The report of the commission set up by the HRD ministry to inquire into the facts and circumstances leading to Rohith Vemula’s death reads like an unabashed attempt to blame the victim and to absolve the establishment that stands accused of hounding him. A.K. Roopanwal, a retired judge of the Allahabad High Court, has accused Rohith’s mother, Radhika, of “branding” herself as Dalit and claims that the university’s action to expel him from the hostel was a “most reasonable decision”. Personal frustration, it says, not discrimination, drove Rohith to kill himself and that Union ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya were only discharging their duties as public servants. It clears university authorities of any role in the suicide. The claims made in the report are poorly sourced and are at odds with the facts of the case that are already in the public sphere. The government must discard this report if it does not wish to court further embarrassment on this issue.
There is a clear motive in the probe to deny Rohith’s Dalit identity. It refutes Radhika’s assertion that her biological parents were Dalits and insists that she is a Vaddera, an OBC. In February, her foster mother, Anjani Devi, had told this newspaper that Radhika was born to parents from the Mala (Dalit) caste. Radhika’s husband — Rohith’s father — was a Vaddera, which may explain why her second son’s birth certificate mentions his caste status as backward. The moot point is why the commission strove hard to dispute Radhika’s — and thereby Rohith’s — Dalit status, especially when it has no bearing on Rohith’s admission to the university, where he took admission on a general quota. As the family has said, the brothers grew up as Dalits and the discrimination they suffered was due to their caste status. In a country where being Dalit is to invite sustained marginalisation, why would a family falsely claim to belong to a Scheduled Caste? Rohith’s self was shaped by his Dalitness and his politics clearly reflected that. He was a leader of the Ambedkar Students Association on the campus and faced the ire of ABVP cadres for his political leanings. Local BJP leaders, including Dattatreya, preferred action against Rohith and his friends in the ASA because they were projecting an Ambedkarite political vision as an alternative to the ABVP’s Hindutva agenda.
Ever since his death, Rohith has become a symbol of a new political narrative of equality and justice that has the potential and promise to transcend old forms of identity politics. The probe report appears to be blind not just to the circumstances that led to Rohith’s suicide but also to the new political conversation that has emerged since.