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India: Suicide of the Dalit Student Activist Rohit Vermula - Reactions by Academics, Scholars and Concerned Citizens

22 January 2016

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a compilation of responses by Academics, Scholars and Concerned Citizens to the suicide of the PhD student of University of Hyderabad in January 2016. Related articles are also included along with some background material from 2013

[updated on 28 January 2016]

  • Statement by concerned scholars following Rohith Vemula’s death
  • How democracy in every sphere of life holds the key to Dalits’ redemption
  • Death by Saffron: Campus Politics in the Time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • Rohith Vemula, death of a philosopher to purify higher education
  • Ancient prejudice, modern inequality
  • A new Dalit identity: The RSS has taken upon itself to define who is a pure Dalit and who a nationalist
  • Email from Susie Tharu
  • Other related articles

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January 21, 2016

Statement by concerned scholars following Rohith Vemula’s death

The suicide of Rohith Vemula is now the subject of a ridiculous inquiry to be conducted by a Committee set up by Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani. The real reason and the politics behind it are clear to those who are willing to open their eyes. As academics, we are concerned that such a situation should prevail in Universities, and wish to register our protest.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was to be screened at the University of Hyderabad. The action was planned by the Ambedkar Students’ Association. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, student goons of the RSS, used force to try and halt this. Dalit students were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical force. As a result of agitations the ABVP had to apologise in writing. This was what caused such tremendous heartburn to the Hindutva forces. While the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai has taken place in various parts of the country, and has also given rise to conflicts in various parts of the country, it is in UoH alone that the consequences turned so aggressive with full participation of the top echelons of the University. The new Vice Chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, had five PhD students suspended. They were subjected to social ostracism as well. Thrown out of hostel, debarred from entering library, administrative spaces, they were hounded in a way that no administration has hounded any upper caste student in our memory. It is also reported that an MHRD letter designated them anti-national for opposing the hanging of Yakub Memon. The MHRD, today proclaiming autonomy of Universities, was goading UoH through several letters to take action against the ASA. Rohith had even written a letter to the Vice Chancellor a couple of weeks ago, where he suggested the University provide means of committing suicide to Dalit students. Even after this the authorities did nothing. And after the suicide, the police acted in a brutal and shameless manner, grabbing the body of Rohith and disposing of it in secrecy instead of handing it over to his relatives.

As a result, we need to conclude the following:

  • That while other conflicts, such as over communalism, over a host of issues, do remain important, when they are fought with Dalits at one end, the attitude of government and authorities becomes far more aggressive.
  • That there is a generalised hostility to Dalits, and a great insensitivity to the burdens they carry, which is why the Hindutva offensive against the ASA could proceed so far with so little protest from across the country.

This should once again force us to open our eyes, as incidents repeatedly, whether the suicide of Chuni Kotal in 1992, or the death of Balmukund Bharti, again by suicide, or so many other cases should have, that while formally the Constitution of India declares the end of casteism, in reality Brahmanism is rampant, and Dalits today have to fight the same battle as Shambuk or Ekalavya. If we are really sincere in desiring democracy and substantive equality, we must stand up and be counted in the struggle against casteism.

We demand:

●Removal of Smriti Irani as the Minister in charge of a Department that wrote repeated letters to UoH demanding punishment of so-called anti-national students.

●Removal of the Vice Chancellor and his punishment for casteism, and for abetting suicide.

●Action against all those using casteist abuse on social media against the ASA.

Signatories:

  1. Sumit Sarkar
  2. Tanika Sarkar
  3. Achin Vanaik
  4. Kunal Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University
  5. Soma Marik, RKSM Vivekananda Vidyabhavan, West Bengal State University
  6. Abhijit Kundu, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University
  7. Maroona Murmu, Jadavpur University
  8. Kalyan Das, Presidency University
  9. Anuradha Roy, Jadavpur University
  10. Samantak Das, Jadavpur University
  11. Abhijit Gupta, Jadavpur University
  12. Sudeshna Banerjee, Jadavpur University,
  13. Suchetana Chattopadhyay, Jadavpur University
  14. Samir Karmakar, Jadavpur University
  15. Nilanjana Gupta, Jadavpur University
  16. Sanjoy Kumar Saha, Jadavpur University
  17. Nupur Dasgupta, Jadavpur University
  18. Sujata Tarafdar, Jadavpur University,
  19. Nandini Saha, Jadavpur University
  20. Mahitosh Mandal, Presidency University
  21. Debajit Dutta, Jadavpur University
  22. Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
  23. Sujit Kumar Mandal, Jadavpur University
  24. Keshab Bhattacharya, Jadavpur University
  25. Rochana Das, Jadavpur University
  26. Gautam Gupta, Jadavpur University
  27. Mahidas Bhattacharya, Jadavpur University
  28. Abhijit Roy, Jadavpur University
  29. Partha Pratim Ray, Jadavpur University
  30. Epsita Halder, Jadavpur University
  31. Proyash Sarkar, Jadavpur University
  32. Atreyi Dasgupta, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Center for Hematology and Oncology, Baylor College of Medicine, USA
  33. Chandak Sengoopta, Birbeck College, University of London
  34. Tithi Bhattacharya, University of Purdue
  35. Bill Mullen, University of Purdue
  36. Abha Dev Habib, Miranda House, Delhi University
  37. Neshat Qaiser, Jamia Milia Islamia University
  38. Rina Ramdev, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University
  39. Surajit Mukhopadhyay, WBNUJS
  40. Gaurang Sahay, TISS, Mumbai
  41. Padma Velaskar, TISS, Mumbai
  42. Monami Basu, Delhi University
  43. Mrityunjay Yadavendu, Delhi University
  44. Naveen Gaur, Dyal Singh College, Delhi University
  45. Nandita Narain, St. Stephens College, Delhi University.
  46. Pradip Basu, Presidency University
  47. Saikat Sinha Roy, Jadavpur University
  48. Anindya Sengupta, Jadavpur University
  49. Partha Sarathi Bhaumik, Jadavpur University
  50. Rimi B. Chatterjee, Jadavpur University
  51. Shashi Sekhar Singh, Satyavati College, Delhi University
  52. Mihir Pandey, Ramjas College, Delhi University
  53. Radrashish Chakraborty, KMC, Delhi University
  54. Roopa Dhawan, Ramjas College, Delhi University
  55. Chitra Joshi, IP College, Delhi University
  56. Debaditya Bhattacharya, Nivedita College, University of Calcutta
  57. Indrani Talukdar, BITS Pilani, Goa
  58. Vinita Chandra, Ramjas College, Delhi University
  59. Nandini Chandra, Delhi University
  60. Mithuraaj Dhusiya, Delhi University
  61. Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, formerly in CSSSC
  62. Samarpita Mitra, Jadavpur University
  63. Tilottama Mukherjee, Jadavpur University
  64. Arabinda Samanta, Burdwan University
  65. Niladri R. Chatterjee, Kalyani University
  66. Priyanka Bhattacharya, Doon School
  67. Sreejith Kalandy, Mangalkote Government General Degree College
  68. Pranav Jani, Ohio State University, USA
  69. Paramita Bhattacharjee Chakraborti, Jadavpur University
  70. Partha Pratim Basu, Jadavpur University
  71. Rina Ghosh, Jadavpur University

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The Economic Times - January 27, 2016

How democracy in every sphere of life holds the key to Dalits’ redemption
by TK Arun

A sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic — this is what India is supposed to be. Republic, it certainly is, and sovereign, too. Socialist is a stale joke. Secular and democratic are works in progress, too rudimentary to save the lives of Mohammad Akhlaq, lynched over beef at Dadri, or Rohith Vemula, Dalit student who penned his suicide note in English, the language of power in post-colonial India.

Power is the key to the Dalit’s plight. He lacks social power, others have more than their fair share. This unequal distribution of power in society is what makes India a democracy still in the making. Democracy is not just about holding elections to choose representatives of the people. It is also about reconfiguring the relations of power in society, to deliver equality to individuals as citizens.

Fight for Democracy…

Equality does not mean an end to hierarchy. Functional hierarchies are needed, to get things done in any complex organisation. But, in a democracy, these hierarchies are meant to be context-specific, to melt away and reconfigure in a different context and be non-existent in terms of political rights.

Your boss might be your boss at work, but an accommodated extra in the play you direct after work, and both of you get just one vote each to elect your MP, and are equal before the law. This is the ideal, but mere fantasy, in reality. If we understand democracy as an ongoing process, its goal is to realise this fantasy.

Indian society has traditionally been hierarchical, with pure Brahmins at the top and polluting Dalits and tribal people at the bottom. The hierarchy had religious sanction. Manusmriti — which codifies the rules of propriety for Hindus — hails the Brahmin as the lord of all creation and enjoins the rest to see their duty in serving him.

Birth defines your status in life and your job, to do which is your dharma. Failure to do your dharma is what gets you born into a lowly caste. Rohith Vemula apparently did not subscribe to this causal explanation for his plight: he called his birth a fatal accident, not any result of culpable delinquency in his previous birth. This rejection turns the focus on a conflict between the democratic project and the Hindu tradition that justifies present inequity in terms of sins of the dead past.

This theory of transmigration of souls across time, species, caste and status, guided by achieved adherence to dharma, is preached day in and day out across India, in the name of Sanatana Dharma. To accept it is to accept one’s lot in life as the just desserts of the past, to question no iniquity and simply put one’s nose to the grindstone, to earn some reprieve at least in the next birth. This is inimical to democracy and must be resisted by Dalits and all the rest who find themselves on the bottom rungs of the traditional social hierarchy. Does this mean one must resist Hinduism to achieve democracy? Not really, at least, not all its forms. Vedanta, for example, holds Brahman to be the only reality and posits all things living and dead to be manifestations of Brahman.

If you accept that the Dalit and the Brahmin are both manifestation of the selfsame Brahman, there is no reason to adore the one and shun the other. Sankara, the foremost philosopher of Advaita, accepted as much, so goes the story, after being scolded by a chandala, lowest of the low, for shrinking away from him.

…And Participatory Growth

But Sankara did not do anything to resolve the gap between his theory of the world and the discriminatory practice of the religion.

It took social reformer Narayana Guru to challenge the caste system in terms of Advaita. The same understanding of unity of all things that led him to say that caste divisions are invalid also led him to say that what is important is for people to be decent, whatever their religion.

Such a vision of Hinduism is at radical odds with Hindutva, as espoused by the Sangh Parivar, which sees non-Hindus as potential anti-national threats and any political action outside the framework of conflating the nation with Hindus as treason that has to be put down.

While Narayana Guru’s conceptual framework was consistent internally and with Advaita, he did not succeed in eradicating caste in his land. That is because of the lived reality of the lower castes and the upper castes being at two ends of a division of social labour, which valorised intellectual labour and demeaned physical labour. The means of changing that reality did not exist in his time. It is at hand now.

Mass education, the internet and globalised growth make it eminently possible to break the correlation between birth and occupation, the material basis of caste. Hewers of wood can and do turn computer programmers and entrepreneurs. But participatory growth is not sufficient to empower Dalits. They need more democracy, to dismantle the present oppressive power structure.

Democracy in every sphere of life and aggressive participation in the new global division of labour — these hold the key to India’s redemption, so also the Dalits’.

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ZNet

Death by Saffron: Campus Politics in the Time of Prime Minister Narendra Modi

by Radha Surya

January 25, 2016

Some images never become stale, never lose their power to re-awaken emotion and rekindle anguish. India has been bequeathed an image of this nature by the heart-rending death by suicide of Rohith Vemula on January 17, 2016 on the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU). Rohith Vemula, vibrant activist and promising research scholar, was a Dalit, a member of the social group formerly known as untouchables. In a poignant picture from December 2015 the youthful Rohith Vemula and a fellow student are shown leaving the student hostel from which they have been expelled by the university administration (http://bit.ly/209FLy6). The two of them carry an assortment of meagre personal possessions–a bed roll, folded clothes, a bag and other items. As he looks away from the camera Rohith embraces an outsize portrait of exemplary Dalit intellectual B.R. Ambedkar—principal architect of the Constitution of India, social reformer, wide ranging thinker and writer on weighty issues in economics, politics, nation building and jurisprudence.

The intellectual and activist legacy of Ambedkar is synonymous with his fierce critique of the caste system. Although his life and work were coterminous with India’s struggle for independence, Ambedkar was not primarily a freedom fighter. As a Dalit intellectual Ambedkar recognized that ideas of belonging implicit in conventional notions of nationhood were inapplicable to those outside the boundaries of India’s highly stratified caste system. In an oft quoted conversation with Mahatma Gandhi Ambedkar spoke of the untouchable as a being without a state and a nation: “You say I have got a homeland, but still I repeat that I am without it. How can I call this land my own homeland and this religion my own, wherein we are treated worse than cats and dogs, wherein we cannot get water to drink? No self-respecting Untouchable worth the name will be proud of this land.” If the camera had continued to follow the expulsion of Rohith as he receded into the distance conceivably the portrait of Ambedkar and its modern day bearer might have blended into one. Both were outside the pale of Indian society—the eminent scholar in a metaphorical sense, his young acolyte in a very literal sense as brought out by Rohith’s ousting from his residence at an elite Indian university.

The national media’s intense scrutiny of the circumstances leading to Rohith Vemula’s final and irreversible act has brought out sobering and hitherto less widely known facts regarding discrimination encountered by Dalit students in India’s institutions of higher education. Soon after India attained independence in 1947 her founders created and implemented a program to reverse the damage wrought by centuries of oppression of disadvantaged groups in the caste hierarchy. The goal was to improve the socio-economic conditions of the “backward” or scheduled castes. This program ensures that constitutionally mandated quotas will be available for qualifying members of “backward” classes in centrally funded institutions of higher learning as well as in employment in the public sector. Although the reservations policy gives the Dalit aspirant entry to institutions of higher education, the progressive measure has not been accompanied by genuine change in social attitudes toward those who belong to the “lower” orders. Consequently Dalits often find themselves at the receiving end of discrimination. Such discrimination is said to be particularly acute in institutions devoted to the study of science. In the case of Hyderabad University recent commentary has brought out the fact that nine Dalit students died by their own hand in just the last seven years.

Was Rohith’s victimhood—his suspension from HCU along with four other Dalit students and his subsequent suicide—the consequence of caste oppression? Was his a case of death by casteism? The short answer must be in the negative. Because of the convoluted nature of the path that led to his undoing caste seems to have been an intermediate rather than final or determining factor. The salient elements of the trajectory that took him to his untimely death were his politics as a member of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) at Hyderabad Central University and his activism in questioning the right wing, ultra nationalist politics that gained the upper hand in New Delhi with the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2014 after the landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections.

In 2014 the BJP gained a majority in its own right in India’s Lok Sabha or lower house of parliament thereby bringing an end to over two decades of rule by coalition governments. Recent months have brought out the limitations of a parliamentary majority that does not extend to the Rajya Sabha or upper House of Parliament. Nevertheless the BJP and its ideological parent the secretive and sinister Hindu supremacist “cultural” organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) remain intoxicated by their triumph of 2014. A sweeping effort has been launched to dismantle the multi-religious, plural and diverse character of Indian society and culture and rebuild it in accordance with a majoritarian, Hindu nationalist and chauvinist view of India’s history and role in the world. The capture of power over India’s premier, centrally funded institutions of culture, research and education is key to this effort. Accordingly a series of mediocre individuals distinguishe d by their right-wing politics and slavish adulation of Prime Minister Modi have been given leadership positions in former bastions of intellectual excellence. The appointment of a former actor in B grade films and soft porn as chairman of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has been particularly controversial. The appointment triggered months of protests by FTII students. One of their principal demands was for an institution head whose credentials were in keeping with the high standards and sterling reputation of the FTII. The students received abundant support for their cause from eminent personalities in the film world. Encountering only stonewalling from the establishment in New Delhi the students gave up their heroic strike—but not their struggle–and resumed classes.

The remaking or rather unmaking of India and of Indian institutions in a right-wing, majoritarian, ultranationalist mould is commonly called saffronization as saffron is the color associated with the BJP. Suppression of dissent in every form is intrinsic to this unmaking and it has taken a heavy toll on foreign NGOs functioning in India as well as domestic organizations. The Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry (formerly Ministry of Education) seems to have been charged with crushing dissent among student groups operating on centrally funded campuses across India. The tactic of choice involves pressuring the heads of institutions to penalize groups and individuals who question the politics of the regime in New Delhi. One such incident took place in May 2015 when the Dean of the Chennai campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) derecognized a student group called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the behest of the HRD Ministry. In the case of the ASA (Am bedkar Students Association) at Hyderabad University the heavy handed tactics of the HRD ministry has led to irreversible tragedy. As in Chennai there was a conflict between two student groups—the ASA and the student wing of the BJP, a reactionary, right wing group called Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarti Parishad (ABVP). The ABVP has chapters on campuses across India and is notorious for its belligerent and intimidating tactics and the disruption of campus events involving progressive politics. A clash took place between members of the opposing groups at HCU. An enquiry held by a university board resulted in a clean chit being given to ASA. Thereafter the ABVP used its political muscle to avenge its earlier setback. Consequently some months later the same board reversed its earlier decision and issued an order expelling five ASA members from HCU hostel for six months and prohibiting them from using public areas like the cafeteria where other students congregated. Driven into a corner, subjected to social ostracism and placed in an intolerable situation Rohith Vemula ended his life.

The inexorable march of events that led to Rohith Vemula’s final irreversible act bring out the implacable nature of the forces arrayed against critical thought and activism in BJP ruled India where dissent is outlawed and majoritarian and ultra nationalist elements call the shots. As has been noted by many observers the BJP is not merely a political party that concerns itself with the political affairs of the land. The party that contests elections and holds office is part of an octopus like entity known as the Sangh Parivar whose tentacles extend into every sphere of Indian life and culture. The reach of the Sangh Parivar can be gauged from the Hyderabad instance in which a campus clash between student groups on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum quickly escalated to a level involving the intervention of two Union Ministers one of them a minister in the cabinet of PM Narendra Modi. The campus group with connections to the corridors of power in New Delhi had the clout to bring about the reversal of a decision passed by the board of a putatively autonomous university. Inescapably one is led to think that the ruthless forces brought to bear on him hounded Rohith Vemula into taking his life.

In his moving and enigmatic suicide letter Rohith has written as follows: “Maybe I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death.” How do we interpret his statement? Did he in his final moments come to think that his activism on behalf of social and political justice had become his undoing? Was he unable to live with the knowledge that he had been undermined by his best convictions? We will never know with certainty. But this much we know. As an Ambedkarite and political person he would have been appalled as he watched the saffron tide coursing through the land. He saw that Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi, scholars and rationalist thinkers, were murdered in cold blood by religious bigots. He saw the reluctance to bring the perpetrators to book. He saw the police beating up and detaining FTII students for exercising their constitutional rights and holding a peaceful protest. He saw the crackdown on dissent taking place on all sides and the tentacles of the Sangh Parivar reaching out for him. Those in a position of privilege can afford a comprehensive view of the Indian scene—both the crushing of dissent and the resistance. A victim does not enjoy the same luxury.

On January 21, less than a week after the suicide of Rohith Vemula, Hyderabad Central University revoked the suspension of the previously suspended Dalit students. At a time when saffron is triumphant this is what it took to obtain a modicum of justice in a campus incident involving opposed student groups—an immeasurably tragic death and the cry raised for justice for Rohith Vemula as campuses across India were rocked by protests. For the moment the saffron juggernaut has been brought up short but only at a heavy price—one that Rohith Vemula’s countless mourners would never have willingly paid.

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the Hindustan Times

Rohith Vemula, death of a philosopher to purify higher education

Kancha Ilaiah, Hindustan Times | Updated: Jan 20, 2016 08:35 IST

The Dalit student whose suicide has generated political waves was a brilliant man. His letter to Prof Appa Rao, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the university who was once believed to be anti-Dalit by the government, shows that at the time of his suicide, he was angry, upset and depressed.
In his letter to the VC, written on December 18, 2015, Rohith Vemula had said, “Give us poison or long ropes to hang ourselves”. His suicide note was far more gracious — he blamed no one but himself to have been born in such a society.

Even in his final moments, Vemula made a major point. The institutions of higher education in India do not allow the Dalits to study and live with dignity. Obviously, what shocked him most was the letter of labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya that characterised his organisation — the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) — as anti-national, casteist and extremist.

It was on the basis of this letter that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) requested action against the five Dalit students who had allegedly organised a film show on the Muzaffarnagar communal riots and also held a discussion on Yakub Memon’s hanging. Let us not forget it was just an academic discussion. Yet, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) first disrupted that meeting and then set the political machinery in motion alleging an attack by the Dalit students on one of their activists.

Pressure mounts on Modi government to sack Dattatreya for Rohith’s suicide
Since the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) stormed into power in 2014, this was the fourth major assault on Dalit rights and dignity in the country. First, the ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle of IIT Madras, then the burning alive of Dalit children in Haryana and, finally, general VK Singh allegedly referring to them as animals. Now, it is Rohith’s death and Dattatreya and the HRD ministry’s perceived involvement in it.

The fact that the University of Hyderabad administration took action after the MHRD letter has raised questions on the autonomy of central universities and universities in general.

If vice-chancellors had a free hand to deal, without external pressure, with campus issues impartially, universities would not have become the den of suicides and violence that they are today. In the absence of such autonomy, there will be many more Rohiths.

Unfortunately, however, ever since the BJP came to power, political interference in learning institutions has seen an exponential increase. Earlier, universities were the privilege of the upper castes, but the reservation system has changed all that for the better. Non-political student organisations with modern ideologies today trump traditional, conservative groups like the ABVP in both talent and modern thinking — the creativity and dynamism of the ASA is just one example.

These small but effective student groups do not need guidance from a political party to take up contentious issues such as the beef ban or to write a new cultural idiom. Rohith was a by-product of this new cultural idiom. And, he gave up his life to spread the message that such discrimination and social boycott of Dalits/tribals can no longer be tolerated.

(Kancha Ilaiah is the author of ‘Why I am Not a Hindu’ and the director of Alberuni Centre for the study of social exclusion and Inclusive policy at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.)
(The views expressed in this article are personal.)

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad

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The Hindu, 22 January 2016

Ancient prejudice, modern inequality

by Ananya Vajpeyi

If Ekalavya’s dismembered digit has haunted the Hindu schoolyard from time immemorial, Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide lays bare the deep inequality undergirding the modern state and its institutions of higher learning

On Sunday, January 17, Rohith Vemula (25), a doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad, reportedly committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in a friend’s hostel room. His death has brought to a head a long-simmering conflict between progressive student groups, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), present on campuses across the country and increasingly belligerent in the prevailing climate of Hindu right-wing dominance.

Rohith, a Dalit, had been involved in campus activism on diverse issues: Ambedkarite politics, protests against beef bans, the persistence of the death penalty in the Indian criminal justice system, and communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in August-September 2013, which left many dead and thousands displaced, mostly Muslims.

Along with four other Dalit students, Rohith had been evicted from his hostel accommodation about a month ago, his monthly research stipend suspended, allegedly for subversive activities. The university administration as well as the State and Central governments all appear to have been strong-armed by the reactionary ABVP into expelling these five individuals on dubious charges, characterising the victimised students as “casteist”, “extremist” and “anti-national”. All of them belonged to the Ambedkar Students Association, a body similar to the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), a group that had also faced harassment and intimidation from campus authorities in the summer of 2015.

Caste and the Hindu Right

The conflicts in both the University of Hyderabad and the IIT-M illustrate a deep fracture between the Hindu Right and Dalit-Bahujan ideologies, particularly those of the Ambedkarite strain, a fault line that cannot be papered over by electoral alliances of convenience and occasional instances of power-sharing between the two sides. The Sangh Parivar at every level, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party down to the ABVP, stands against equality, whether between castes, religious communities, or the sexes.

Instead of egalitarianism, the Hindu Right believes in an archaic arithmetic of adhikaar and bahishkaar, entitlement and exclusion, based on caste, religion and gender. If the Indian Republic is built on a plinth of equal citizenship, the Hindu Rashtra would be founded on ritual hierarchy and patriarchy as laid out for centuries in the caste system. Onto this unequal social order of considerable vintage would be layered a deadly neo-Fascist majoritarian politics that arises out of the Hindutva imagination of the modern nation.

This is why, when the Ambedkar Students Association supported the screening of Nakul Singh Sawhney’s film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai on the University of Hyderabad campus, the ABVP attacked the Dalit activist-students, driving them out of their classrooms and hostels, eventually to the limit where Rohith took the irreversible decision to end his life. Photographs he posted on his Facebook page in 2014 of his parents’ home in the small town of Guntur — a prized red refrigerator in which all the neighbours kept their water bottles, a gas burner, a fan he wryly described as “solar powered” — suggest the great distance from poverty and hardship travelled by this young man to become a doctoral student at one of the most prestigious universities in India. His journey ended violently and abruptly.

But the ostracising of the Sudra and Dalit student from the institutions of education and employment, knowledge and power, is a very old theme in Indian thought on social structure and moral order. The figure of the outcaste student appears in some of our oldest texts that reflect on the relationship between self, society and sovereignty.

In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya, a talented archer prince of the forest tribe of the Nishadas, goes to Dronacharya, the master who teaches young men of the Pandava and Kaurava clans how to wield their weapons. Drona will not admit Ekalavya on account of the tribal status that makes him an outsider to the caste system. Ekalavya goes away, makes an image of Drona, secretly watches him give lessons to Arjuna and the other royals, and teaches himself archery, treating the mud-and-clay Drona as a stand-in for the recalcitrant guru.

When Ekalavya turns out to be a better bowman than the Kshatriya prince Arjuna, Drona asks for his right thumb as tuition fee. Ekalavya agrees, but not without understanding that he is being discriminated against yet again. Ekalavya’s initial disobedience (which makes him a secret apprentice) as well as his later compliance (which costs him his thumb) shame both Drona and his favourite pupil, the supposed beneficiary of this blatant act of prejudice, Arjuna. The story of the Nishada prince shows Drona up as a caste bigot whose classroom reeks of nepotism, even if he knows how to teach his students well, at least the high-born ones he favours.

Ekalavya’s dismembered digit, a bloody and visceral embodiment of caste consciousness, has haunted the Hindu schoolyard from time immemorial. It can be read as quite literally a thumb in Drona’s eye, a jab at our conscience that is as painful for us to experience as it must have been for Ekalavya to lose the very source of his hard-earned skill. He is denied access at every stage: he cannot become Drona’s pupil, but neither is he allowed to become a great archer through his own efforts.

The story of Satyakama Jabali from the Chandogya Upanishad is more complex. Satyakama has no father, and takes his mother Jabala’s name. He goes to the hermitage of the sage Gautama, and wants to be admitted. When asked about his parentage, he acknowledges honestly that he does not know his father’s name or caste. Gautama admits him nevertheless, and performs the initiation ritual to pronounce him a twice-born Brahmin, after which his education begins in earnest.

In the ancient text of the Upanishad, Gautama is willing to entertain Satyakama as a potential pupil because of his honesty: he takes the boy’s love of truth (which is the literal meaning of his name, satya-kama) as proof of his essentially Brahmin nature. Once the teacher has assessed the applicant’s innate worth, he then translates his positive assessment into an upanayana (bestowal of the sacred thread on the boy’s body), naming Satyakama a proper Brahmin and proceeding to educate him accordingly.

Satyakama’s Brahmin identity is clearly attributed to him; it cannot be proven to be intrinsic, since his mother Jabala cannot identify his father. Gautama seems to suggest that ‘Brahmin is as Brahmin does’, i.e., Satyakama has the lakshana (characterising feature) of a Brahmin (because he speaks the truth), even though he does not have the gotra (lineage) of a Brahmin (because his mother was unmarried).

For a modern reader, this is a confusing account. Does Gautama make an exception and admit a non-Brahmin pupil into his hermitage, or does Gautama accept Satyakama because he thinks he recognises him, despite appearances, to be a genuine Brahmin? The exchange between Satyakama and Gautama at the threshold of the ashram, as it were, raising fundamental questions about identity (Who are you? Who am I?), about rights to entry into the portals of the academy, about rule and exception in the caste system, and about the entailments of caste in the strongholds of knowledge and seats of power, is again a moment that has not left our collective conscience for two millennia. Dr. Ambedkar himself reminds us of both these characters, Ekalavya and Satyakama, who for him are damning evidence of the stubborn longevity of caste in Indian history.

The more things change…

Ekalavya did not die and neither did Satyakama, but Rohith did. This sad fact could lead to various conclusions. It is a reflection on the unexpected cruelty and the adamantine ideologies undergirding the modern state and its institutions of higher learning. Drona and Ekalavya, Gautama and Satyakama could to some extent negotiate the terms of their relationship. Rohith ostensibly had the might of the Indian Constitution behind him — his fundamental rights as a citizen, reservations policy for students of his socioeconomic background, and the empowering discourses of the Ambedkarite student group which gave him a certain political awareness and the radical energy to fight for the equality he fully expected and deserved, but never got. And yet, when he was rusticated and ousted from his hostel, when he and his companions felt pushed to stage a “sleep-in” outside the university gates; when his stipend was withheld and he had to borrow money, and when he finally felt like he had hit a wall and had no options, Rohith was far worse off than his metaphorical brothers in the ancient literature.

His heartbreaking suicide note states the piercing truth, the skewer that caste ideology drives into every heart filled with hope: “My birth is my fatal accident.” Yes, this is the human condition: our birth, all birth, is an accident. We do not choose our father or mother, our group or community. But only in India, only in caste society, and only for Dalits does this accident of coming into an unequal life become the fatality of either living with relentless inequality and enduring its cruelties, or dying a terrible, unfair, premature and unredeemed death.

Anil Kumar Meena, a first-year Dalit student at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India’s premier medical college, had hung himself from the fan of his hostel room in March 2012. In Rohith’s poignant Facebook photos, his family’s meagre possessions now stand witness to a life whose promise was extinguished. He had posted that before he got a Junior Research Fellowship, his mother’s humble sewing machine had supported the family.

Like December 16, 2012, the day marked by the horrendous rape and murder of a young woman Nirbhaya, let January 17, 2016 too go down in this country’s history as the dark day of the death of a student, Rohith Vemula, who was promised a chance at dignity and prosperity by our founders, and whom we abandoned, to our eternal shame.

(Ananya Vajpeyi, author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (2012), is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)

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The Tribune, 22 January 2016

A new Dalit identity: The RSS has taken upon itself to define who is a pure Dalit and who a nationalist

by Apoorvanand

RECOVERING from the initial stage of stupor, the RSS and its government launched an ‘Ambedkarite’-nationalist offensive to justify the treatment meted out to Rohith Vemula and his colleagues. They took care to offer cold, customary condolences, but after freeing themselves from this minimum obligation, the first thing they did was to question the ‘Dalitness’ of Rohith. They claimed that he was not an authentic Dalit since one of his parents is a non-Dalit. The father comes from a backward community. Since you derive your identity from the father, Rohith could not claim to be a pure Dalit.

The cynical attempt to persuade Dalits that the death of Rohith should not concern them, by suggesting that he was an imposter, shows the real inhuman nature of the politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As if, even if this were a fact, it would make the death of Rohith less tragic!

The second thing the RSS did was to question the politics of Rohith and his organisation — Ambedkar Students’Association (ASA). The argument, barely a day after the suicide, was that the politics of the ASA had nothing to do with Dalit issues. It was raising issues which were anti-national in nature and therefore, the ASA and its members, including Rohith, do not deserve our sympathy. At least, nationalist Dalits should not come out in support of the ASA.

The ASA was dubbed anti-national for having protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and for participating in a procession to protest the attack on the screening of “Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai”, a documentary on the communal violence in western UP.

A strange argument was advanced to prove that Rohith and his organisation were in fact insulting Ambedkar. Since Yakub Memon was punished by the Supreme Court under the relevant laws framed under the provisions of the Constitution which was written by Baba Saheb, any act of opposition to this punishment is an affront to Baba Saheb! Rohith was guilty of this sacrilege.

One of the “pracharaks” of the RSS, who has been assigned the job of looking after its students’ wing, said on camera that Rohith and the ASA never raised the question of denial of reservation to the OBCs and SC/STs in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia; and never questioned their minority character, which again proves that they cared little for Dalits. It is again being suggested here that you will have to oppose the minority character of these institutions to prove your Dalit credentials.

This argument tries to essentialise Dalit identity and intends to tie it finally with Hindutva. Dalit politics that in any manner questions the nationalism of the Hindutva variety automatically becomes anti-national and fit for attack. The RSS is also trying to deprive Dalits of the right to choose their issues and solidarities. If they make issues which are ‘non-Dalit’ in a narrow sense, and even worse, if they make Muslim issues their own, they are damned.

The aggression with which the RSS is trying to devour Ambedkar is born out of the desperation to use the energy that the movements of social justice has unleashed in the last two decades. Recognising the urge of the backward and Dalit classes to participate in the democratic political process, the Sangh is devising ways to create its own brand of Dalit and backward politics. Since in its formative days the slogan was a unity of Dalit-Backwards and Muslims, the Sangh is trying to isolate Muslims and draw the rest in its fold.

Organisations like the ASA are impediment in this drive as they seek to realise the liberatory potential of the project of social justice by forging an alliance of all oppressed communities. The ASA, through its activities, expressed its solidarity with the persecuted Muslims of India. This could not be tolerated.

It is not surprising that even in this sombre moment, the RSS has not refrained from attacking Rohith and his friends for their incomplete and anti-national Dalithood.

The reaction from the government, defending the MHRD, is even more pathetic and unconvincing. It has now been documentarily proved that the ministry gave an extraordinary treatment to the request by Bandaru Dattatreya. All of us know that no officer would take the pain of giving four reminders in quick succession in a routine matter. It is clear that there was a concerted attempt to put pressure on the university to act in a particular manner which satisfies the complainant, in this case the minister.

The deception in the response of Smriti Irani is so palpable. She alleges that it was a clash between two groups of students and there was no caste angle to it. She hides a fact which is most important, that the students’ body, for which her ministry batted, belongs to the RSS and she is also part of the Sangh Parivar. She cannot, therefore, deny partisanship in this case. Second, it is not others who are indulging in a malicious campaign by making it a caste issue. None other than her own colleague, Bandaru Dattatreya, made this allegation that casteist and anti-national groups were active on the campus!

The minister seems to be perfecting the art of half-truth, but she gets exposed each time. When she produced the letter of a Congress leader to prove that her ministry was also pursuing matters raised by opposition leaders, she concealed this fact that the urgency in the latter case was missing and the university also took it lightly, whereas in this case, the university overturned its earlier decision of not punishing Rohith after it was relentlessly pestered by the MHRD to show compliance.

A TV anchor raised a question many of us would find innocent, but it needs to be asked. Why did the aggrieved student body run crying to the minister? Was it sure that he, being one of them, would readily help them? Second, why did the minister believe what the student body told him? Did he investigate? For, his was not a simple forwarding note which is customarily sent by a person like him when he is approached by his constituents. He very explicitly lists the crimes of the ASA and demands intervention of the MRHD to prod the university to act against the ‘anti-national’ casteist criminals. He cannot claim that he was merely a neutral conduit.

The role of the university is shameful, even the reaction of the Vice-Chancellor after the suicide. He is shocked and fails to understand why Rohith had to take this extreme step. But when asked why he did not think of reaching out to Rohith after his earlier anguished letter, all that he has to say is that he has to act according to rules and statutes!

It is this cold, vicious, nationalist cruelty which filled Rohith with a sense of isolation from which he could recover only by breaking free of this life. Let us face with clear eyes this duplicity, this wickedness of nationalism which criminalises my existence if I seek to express my individuality. Many more lives will be lost if we do not act in time and remove it from the position of power.

— The writer is a professor of Hindi at Delhi University

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Forwarded message ----------
From: Susie Tharu
Date: Tue, Jan 19, 2016 at 3:16 PM

Dear Friends

Some of you may recall that three years ago there were a spate of students suicides—once again mostly dalits. At that time the AP High Court had passed an order suggesting administrative measures and safeguards in universities. Barring a few desultory and soon abandoned moves to set up counselling centres neither the UGC nor the universities acted on the order.

Procedural and structural safeguards such as these are essential if students from marginalized communities are to survive in these elite institutions. It may be useful now to use the order to hold administrations accountable and also to relook at these suggestions.

What follows is a brief background note providing an introduction to the events that led up to order, including importantly, an implead petition by senior university teachers and three attachments—the petition, the recommendations that emerged from the NALSAR University of Law Consultations and the AP High Court Order.

In March 2013 the Acting Chief Justice N V Ramana of the AP High Court took suo moto cognizance of a report in TOI by Nikhila Henry about nine students who had, over the previous 12 months, committed suicide in various universities in Hyderabad. Treating the report as public interest litigation, the High Court issued notices to the state, the universities and the UGC asking them to inform the court in four days about the steps being taken by them to prevent such suicides.

Welcoming the move, a group of 29 senior teachers from these universities impleaded themselves in the writ petition offering to help the court understand the context behind these suicides. Their implead petition stated that failure, fear of failure, administrative indifference, hostile regulations, insult, social and academic stigmatisation and rejection, are some of the causes.

In a consultation organized by Nalsar University of Law, Hyderabad, representatives of the universities and the teacher-petitioners together developed a set of recommendations for administrative reforms that would provide students with formal access to protection. By Order dated 1-07-2013 the AP High Court directed the universities to implement those recommendations.

We are attaching the documents

Text of Andhra Pradesh High Court Order on Student Suicides
NALSAR Committee Recommendations
Teachers Implead Petition for Wider Circulation

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Other related articles:

What killed Hyderabad university Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula?
Somi Das

Students on warpath after Rohith Vemula suicide

So who exactly is politicising Rohith Vemula’s suicide?

First a Suicide and then a Lonely Cremation

Driven By Calculation, Not Compassion, Modi’s Tears Mean Nothing
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A thousand voices, a thousand stories ignored
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http://www.thehindu.com/thread/politics-and-policy/article8154865.ece

BJP must stop meddling with varsities, student politics

Rohith Vemula’s death was an opportunity for Indian Muslims to express solidarity with other underprivileged groups
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http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/rohith-vemulas-death-was-an-opportunity-for-indian-muslims-to-express-solidarity-with-other-underprivileged-groups/

Literary body condemns assault on Dalit writer

Video: Failure of Understanding: An open debate with Prof. Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, VC, University of Hyderabad
https://youtu.be/2vnHKKbhmYs

Video in Hindi: प्राइम टाइम : रोहित वेमूला के लिए ख़ुदकुशी के हालात किसने बनाए? (NDTV Ravish Kumar Prime Time Intro On who is responsible for suicide of Dalit Rohith Vemula ?)
https://youtu.be/NP58znyJI3M