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Nobody killed Rohith Vemula

By Kishalaya Mukhopadhyay
January 19, 2016 15:06 IST
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We need to question ourselves if we are to be implicated as well in the institutional murder of Rohith and many other Rohiths, if not bodily but in spirit, because of our complicity in naturalising this elitist, exclusionary, discriminatory-to-the-core conception of education, says Kishalaya Mukhopadhyay.

Image: The mother of Rohith Vemula (inset), a doctorate student at the Hyderabad Central University who was found hanging in a hostel room, speaks to the media. Photograph: PTI Photo.

Nobody killed Rohith Vemula’. Perhaps someday there will be a film like this.

Perhaps someday people will start talking about the exploitation of Dalits, the need for annihilation of caste, the systematic discrimination in all spheres of society including the government, corporate, bureaucratic and educational sectors.

Perhaps caste as an analytical category will become as politically charged as gender has become post-Nirbhaya.

Today there is a discourse around marital rape, victim blaming, domestic violence and other aspects of patriarchy that has transcended even if slightly only the small coterie of feminist scholars within whom this discourse used to be limited to.

Let us hope our burning rage at Rohith’s death can bring such a change too -- that no longer will caste remain a secondary issue, to be discussed by the handful of Dalit scholars only.

But we can certainly do more than just hope. We can actually try to proactively organise protests and social boycotts of institutions and their representatives that are guilty of promoting and propagating casteism.

We, who walk in rallies, mouth slogans and write provocative pieces, need to push our limits even further and try to help build a public sphere, a national discourse and, most importantly, an active citizenry composed especially of the exploited masses to challenge this brahmanical hegemonic order.

Let us backtrack a little and quickly go over the facts of this tragic incident.

Rohith, as described on social media by some of close friends and comrades, was an energetic person who had taken the discriminatory system head on. He was one of the five Dalit students who were expelled from University of Hyderabad a few days ago and were barred from using the hostel or any other university facilities.

All these students have been on hunger strike since then, sleeping in the open, joined by comrades from leftist organisations and individuals, but alas, Rohith took his own life on the 18th. The trouble started a few weeks back when the organisation these students worked with, the Ambedkar Students Association, marched in UoH against the ABVP for their attack on the Montage Film Society in Delhi University, where a screening of a documentary named Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was scheduled.

After this protest, a local ABVP leader, Susheel Kumar, had called the ASA students “goons” on social media, following which an online altercation ensued. However, an apology from this ABVP leader had settled the matter for the time being.

However, the Hindutva design resurfaced when Susheel lodged a complaint that he had been roughed up by ASA students, for which he had to be hospitalised. Following this complaint, the university’s proctorial board conducted an enquiry which found no support of the claim made by Susheel Kumar. The board’s final report warned both parties but slapped an order of suspension on five students from the ASA.

The organisation immediately organised a protest after this, and after a discussion with former vice-chancellor, Professor RP Sharma, on the loopholes of the previous enquiry, it was decided that the suspension will be revoked and a new committee will be formed to carry out fresh investigation.

However, as a written statement by Joint Action Committee for Social Justice (of UoH) pointed out, the ASA students were expelled without a proper enquiry, under the direction of the puppet VC, Prof P Apparao. The new VC, fuming activists are alleging, acted at the behest of BJP MP and Union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya, whose letter to Education Minister Smriti Irani described the ASA students as “extremist, casteist and anti-nationals”.

Angry students at UoH did not allow the body to be removed from the hostel room where it was found. The next morning, police unleashed its brutality on the protestors and imposed Section 144 in the campus.

So the question to be asked is: Who killed Rohith Vemula? Is it only the UoH authority that is to be blamed or is it just yet another manifestation of discrimination against the Dalits?

From the Bathani Tola massacre to the Badaun rape case to numerous instances of Dalits being raped, paraded naked and humiliated by upper castes, to the cases of institutional discrimination as evident from the expulsion (later revoked) of 73 Dalit students from IIT Rourkee and the de-recognition (also revoked) of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in IIT-Madras, atrocities and marginalisation of Dalits seem to be a commonplace phenomenon in the country and as per official reports, these crimes are only on the rise (external link).

But it is not enough to just call the system casteist, Brahmanical, patriarchal, capitalist and so on. It is equally important to accept that we, the left, the progressives, have not been vocal enough in condemning this regime of casteism.

Is it because the leftist forces still remain dominated by upper castes, who despite their best intentions, cannot fully break the shackles of Brahmanical ideology which prevents one to call a spade a spade when it comes to caste?

A large section of the left, often using Marxist phrasing, would like to make caste subordinate to class. While the intersection of caste and class is no doubt a reality, it is equally true that you cannot fight one without fighting the other. Thus class reductionism comes in the way of truly grasping the seriousness of caste based exploitation.

Let us not forget that major sections of the left have for a long time dealt with the gender question in a similar manner -- suggesting that gender liberation will follow the “main” revolution -- that of overthrowing the capitalist state and establishing the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

It is true that as a reaction to this longstanding snubbing of gender-related questions by the mainstream left a section of feminists emerged who altogether ditched the class question, which capitalism has allowed to flourish to a certain extent as it does not hit the foundations of the system but helps promote a “progressive” face of capitalism.

But it is equally true that much needed progress has indeed been made on the gender questions, because of which today, the orthodoxy of the traditional left on questions of gender, like heteronormative binarist mindset or conservative ideas about how women should act and present themselves in public, has been challenged. The environmental and caste questions are two other prominent discourses which are being attempted to be appropriated by the ruling class interests.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue – that combating this casteist, Brahmanical hegemony would not be possible without also challenging the class-based exploitation. Thus we need to steer clear of misguided notions like “Dalit capitalism” as a panacea for this social malice.

We must consider the possibility that both Dalit and non-Dalit scholar/student activists who have been (quite rightly) protesting against the marginalisation of Dalit intellectuals from the mainstream (for instance, the protest by a section of Dalit scholars against the decision by a publishing house to have Arundhuti Roy write an introduction to Ambedkar’s famous piece, Annihilation of Caste) may well be subsumed within the Brahmanical fold.

Paradoxical though it may sound, it is still not difficult to understand this risk if we actually analyse the existing institutions including the education system for what it is.

It is well documented that Dalits, like other marginalised sections like Muslims, are particularly under-represented in institutions of learning (external link), especially in higher education. There is no doubt that this is ample proof of the need for reservation.

But this alone is not nearly enough -- if we have to fight the casteist system, we have to change the very foundations.

With respect to education, it is not good enough to stop at demanding that Dalit scholars be not discriminated against in the way the ASA or APSC or IIT-Rourkee students were. It is important to push ahead and actually expose the elitist education system in its entirety, which can only be done by fighting all the dimensions and principles of exclusion that this education system is based on.

These technologies of exclusion include the arbitrary process of elimination (and not selection) in the name of “examinations”, “cut-off marks”, and “eligibility criteria” and so on.

If we agree that education is a fundamental right and if by education we mean the process through which the productive faculties of each and every individual can blossom, through which they can attain self-development and fulfillment as well as come in service of others and society at large, then there is no point in embracing the notoriously restrictive norms of the current education system.

Here is a simple example -- why can’t people simply walk into a library or any classroom in colleges and universities without having to show “identity proofs” that they “legitimately belong” there, by virtue of being a student or teacher.

It may not be the best example around, but in the movie Three Idiots, we saw Amir Khan’s character arguing along very similar lines -- sitting in a classroom where he didn’t belong -- the essence of such a free, open for all education should be the envisioned and not just nurtured as an utopian dream but as a political project that can be achieved through relentless struggle.

We need to ask those scholars who are, again very rightly, protesting against discrimination towards Dalit scholars and students, if they are actually able to see the problem in accepting the idea that the average guy on the street is not “eligible” for accessing resources confined within the physical and digital spaces of “educational institutions”.

We need to question ourselves if we are to be implicated as well in the institutional murder of Rohith and many other Rohiths, if not bodily but in spirit, because of our complicity in naturalising this elitist, exclusionary, discriminatory-to-the-core conception of education.

So no more passing the buck, no more just criticizing the “system” as if it is an external entity -- we need serious introspection.

True, people have been protesting against the class-based exclusion inherent in our education system for a long time -- by protesting fee hikes, privatisation, budget cuts, scrapping of fellowships or by pointing out that even if education is “free” or “subsidised” the poor may not be able to attend schools and colleges because they have to earn a living instead.

Thus, socio-economic factors have always been at the forefront for the battle for education.

Likewise, universally accessible and socially meaningful education that keeps pace with the dialectical process of breaking and creating as part of the journey towards building an alternative society free from all sorts of exploitation, discrimination and exclusion should be high on the priority list.

Let all of us pledge to strive for a society where lives will not be cut short prematurely on such a sad note (taken from Rohith’s suicide note as circulated on Facebook):

‘Know that I am happy dead than being alive.’

Kishalaya Mukhopadhyay is an independent activist and blogger associated with an initiative called The Commons and is pursuing an MPhil in Development Studies from Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata.

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