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How we should honour Rohith Vemula's memory

By Vivek Gumaste
January 28, 2016 21:13 IST
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Rohith Vemula


'Reflex responses to Rohith Vemula's suicide are nothing more than band aids that stem the current hemorrhage, but do precious little to the festering wound beneath,' says Vivek Gumaste.

The call for the ouster of University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao, the demand for the dismissal of Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya (belonging to a backward caste) whose letter ostensibly set in motion the train of events that eventually led to Dalit scholar and PhD student Rohith Vemula committing suicide, the build-up of a compendium of theories that castigate Hinduism (and by proxy the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) as the evil imprimatur of caste discrimination and lash out at everyone and anyone in sight, is not going to solve the issue at hand.

These reflex responses are nothing more than expressions of misplaced egotism that miss the forest for the trees; band aids that stem the current hemorrhage but do precious little to the festering wound beneath; a knee jerk reflex that seeks transient redress for symptoms that mask a more serious malady: The continued ostracisation of Dalits in our society.

The impact that Vemula has in death far surpasses the influence that he wielded in life. In a bizarre and unfortunate fashion, his untimely demise brings to the fore the very issue that he championed in life: The Dalit cause.

In death, he forces all of us, willy nilly, to confront uncomfortable questions that cry out for answers and deficiencies that warrant rectification: What is the status of Dalits in our society today, 67 years after Independence?

Have we even partially succeeded in bettering the lives of this disadvantaged segment of our society? What more needs to be done to usher in a society that is truly egalitarian in practice?

But to inject a degree of clarity to the primordial issue, we need to sift the husk from the grain; we need to analyse and discard the slanted theories doing the rounds; and we need to counter and neutralise the senseless, wild charges and sideline their proponents who have transformed the current tragedy into a jamboree of sorts to extract political advantage.

The holier than thou attitude of the Congress party and its contention that Vemula's death shows the 'anti-Dalit' attitude of the central government and the BJP fails to pass the test of objectivity. In fact a review of past events tells a story to the contrary.

Read this news excerpt: 'Vemula's isn't the first suicide by a Dalit student on the University of Hyderabad campus... Over the last decade a string of suicides have rocked the central varsity highlighting the pronounced discrimination against students from the marginalised sections at UoH, say city educationists. Eight Dalit students committed suicide during this period unable to cope with what has been termed as caste politics.' (Nine student suicides in 10 years. Times of India January 19)

So in a 10 year period during which the Congress party was in power both at the Centre and in Andhra Pradesh no less than eight Dalit students committed suicide at UoH. None of these suicides became a cause celebre. None of them were highlighted to the same extent as Vemula's suicide. They were considered too insignificant to merit a debate.

For the Congress, Dalits become a priority only when the BJP is in power; they come in handy as tools to further their vested interests.

Similar is the case with leftist parties. Vemula was fully cognisant of the stark hypocrisy inherent to the Communist movement. In an article titled, Lal Salaam to Jai Bhim: Why Rohith Vemula left Indian Marxists, (Hindustan Times, January 22), his friend Jashwanth Jessie writes: 'His disillusionment with the Communists happened when he discovered that the boys and girls who had given up faith in god could not bring themselves up to abandon their faith in the caste system. He quit the Students Federation of India after he was discriminated for his caste by the so-called comrades who he hoped would deliver him and his people from this wretched social order.'

When (CPI-M General Secretary) Sitaram Yechury visited the university for a lecture and demanded reservation in the private sector for lower-caste people, Vemula responded with a viral Facebook post in which he asked why the Communist Party of India-Marxist hasn't had a single Dalit politburo member in 51 years.

So we need to take the present concern voiced by the Congress and leftist parties with a ton of salt.

Moreover, to make Hinduism, the BJP and the RSS as the bogeyman in today's battle against caste discrimination is a flight of fantasy that takes a break from objectivity and reality.

There is no denying that caste discrimination has its genesis in the Hindu religion. It is indefensible and a cross of ignominy that Hinduism must perforce bear and acknowledge. But for all its deficiencies and its drawbacks, Hinduism has a robust resilience that is hard to match, a fearless insight that does not balk at confronting and countering the demons in its midst; a propensity for continuous reform.

To bolster this conclusion let us take recourse to history and evaluate the role of other religions in contrast to Hinduism vis-a vis the Dalits.

Muslim rule that lasted close to over a thousand years failed to formulate any official policy to uplift the Dalits testifying to the fact that it was only interested in augmenting its numbers. Likewise during the 200 odd years of Christian British colonial rule, the clergy was busy harvesting Dalit souls for their Christian registry, but made no attempt to eradicate caste inequities by official diktat or moral persuasion.

It was only in 1947 when a predominantly Hindu government came into being that the plight of the Dalits received official acknowledgement. India's affirmative action plan is by far the most ambitious, most comprehensive and the most widespread of any effort to uplift a disadvantaged community in the history of mankind.

I emphasise this point not as a boast but as a testimony to the remorse and repentance of Hinduism that is genuine and sincere. The succour provided to blacks in the United States, or the aid given to aborigines in Australia come no way close to what India has attempted to do.

To brand the RSS as elitist and anti-Dalit flies in the face of evidence. It has encouraged Dalit priests and been critical of temples that bar access to Dalits. Read this news excerpt:

'Following up on its radical call last year to train and appoint Dalits as priests in Hindu temples, the RSS has severely condemned the barring of Dalits from a temple in Orissa recently.'

A year-end editorial in the Sangh weekly Panchjanya termed as unfortunate the discriminatory attitude of temple authorities at the Jagannath temple in Kerdagarh saying it was 'shameful that even in 2006 there are temples where Dalits are disallowed ... Even God will desert the temple that Dalits cannot enter.' (RSS rips into ban on Dalits entering temples. Times of India, January 3, 2007)

To bring about equality and eradicate caste discrimination in Hindu society the RSS has coined the slogan of 'One well, one temple and one crematorium.'

The bitterness of the Dalit towards Hindu society is understandable and totally justified. No one can fault him for that or deprive him of the right to vent his anger. But anger and bitterness are important in the battle against injustice only to a degree.

When anger becomes all-consuming, it becomes a self-destructive monster rather than a constructive urge and proves counterproductive.

What impressed me most about Vemula's letter was the total lack of rancour; it demonstrated exceptional clarity, incisive rationale and emanated a rare sadness for human fraility. He had in him the potential to be a great leader, a Moses who would lead his people out of modern captivity. But alas it was not to be and that is the greatest tragedy of Rohith Vemula's death.

It is a loss not only for his community but for India as a whole for he possessed the right frame of mind to bridge the caste gap with maturity and pragmatism.

If we don't want his sacrifice to be in vain and if we wish to prevent another Vemula from taking his life the central demand of the protest must change. In lieu of individual punition (the law will take its course), one must seek immediate nationwide implementation of the recommendations proposed by the Thorat Committee which was tasked with looking into the allegations of differential treatment of SC/ST students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The important measures recommended by the committee were:

  • 1. The setting up of an 'Equal Opportunity Office' that would not only address all grievances faced by SC/ST students but also conduct remedial coaching programmes that would help refine English language skills and bolster the academic potential of these students so as to make them fit into the mainstream.
  • 2. A joint committee, comprising of students, residents and faculty that would address the issue 'collectively and together' with 'heart to heart discussions' in order to alleviate the sense of alienation that SC/ST students experience in educational institutions.

Ultimately, however, it falls upon all of us Indians to strive to erase these caste fault lines, if India is to progress as one entity. This is not an option, but an unavoidable mandate.

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