Rohith Vemula’s Dalit status is being questioned. Did he belong to the Scheduled Castes (SC) or not? The acronym SC comes from a twin set of words, Scheduled Caste. Aside from its usage in the law, SC has acquired social and personal meaning in casual usages like “are you SC?” and a corresponding self-identification in responses like “Yes, I am SC”. I want to set this apart from Dalit status through a seemingly contradictory personal narrative: I am Dalit, not an SC.
I was 17 years old when I was preparing for admission into India’s premier institute for legal education, the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore. The competition was tough and I thought I will not make it. I asked my father if I should apply under the “reserved category” for SC. My father lowered his eyes and shook his head in reply. He barely whispered the word no and I felt ashamed for asking. There was no more conversation about this. I wrote the entrance exam in the “general category” and I would have resented this decision had I failed. I passed — in the “general category”.
For me, the decision whether or not to get a caste certificate was made by my father. He did this to shield me from the stigma attached to reservations. A first step in this decision was a careful non-disclosure of our caste and Dalit identity. Next I was given a fictitious surname, Nimbekar. This surname was made up from my family gotra, Nimb, and the suffix ekar was taken from the last name of Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Later, and by the time I reached high school, my father went through a major life change. He embraced Buddhism and adopted Baudh as his surname. Contrary to the hiding of our SC status, my father began to declare this neo-Buddhist Dalit identity openly. He urged me to adopt the surname Baudh too. I was just too reluctant. I was an adolescent at the time and I was embarrassed by this change of surname. I thought how will I explain it to my peers at school and what will they say.
My father died unexpectedly in a road accident. His death was sudden and shocking, and it brought anguish and uncertainty into my life. I began to think if I should quit law school and return home to Delhi. My elder brother, elder to me only by one year, stepped into my father’s shoes and restored stability to our lives. Despite severe financial hardship, my mother wouldn’t hear of me quitting law school. So I continued my studies in Bengaluru and by the time I was ready to graduate, I knew that I wanted my law degree in the chosen surname of my father, Baudh.
This introduced a contradiction in my identity. Although I was open about being Dalit, I had not availed SC reservation. And to date, I have not acquired the certification of SC.
My sister also does not have the certification of an SC and has therefore not availed SC reservations. She is married to someone who has his SC certification, and together they have a son who has also got this certification. Recently this young man has appeared for admission into IIT and he had to grapple with the same troubling question as I did: Should he appear in the “general category” or in the “reserved category”? Although he has the SC certification, he was not sure about availing it because of the stigma associated with reservations.
I wonder about those of us who hide our SC status. Of course, our urban settings allow some of this anonymity from caste. At the same time, there are routine ways in which SC and Scheduled Tribes (ST) statuses are disclosed. There is rampant discrimination because of that, compounded by our reservation status. The very term SC/ST has acquired pejorative connotations.
This legal status of SC is a defining aspect of Dalit status. But it is not an exclusive definition. The status of SC is nothing more than legal nomenclature and it decides whether or not we avail reservations, and whether or not we avail protection under legislation like the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This nomenclature is neither perfect nor complete, in fact it is riddled with contradictions — for example, the non-availability of SC status to Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians.
On the other hand, Dalit status is more than a SC status. I am Dalit and I choose not to avail SC reservations. My nephew has chosen to avail these reservations and made it to the IIT. Yes, we are both Dalit and casteism acts upon both of us, perhaps differently.
Although a judicial commission has now said that Rohith Vemula did not belong to the SC community, it is nothing more than a narrow reading of legal nomenclature. Rohith’s personal, social and political self-identification makes him who he was, an immortal Dalit.
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