Rohith Vemula and the holy cow

The Dalit scholar’s death exposed the inability of the casteist Hindu to be modern, as Ambedkar had suspected.

Written by Suryakant Waghmore | Updated: January 28, 2016 3:31 am
rohith vemula suicide, rohit vemula death, hyderabad dalit suicide, hyderabad dalit death, dalit suicide, rohit dali suicide, india dalit Illustration by C R Sasikumar

As the nation celebrates the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, Rohith Vemula’s suicide is a reminder of the void between Ambedkarite aspirations and Indian modernity — more precisely, Hindu modernity. Rohith was an Ambedkarite. To add to his woes, he gained admission under the “general” category.

If political interference and aggressive Hindutva intrusion on campus had not led to Rohith’s suicide, maybe Ambedkar did. The practice of Ambedkarism calls for a sincere challenging of caste, patriarchy and religious bigotry — some of these remain the essence of being a modern Hindu in present times. What is ironic is that elements of Hindu practices that are regressive continue to be celebrated and these get worse when hindutva ideologues link such practices to the ideals of nationalism and nationalist sentiments.

If one digs beyond the farcical surface of Ambedkarite rhetoric in the BJP/ RSS circles, both Ambedkar and the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at the Hyderabad Central University seem to be anti-national to Hindutva groups. Bandaru Dattatreya’s letters to the HRD ministry show us how Hindutva naturally portrays Ambedkarism as anti-national. Arun Shourie was rather aggressive about calling Ambedkar a stooge of the British — someone who was also anti-Hindu and never participated in the so-called independence struggle.

The problem facing the present regime is that they want to use Ambedkar selectively — more out of compulsion. Aspects of Ambedkar that show him as anti-Muslim, vegetarian, or cast him as a Hindu, are cooked up and circulated. Ambedkar declared as early as 1935 that he will not die a Hindu although it was his misfortune to be born one. Ambedkar’s nationalism was about internal repair — a revolution from within. Ambedkar was suspicious of a Hindu becoming modern. His reading was based less on prejudice and more on sociological analysis.

For a Hindu, his caste is his public identity, said Ambedkar. And caste continues to be a monster, affecting the private and public lives of modern Hindus. The burden of bearing the brunt of Hinduism’s ugliness invariably falls on Dalits and women. “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible,” he declared in the Annihilation of Caste.

The Hyderabad university is among the few campuses in India where Ambedkar and his ideas had not been confined to Dalits. The ASA is not a Dalit student body as there are students across caste, gender and regions supporting it. To make matters worse, Ambedkarism has been taken up in assertive forms. The ASA was in the news in March 2015 for celebrating a beef festival after beef was banned in Maharashtra. The purity of the cow and the impurity of the untouchable continue to be perceived as normative and are connected sentiments for most non-Dalits. Not that food and vegetarian ideology don’t dominate campuses any more, but to assume that all Dalits will give in to celebrating cow-protection as nationalism is misplaced optimism.

Vegetarianism and the celebration of purity are themselves becoming more gendered — with men eating non-vegetarian meals outside home while the women keep the kitchen pure by not eating and not cooking non-vegetarian food. Increasingly, urban, educated and working women also self-regulate their entry to the kitchen and temples during their menstrual cycles.

Such vegetarianism and purity rituals are based on exclusion and not void of violent orientations. The worst symptoms of the violence caused by vegetarianism can be seen in Gujarati society. Gujarat may be the most vegetarian state in principle, but Gujarati society is also amongst the most violent against Dalits and Muslims. Not surprisingly, in 2007, Narendra Modi, wrote in a controversial book titled Karmayog that Valmikis do scavenging as an exercise in “spirituality”.

The present-day inter-caste marriages in cities continue to carry caste biases and disgust against Dalits and Adivasis. Hindus, although appearing modern, lack a sense of trust towards Dalits — all they harbour is contempt and no sympathy. Ambedkar had argued Hinduism is a religion of rules and not principles. An interesting case of Hindu prejudice against Dalits in charitable giving is pointed out by scholars Ashwini Deshpande and Dean Spears in a recent article. They suggest that caste Hindus prefer to do charity to the anonymous poor — once they get to know that those benefiting are untouchables, their desire to donate is affected.

Reservations are considered by Hindus as the obvious manifestation of the caste problem. Ambedkar, however, instituted a local form of forced liberalism on caste Hindus. Whatever little Dalit middle-class exists in India, is due to constitutional compulsions. Had Ambedkar left it to Gandhian/ Hindu benevolence, Dalits would have been busy seeking spiritual satisfaction — the Gujarati way.

An autonomous, intelligent and assertive Dalit seems like an aberration in the eyes of a modern Hindu. In rural areas, assertive Dalits are violated, mutilated and eliminated. Cases are registered, but killers and violators mostly escape punishment like Rama escaped the consequences of killing Shambuka. In universities, Dalits on the other hand have to self-immolate — at times because they are not able to meet the Hindu merit standards. Or, like Rohith, they simple do not agree with Hindu life standards.

Mobile, middle-class Dalits, at times, give in to the present pressures of Hindu purity and modernity — by changing their surnames, hiding their caste, becoming vegetarian, or by aggressively participating in anti-Muslim Indian-ness. For Dalits to be citizens and part of the nation, they have to mimic the pure and privileged.

Rohith, like several other Ambedkarites, did not play to the gallery of Hindu modernity and hyper-nationalism. Nor was he too patient with the normality of Hindu madness. Following Ambedkar, he did not spare Rama, Krishna, Sardar Patel, Gandhi, Vivekananda and the holy cow. He believed in politicking truth till the end. Should there be space for such dissent or should it be

called anti-national?

Perhaps it is time to realise that caste has become a (bad?) Hindu habit. Rohith may have forgiven those involved in abetting his suicide. But will those involved in the daily grooming of the caste monster and mindless nationalism wake up and introspect?


Waghmore, associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, is the author of ‘Civility against Caste’.