A very sad incident occurred on January 17 at the University of Hyderabad. Rohith Vemula committed suicide, leaving behind a letter saying that his life was hollow. He had been alienated from himself since childhood, and felt solitary throughout his life, reduced to a mere object. He was one among five students who were initially expelled from the university — this was later modified to suspension from the hostel.
News of the incident spread like wildfire all over the country. A range of forces is attacking Minister of State of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani and the university administration for the letters blaming the students for anti-national activities. I am not passing value judgements here, so there is no question of exonerating anyone who is being accused. But this incident has given us an opportunity to examine those who are lamenting, crying, protesting — do they really harbour a mother’s love?
It has become the order of the day that Dalit children in many schools eat midday meals separately. There are separate hostels for Dalit students; scholarships are denied, and, when given, it is often too late and students are not allowed to appear for examinations. Hostels are in dilapidated conditions. Often, students in engineering and medical colleges are discriminated against in internal assessment. To do justice to SC/ST examinees for different government services, separate interview boards are created, but despite this protection, their average marks in interviews are much lower. Students belonging to SC/ST categories doing a PhD or research are often discriminated against. It is not an isolated incident when reserved seats remain unfilled since government policies to outsource work and downsize departments have become more popular, as have voluntary retirement schemes, diluting reservations to a great extent. Lakhs of posts are vacant due to judicial interference, and denial of reservation in promotions has created hurdles. In Uttar Pradesh, thousands of SC/ST officers and employees have been demoted — so much so that those who have competed in general merit have also been demoted. The All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, which I represent as its national chairman, has been fighting for these rights.
If the fruits of reservation in politics, government jobs and education would not have come to them, a majority of SC/STs would have been living a primitive life. Rohith Vemula was also, directly or indirectly, a product of reservation. If reservations had not been there, he would not have reached the university, its hostel, suspension and suicide. But what SC/STs could not achieve in thousands of years, they could in less than 70 since reservations were introduced. Some say that reservation has benefited only a few. May I ask them, which other fields have included SC/STs — media, trade, markets, industry, import and export, share markets, arts and culture, higher education, judiciary? Upliftment and empowerment, other than directly through reservation, is also due to its indirect impact. Before reservations were introduced, why was there no participation at all by these people in any field?
The leftist forces are at the forefront of condemning the government. May I ask them, when we fight for our main source of empowerment and participation, where are they? Except sometimes when they issue statements in our favour, it is the SCs and STs who fight and are at the helm, and political parties are galvanised to accede to demands due to vote pressures. When Rohith Vemula was on strike for 15 days, where were these people? The CPM student wing, the SFI, opposed Rohith Vemula. The All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations came into existence in 1997 to get the five anti-reservation orders issued in that year cancelled. It is notable that these orders were issued when the “social justice government” was in power. When we started struggling year after year, from the streets to Ramlila Maidan and Jantar Mantar, these leftists were never seen. It was the Vajpayee government that cancelled the five anti-reservation orders. Do they ever take out consistent rallies, demonstrations or dharnas for our rights, which are a life-and-death question for us? For them, the reality is poor versus rich, and so they sweep caste discrimination under the carpet. Can they prove that their approach has empowered SC/STs? If so, there would have been a number of political, social and business leaders from SC/ST categories in West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala.
When we are killed, beaten, humiliated and discriminated against, sometimes, a range of forces, including the media, cries themselves hoarse, as if they really harbour a mother’s care. But when we fight for our dignity, empowerment and participation, not a single line is published. Rohith Vemula participated in the rally of December 7 at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi, conducted under the aegis of the All-India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations, to press for reservation in promotion and the private sector — where was the media and where were these people then? He knew what would empower him. We filled Ramlila Maidan, and yet it did not make the news — as has been happening since the beginning.
Denial of reservation rights kills millions of Rohith Vemulas. Is it possible to save their lives and secure their dignity without giving them rights? Sometimes, they mourn our death, and condemn discrimination, but do they ever fight for strengthening the root that can empower, give dignity and lead to inclusion? Some Dalits are even attacking me, saying that I have surrendered to the BJP, and asking why I am not coming out in condemnation. But no allurement can change me and I know what I have to do. I ask them, why don’t they work together under the leadership of Dalits? Rather, more of them follow upper-caste leaderships — they practice casteism amongst themselves. So long as caste divisions persist, any attempt to develop the nation will be a mirage.