Thursday, January 21, 2016

Apoorvanand: A new Dalit identity // Anushrut Agrwaal - We Are Not Pathetic

RECOVERING from the initial stage of stupor, the RSS and its government launched an ‘Ambedkarite’-nationalist offensive to justify the treatment meted out to Rohith Vemula and his colleagues. They took care to offer cold, customary condolences, but after freeing themselves from this minimum obligation, the first thing they did was to question the ‘Dalitness’ of Rohith. They claimed that he was not an authentic Dalit since one of his parents is a non-Dalit. The father comes from a backward community. Since you derive your identity from the father, Rohith could not claim to be  a pure Dalit.

The cynical attempt to persuade Dalits that the death of Rohith should not concern them, by suggesting that he was an imposter, shows the real inhuman nature of the politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As if, even if this were a fact, it would make the death of Rohith less tragic!

The second thing the RSS did was to question the politics of Rohith and his organisation — Ambedkar Students’Association (ASA). The argument, barely a day after the suicide, was that the politics of the ASA had nothing to do with Dalit issues. It was raising issues which were anti-national in nature and therefore, the ASA and its members, including Rohith, do not deserve our sympathy. At least, nationalist Dalits should not come out in support of the ASA.

The ASA was dubbed anti-national for having protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and for participating in a procession to protest the attack on the screening of “Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai”, a documentary on the communal violence in western UP. 
A strange argument was advanced to prove that Rohith and his organisation were in fact insulting Ambedkar. Since Yakub Memon was punished by the Supreme Court under the relevant laws framed under the provisions of the Constitution which was written by Baba Saheb, any act of opposition to this punishment is an affront to Baba Saheb! Rohith was guilty of this sacrilege.

One of the “pracharaks” of the RSS, who has been assigned the job of looking after its students’ wing, said on camera that Rohith and the ASA never raised the question of denial of reservation to the OBCs and SC/STs in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia; and never questioned their minority character, which again proves that they cared little for Dalits. It is again being suggested here that you will have to oppose the minority character of these institutions to prove your Dalit credentials. 

This argument tries to essentialise Dalit identity and intends to tie it finally with Hindutva. Dalit politics that in any manner questions the nationalism of the Hindutva variety automatically becomes anti-national and fit for attack. The RSS is also trying to deprive Dalits of the right to choose their issues and solidarities. If they make issues which are ‘non-Dalit’ in a narrow sense, and even worse, if they make Muslim issues their own, they are damned. 

The aggression with which the RSS is trying to devour Ambedkar is born out of the desperation to use the energy that the movements of social justice has unleashed in the last two decades. Recognising the urge of the backward and Dalit classes to participate in the democratic political process, the Sangh is devising ways to create its own brand of Dalit and backward politics. Since in its formative days the slogan was a unity of Dalit-Backwards and Muslims, the Sangh is trying to isolate Muslims and draw the rest in its fold.

Organisations like the ASA are impediment in this drive as they seek to realise the liberatory potential of the project of social justice by forging an alliance of all oppressed communities. The ASA, through its activities, expressed its solidarity with the persecuted Muslims of India. This could not be tolerated.

It is not surprising that even in this sombre moment, the RSS has not refrained from attacking Rohith and his friends for their incomplete and anti-national Dalithood.   
The reaction from the government,  defending the MHRD, is even more pathetic and unconvincing. It has now been documentarily proved that the ministry gave an extraordinary treatment to the request by Bandaru Dattatreya. All of us know that no officer would take the pain of giving four reminders in quick succession in a routine matter. It is clear that there was a concerted attempt to put pressure on the university to act in a particular manner which satisfies the complainant, in this case the minister.

The deception in the response of Smriti Irani is so palpable. She alleges that it was a clash between two groups of students and there was no caste angle to it. She hides a fact which is most important, that the students’ body, for which her ministry batted, belongs to the RSS and she is also part of the Sangh Parivar. She cannot, therefore, deny partisanship in this case. Second, it is not others who are indulging in a malicious campaign by making it a caste issue. None other than her own colleague, Bandaru Dattatreya, made this allegation that casteist and anti-national groups were active on the campus!

The minister seems to be perfecting the art of half-truth, but she gets exposed each time. When she produced the letter of a Congress leader to prove that her ministry was also pursuing matters raised by opposition leaders, she concealed this fact that the urgency in the latter case was missing and the university also took it lightly, whereas in this case, the university overturned its earlier decision of not punishing Rohith after it was relentlessly pestered by the MHRD to show compliance.

A TV anchor raised a question many of us would find innocent, but it needs to be asked. Why did the aggrieved student body run crying to the minister? Was it sure that he, being one of them, would readily help them? Second, why did the minister believe what the student body told him? Did he investigate? For, his was not a simple forwarding note which is customarily sent by a person like him when he is approached by his constituents. He very explicitly lists the crimes of the ASA and demands intervention of the MRHD to prod the university to act against the ‘anti-national’ casteist criminals. He cannot claim that he was merely a neutral conduit.

The role of the university is shameful, even the reaction of the Vice-Chancellor after the suicide. He is shocked and fails to understand why Rohith had to take this extreme step. But when asked why he did not think of reaching out to Rohith after his earlier anguished letter, all that he has to say is that he has to act according to rules and statutes!  It is this cold, vicious, nationalist cruelty which filled Rohith with a sense of isolation from which he could recover only by breaking free of this life. Let us face with clear eyes this duplicity, this wickedness of nationalism which criminalises my existence if I seek to express my individuality. Many more lives will be lost if we do not act in time and remove it from the position of power.
During the last few days, there was a buzz in the North Campus of Delhi University. Students across colleges were looking forward to two events on January 18: the celebrations to mark 100 years of Ramjas College and a talk by well-known stage and film actor Boman Irani at St Stephen’s.

Sometime after noon on January 18 came the news that a Dalit research scholar had committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in a hostel room in Hyderabad Central University.  I read online the note Rohith Vemula left for the world before taking his life. He wrote, “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.”

In the 22 years of my life I have seen two friends commit suicide, their dissatisfaction unexplained, their anger misplaced. It was terrible and extremely painful. But this was something else – all Rohith asked for was to be allowed to study, to fill his mind with the wonders of science and express himself through the word. This simple desire was denied to him. I thought of homes such as mine,  where one is constantly told by parents not to worry about anything and “just study”. Sometimes as children we were goaded into studying. Here, the entire university, at the bidding of central government ministers – one handling the Human Resource Development portfolio ironically – and the student wing of the ruling party at the Centre, seemed to have conspired to make that scholar’s simple wish impossible.

I found out that various student groups were planning a protest demonstration in the afternoon outside the Human Resource Development ministry. A friend and I went to take part in the protest. Our numbers paled in comparison to the crowds thronging Ramjas and Stephen’s. Nevertheless there was a sense of purpose with which we gathered there.

In my four-and-a-half years at Delhi University, I have seen many debates on a number of issues: the retention of AK Ramanujan’s essay on the 300 versions of the Ramayana in a university course syllabus; the semester system; the four year undergraduate programme system; the screening of the film Muzaffarnagar baaqi hai in Delhi University; and the hanging of Yakub Memon.  I cannot claim to have been totally involved in all these causes. I do not belong to any particular student political group and I am not a regular at many of the protests surrounding such issues, being somewhat untouched by them and often questioning their benign dissent.

This time, though, there was a difference.  In Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, there isn’t a single mention of his political rivalry with ABVP or his participation in student politics as a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. It mentions only his aspirations in the field of science and his failure in fulfilling them: “I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.” Here was a student who had to struggle for the basic right to education that is fundamentally promised to each citizen of this country and was hounded by his own institution – denied his stipend, not allowed to enter the hostel, not allowed to attend classes and not even allotted a supervisor for his research. A man driven to suicide because he could not study.

Rohith’s suicide goes beyond the nuances and layers that accompany protests on causes such as those stated above, undoubtedly issues that responsible students should protest for. His suicide had nothing to do with being ‘responsible’, but it had everything to do with not being perceived as human enough to be allowed to expand his horizons, to study. Rohith’s suicide isn’t an issue for sectarian politics.  It is an issue that calls into question our human core.

While we were pondering this question, a small group of people at a bus stop close by, who had nothing to do with either the MHRD or us students, looked on at our protest and deplored the fact that we were all against ‘Hinduism’; that our sole purpose was to oust organisations such as RSS, ABVP and BJP and replace them with ISIS. They either didn’t know or chose not to bother about the merits of the issue. They were quick to perceive in our protest an insult or challenge to their political loyalties which meant nothing less than an assault on their core principles. Rohith’s own words explain it best: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing… ”

The single-minded purpose with which two central ministers, senior members of the BJP in Telangana and ABVP pursued their objective of keeping a scholar from his books shows a brand of politics that seeks to decimate any opinion that does not correspond to it. A politics that literally makes it impossible for someone to live.

That is something I simply cannot agree with. And that is precisely why I decided to join the protest outside the MHRD – for at this point, to not be political enough to protest would be tantamount to supporting the status quo. To support the status quo would be to endorse the denial of the basic rights of an individual. And that would be pathetic.

It was this feeling which drew so many of us away from the cosy comfort of the campus to the protest outside MHRD on January 18. We did not number many but we would like to believe that our being there made a difference. We were glad to be there in solidarity with our fellow student Rohith Vemula. We were hurt. We were angry. We were sad. We were not empty. We were not unconcerned about ourselves. Most importantly, we were not pathetic.