One hundred and fifteen years ago, in 1901, Bhimrao Ambedkar’s family moved to Dabak Chawl in Lower Parel. When he was 13, Bhimrao was brutally ostracised in Elphinstone High School, compelled to sit, alone and unwanted, on the last bench. His sharp intellect marked him out. One day, the teacher called out to him to solve a problem on the blackboard. Before Bhimrao could walk up to the front of the class, there was an uproar. Caste Hindu children, conditioned to cruel exclusions and hierarchies, rushed to “save” their tiffin boxes from being polluted by Bhimrao’s shadow. In many schools, tiffin boxes are still piled up behind blackboards. But where must Bhimrao have kept his tiffin box?
It is the everydayness of caste atrocity and prejudice that has allowed it to pass muster. How does this manifest today in institutions of higher learning? The Hyderabad Central University (HCU) has had a long and embattled history on this question. At the time of the Progressive Students’ Forum in the 1990s that battled Hindu caste hegemony during the countrywide Mandal agitation, the more focused Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) was born. In 2002, it was the chief warden, Appa Rao (the present HCU vice chancellor), who asserted the caste Hindu view on campus: A Dalit was shifted off his duties in the hostel mess — how can “we” have an “untouchable” “polluting” our food? — to his caste-driven place, sanitation duty! Ten students were rusticated, then.
Off campus, discrimination is manifest everywhere: In what Dalit children face in school, what Dalit women and men face upon marriage, what Dalits face during the performance of last rites. Across the length and breadth of the country. This leaves the rest of India, non-Dalits and “touchables”, with the question, how do we sit so comfortably with this?
On campus, this has led to serious and violent crimes. The HCU itself has a gory record of being the scene of nine student suicides over the past decade, eight of which were by Dalit students. In the same 10-year span, there have been 23 Dalit student suicides in India’s premier institutions of higher learning, including AIIMS and the IITs. Despite the detailed recommendations of the Sukhdeo Thorat Committee made in 2007, no soul-searching within or without Indian institutions of learning took place. On some campuses, separate days are earmarked for interviews of “general” (that is, non-Dalit), OBC, and SC/ ST candidates. Posts are deliberately kept vacant, falsely claiming that no candidates of merit are available. There is constant pressure on students to divulge their “full” (that is, caste) names by some faculty.
Rohith Vemula has left us with hard questions. He hanged himself using the banner of the organisation he represented, the ASA. It had a picture of Ambedkar on it. The police did not allow his mother or brother, let alone the over 500 bereaved friends and colleagues, to even see him one last time and bid a final goodbye before the last rites were performed.
Who is to blame for Rohith’s death? There is a need to pin both immediate, institutional blame as also accept, with humility, a wider social and political responsibility.
Rohith allegedly wrote to the vice chancellor, a month before he took his life, to supply “10 mg of sodium azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission… [and] a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students.” This handwritten letter should have been read as a precursor to what was coming. In the letter, Rohith allegedly goes on to say, “I request your highness to make preparations for the facility [of] ‘euthanasia’ for students like me. And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever.” This communication squarely puts the blame on the university authorities and, first and foremost, on the vice chancellor. The letter traces the officially sanctioned “social boycott” of Dalit students after they took on a member of the ABVP for making derogatory remarks about Dalits. “Donald Trump will be a lilliput in front of you,” Rohith tells Appa Rao before offering the chilling advice to supply sodium azide and a rope to all Dalit students.
Legally, the stipend of a suspended research scholar cannot simply be cut off. In the case of the five suspended Dalit research scholars, the HCU authorities obviously resorted to this underhand tactic to twist them into submission. This is from July 2015 onwards. Inexplicably, the same five students were locked out of their rooms from January 4 onwards, compelling them to start a protest. What was it that turned the screws on the vice chancellor, registrar and other authorities at HCU to thus torture the suspended students?
A Central minister of state in the Narendra Modi government, Bandaru Dattatreya, showed an unhealthy interest in the case and wrote a letter to HRD Minister Smriti Irani in August 2015, urging her to ensure action against the “casteist, anti-national activities” of Dalit students. This was seven days after Nandanam Diwakar, vice president of the BJP in Hyderabad, had written to Dattatreya.
Since the ministers of the government of India are now in the business of pinpointing caste identities (Smriti Irani’s press conference on January 20), Dattatreya happens to be an OBC. It is after August 2015 that the HRD ministry swung into action and five letters were sent by officials under Irani to the HCU urging action. The first, dated September 3, is signed by an under-secretary. The second (September 24) was sent by a deputy secretary. The third (October 6) was again signed by the same deputy secretary. The fourth (October 20) was signed by a joint secretary. Finally, the one dated November 19 was signed by the same under-secretary. Should members of the bureaucracy be performing such functions for any government, sworn as they are to uphold the Constitution? Any investigation into Rohith’s death must factor in these interventions from men and women in positions of power.
In the immediate, the suspension of the four other students was rightly revoked. Now, all false cases against them must be lifted, and fair recompense, including employment, made to Rohith’s family.
Beyond the grief and outcry of the moment, however, individually, socially and institutionally, we need to stop denying India’s not-so-hidden apartheid. Ask uncomfortable questions. The sheer irrationality, divisiveness and exclusions of caste need to be questioned. What kind of history do we teach? Who are our heroines and heroes? How many Dalits are there in the media, print or television? How many Dalits are there in institutions of power and governance?
The onus is on caste India, caste Hindus who live comfortably with caste, even if they do not actively perpetuate it. In that philosophical sense, we are all to blame.
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