol. 48, No. 30, Jan 31 - Feb 6, 2016