The Genesis of the Demand for Rohith Act began decades ago

Hitesh Kukreja

To seek Justice for Rohith students of Hyderabad central University (HCU), have articulated many demands, and primary among it is enactment of Rohith act. The student struggle for their demands, every day is being met with heavy hand of state machinery, especially towards students belonging to marginalized sections of the society. The genesis of ongoing student resistance has often been traced to Rohith vemula’s, a Phd scholar in the university, ‘suicide’. I would probably like to reply in affirmative to the commonly held view, if only the word ‘genesis’ is replaced with a term exuding a sense of immediacy or spontaneity, like ‘spark’ or ‘trigger’. For the current agitation’s spark is clearly Rohith’s suicide, but its genesis goes back to the many flames torched over the bodies of students belonging to Dalit, bahujan, adivasi and other marginalized sections of society in higher education institutions of the country. The most peculiar and sinister among them being the incidence of deaths termed as ‘Suicides’, by the higher authorities, to conveniently place the causes of deaths under the category of ‘psychological’ or personal aberrations.

Emile Durkhiem in his work, Le Suicide, argued that suicide, which was largely believed to be a highly individual and personal phenomenon, can be explicable through social structures and its functions. He aimed towards analyzing the aetiological setting i.e. a more comprehensive social and cultural context behind the acts of suicide. For which, he explicated that social rate of suicide, which point towards the frequency of suicides in specific social group, is a ‘social fact’. Thus making it imperative to locate the aetiology of suicide also in extra-psychological causes.

Taking Durkhiem‘s theory as a starting point provides immense analytical advantage to understand the causes behind the abnormal rate of suicides among dalit-bahujan students in higher education institutions of the country.  To put things in perspective, eighteen Dalit students have committed suicide in the country’s premier institutions between 2008 and 2011, and this number only represents the official case (The Death of Merit, 2011: A). The Joint Action Committee for social justice (JAC) of HCU reports nine such incidences (including Rohith’s) in the university itself in the recent past.

Although, the contemporary spacio-temporal setting is vastly different from nineteenth century Europe, where Durkheim did his study yet the larger theoretical framework is highly beneficial to place the phenomenon of Dalit suicides in institutions of higher education (IHEs) in the caste system prevalent in social spaces of the country. To this abstract concept one also has invoke the complex social, cultural and historical setting of the suicide so that lived experiences and reasons of their constitution are put in perspective, thus moving a tad beyond Durkheim’s formulations. A.R. Vasavi’s work on suicides clearly helps us in achieving that, she argues that these broad sociological inter linkages need to be contextualized with the cultural scripts by which victims have related to their circumstances and the discourse by which victim’s families and communities/village understand and relate to this events. Doing so is to highlight the affective dimensions that constitute the subjectivities by which the victims lived their lives (Fullager, 2003; Vasavi, 2012:29).

The Insight foundation documented the events and experience of many people related to such deaths in their documentary called Death of merit (2011), which point out the prejudices and humiliation in multiple forms faced by students belonging to socially marginalized and oppressed groups, primarily due to caste-based discrimination. The report largely concluded that most of the students were forced to commit suicide due to harassment by professors and colleagues in their respective education institutions, since they were recipients of reservation in admissions on account of being Dalits.  The caste bias manifests itself in the way teachers ignore Dalit students and unjustly fail them in exams, in social exclusion and physical abuse, and in the unwillingness of the university administration to assist Dalits and support them (The death of merit, 2011:1). This increase in rate of suicide is attributed to the harassment and marginalisation which the students are subjected to.

In my experience, with my friends and colleagues from Dalit and tribal communities, the discrimination  faced by them takes multiple forms inside universities, for example them being subjected to casteist remarks on reservation in college and hostels and condescending gaze from privileged caste members, often happening in a subtle manner. Many have shared their lived experiences of being subjected to insults and humiliation due to their social backgrounds. I am sure there are many such lived experience that I am still unaware and incapable to comprehend due the socio-economic privilege I was born into. This casteist-attitude of authorities becomes more apparent and tangible when beyond insults it is manifested in forms of deliberate failing of students, forced eviction from hostels, controlling of food habits, holding back of scholarship money, etc. Such tools for harassment and humiliation have most often been seen (even in the case of Rohit) constituting an economy of affects rendering the student hopeless and depressed. Finally the point arrives when the individual realizes that he/she has been ‘reduced to his/her immediate identity’.

It is clear that exercise of power by Ministry, Administration or faculty through official letters, orders, decisions is intended for harassment and humiliation of marginalized students is the manifestation of caste based discrimination, where the site or aetiological setting of suicide is the complex socio-cultural reality of caste system prevailing both beyond and within the walls of the university. People in power, this way, become the actors who deliberately create and carefully build these sites inside the university space.

The complex of power in contemporary times is therefore clearly Brahminical-Hindutvawadi in its manifestation. Hence it becomes imperative for a government of such nature to control the activities inside the university to ensure its prevalence, as social environment of a university space is meant to be different from one prevalent outside its walls. It is a space where exploited and deprived section of society can access education, strive for socio-economic mobility and most importantly gain confidence to engage in critical discussion on Brahminical authority and ask basic questions. The very act of asking difficult question by the student becomes a seriously threatening event for Brahminical cronies of University administration, faculty and the members of state, as evident through Rohith’s Ambedkarite politics.  And the moment the very confidence of a Dalit student is crushed, power in its current form stays put comfortably, inside the university space.

The phenomenon of abnormal suicide rate among Dalits, apart from revealing the  violent and casteist attitude of authority also point towards a reality where many IHEs in India have been unable to successfully defend the university space. The social environment in the university space has become merely an extension of exploitative social structure of caste based discrimination manifested through shaming, humiliation and institutional violence.

In this context, within the struggle seeking justice for Rohit, the demand for enactment of Rohith act becomes very critical, as it fundamentally would aim towards ensuring legislative safeguards for students, against social discrimination within Universities. The outlines of the demanded act include, firstly definition of the various forms of caste based discrimination within university space; Secondly, the punitive measures against people who seek to create a site of discrimination, humiliation and harassment for students belonging marginalized communities, in university spaces; thirdly formation of committees, constituted primarily with Dalit faculty, for redressal of grievance due to caste based discrimination should be made mandatory. I understand that these demands does not constitute the act exhaustively, hence suggestion from Dalit scholars, students and general public should be solicited, on the lines of Nirbhaya act, for the formation of the act.

The act would also serve as a reminder to the authority of meaning of a university space, where ideally the social environment influences the outside world instead of being influenced by it. Since the respect and sensitivity for social justice is not a natural endowment hence a right kind of social environment needs to be created for it.  And hopefully,  the remarkable struggle for Rohith act would not only be significant for mitigation of social discrimination and so called ‘suicides’ of Dalit students in the university space but would also be a critical step towards cultivating a free and uninhibited space for critical thinking, asking questions and most of all, living.

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