On 17th of January 2016, the scholar committed suicide on the campus of the same university where he came with a hope of avoiding what he wrote in his last letter “…unappreciated child of my past.”
The death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar, at the Hyderabad Central University shook the country on January 2016. It was a loss of a brilliant child to his mother and loss of an intellectual to his community. ‘My birth is my fatal accident’is what he wrote in his suicide letter, the meaning of these words can only be understood by one who did not want him/her to be what he wrote in the same letter “be reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility”. Further, he writes “Never was a man treated as a mind”, illustrates the injustice being done historically by the country on the Dalit’s by treating them as slaves and behaving with them as worst as possible.
On 18th of December 2015, a letter was written to the Vice Chancellor of the University by the scholar asking VC to fulfil the following demands as a solution for the Dalit problems. He said “Please serve 10mg Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission. With direction to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar and supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students”. Further, he requested for a facility of “EUTHANASIA” for a student like him. This letter was written exactly 30 days before he committed suicide. Any sensible person could have taken such a letter with utmost urgency but the VC of UoH did not take it. On 17th of January 2016, the scholar committed suicide on the campus of the same university where he came with a hope of avoiding what he wrote in his letter “…unappreciated child of my past.”
Death, Politics and aftermath
The death of this scholar would have been avoided, it was not inevitable. The scholar, who was an active member of Ambedkar Student Association in the campus, protested against the disruption of film screening titled “Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai”- the film which showed violence which took place against Muslims in the Muzaffarnagar district of UP, in 2013. One Mr Susheel K, a student of UoH, who was the president of university’s ABVP unit put up a post on Facebook regarding the protest terming it as “Hooliganism of ASA goons” along with an emoticon with a caption “feeling funny”.
A detailed report published in Caravan showed how Mr Susheel comes from a politically elite background, his uncle Mr Diwakar is the BJP’s vice president of Ranga Reddy District, and his brother Mr Vishnudath, a member of BJP’s Yuva Morcha. Rohith and others had asked Susheel to apologise for his post on Facebook after some debate susheel went to the hospital and got him admitted claiming that he was manhandled by the ASA members which was a blatant lie later confirmed by the proctorial board of the university. Then he again lied saying his appendicitis got worse due to the beating of ASA member but this was also proved false by the hospital authority later confirmed by Hyberabad’s commissioner of police.
Mr Diwakar then wrote a letter to Mr Bandaru Dattareye the MoS-Labour, who in turn wrote a letter to Mrs Smriti Irani, the then Union Minister for HRD highlighting the anti-national and casteist activity being undertaken on the university campus by the ASA members. And then series of the letter issued from MHRD to University to provide an update on the issue. Finally, Rohith along with four other members of ASA was suspended and was asked to not to use hostel and other public spaces in the university. Rohith was a JRF scholar and got admission in PhD in general merit list in a central university shows his brilliance.
After his death, student associations across the university campuses, civil society, intellectuals showed solidarity with his family and Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) and protested against the so-called ‘patriotic state’ led by the ‘patriotic-developmental oriented political party’.Despite heavy criticism from public spaces and intellectual circles, Prime Minister Modi made sure that Mrs Smriti Irani and Mr Bandaru Dattareye should continue with their posts. A number of false statements were being made especially in parliament and in public by Mrs Irani herself to protect the vice-chancellor who himself have a poor record of handling Dalit issues, the ABVP unit of UoH and herself.
The question on Rohith’s caste were also raised (as his father was an OBC) to avoid the casteist stand taken up by the University administration and by the State itself despite the fact that National Commission for Scheduled Caste (NCSC) confirmed him as a member of scheduled caste community on the basis of evidence provided by the Guntur’s district collector Mr Kantilal Dande who according to the law is the final authority on the issue.
Finally, in order to prove her superiority over law, Mrs Irani appointed a one-man committee headed by former Allahabad high court judge Mr AK Roopanval who claimed that Rohith committed suicide due to personal frustration and that he was not a member of Scheduled caste community. But, the stand Supreme Court has taken in past while deciding the caste of a child born out of inter-caste marriage was ignored. The Supreme Court has denied the proposition that a child should necessarily be taking a father’s caste which is in accord with Hindu law; on the contrary, it should be the individual’s experience that must be considered. Throughout his life, Rohith was treated as an untouchable by the society at large, and his experience was same as other Dalit individual’s faces in the country. If he doesn’t qualify, then no one could.
Had the Ministry of HRD instead of writing letters after letters done the work for which the ministry had been constituted i.e., providing quality education and making education accessible to all, had the government not appointed Casteist VC Appa Rao Podile- who expelled 10 Dalit student’s way back in 2000 when he was a warden, Had Modi taken an unbiased stand on the issue by inquiring the case instead of providing lip service of achieving goal of equal India envisage by Dr BR Ambedkar, the Velivada scholar could have got justice. Most recently, PM Modi has awarded vice- chancellor Appa RaoPodile with a “Millennium Plaque of Honour” award at the Indian Science Congress held in Tirupati.
Question of Equality
The death of this scholar has raised several questions to the society at large. Firstly, for how long are we going to consider a section of society as “impure” and would feel insulted if they try to come on par with others. Secondly, speaking at the Mahar conference in Bombay presidency on 31st May 1986, in the context of rights Ambedkar argued “The law may guarantee various rights. But those alone can be called real rights, which are permitted by the society to be exercised by you (ex-untouchables). Have we the so called “modern civilised citizens of the most tolerant country in the world’ provided real rights to our own people? For how long are we going to undermine the aspirations of this oppressed mass by capturing and monopolising the resources by simply using the historical privileges? Are we never going to create a Social democracy- a way of life where liberty, equality and fraternity are the rules of the day?
And finally, Are the Dalit masses love this nation more than any section of society of our country because even after denying them a first class citizenship since ages, Dalit’s have still not demanded a separate nation for themselves which shows their love and respect for their nation and they have still not resorted to violence shows their respect toward constitutional machinery which has failed to protect and promote their rights. Here lies the greatest contradiction; those who are betrayed by the society at large are still living in the same land with a dream of India with Equality as its religion, liberty as its law and fraternity as its practice.
In his last speech at the constituent assembly, Dr BR. Ambedkar warned us against this inequality, he said “In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by the reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live alife of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which is assembly has to laboriously built up.” The death of this Velivada scholar is the result of our continuous denial of theprinciple of equality in our social and economic life, even, after 70 years of Independence.
The institution of caste has been systematically maintained in all spheres of life, especially in the private spheres. It has accommodated itself in the 21stcentury; its expression has changed and has become more of an assertion.One of the major tool through which it was maintained in past – practice of endogamy- is still dividing the so called pure and impure. Instead of discarding the social institutions such as endogamy and child marriage, the majority have wholeheartedly accepted it as God’s word without knowing that these institutions were developed as a part of a tactic to maintain one’s caste purity. Even the Smritis and Shastraswhich are source of defending the notion of purity and pollution have been able to maintain the same authority as it was in ancient times. A specific culture is being passed on from generation to generation, the culture of maintaining the identity of superiority. The death of this scholar is a result of this culture and the notion of purity and pollution.
Ultimately, this scholar was doing what Savitri Bai Phule has asked all the oppressed to do “Sit idle no more, go, get an education,…You’ve got a golden chance to learn so learn and break the chains of caste.”Let’s allow all human being living on this land irrespective of his/ her caste, creed, religion and gender realize fullpotentials, and let’s not force them to choose violence over peace, and finally the community has lost one scholar let them make hundreds of more who will fight against an institution which according to Ambedkar is Anti-National which is institution of “Caste.”
-Raju Hanumanta Chalwadi
The author is a Doctoral Candidate in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT-Madras.