'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Mukul Kesavan - Radical brotherhood: Fraternity and the republic // Anand Teltumbde: Who killed Rohith Vemula?
The death of Rohith Vemula raises the question of fraternity
in the life of this republic in the starkest possible way. India borrowed
France's republican motto - liberty, equality and fraternity - and incorporated
it into its Constitution. Liberty, rooted in individual rights, and equality,
defined as equal access to these rights, are ideas that have become part of
everyday democratic discourse, but fraternity remains a vague good intention.
What can brotherhood mean in political terms? How can it be expressed in policy
or legislation? And how is the value of community to be reconciled with the
rights-bearing individual citizen, central to modern democracy?
In a society as hierarchical as India's, fraternity,
understood as fellowship, barely exists. Louis Dumont's central insight
in Homo Hierarchicus is that the caste system celebrates
hierarchy, it considers it a social good. While all societies are unequal,
brahminical Hinduism celebrates inequality. Even the notional equality of all
believers that characterizes faiths like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism has
no place within orthodox Hinduism. A society that supplies canonical sanction
for inferiority and discrimination will struggle with the idea of a common
humanity, the necessary precondition for fraternity.
The colonial State's willingness to patronize a brahminical
understanding of Indian society led to a consolidation of caste inequality.
Both Nicholas Dirks and Susan Bayly write about the unprecedented way in which
the ostracism of Dalits was systematized under the aegis of the Raj. So, when India became independent the constituent assembly
was confronted with the task of institutionalizing political brotherhood in an
ideologically unfraternal society. The founders, led by B.R. Ambedkar,
recognized that universal adult franchise and a charter of fundamental rights
weren't enough because the social disenfranchisement of Dalits and tribals
would exclude them from any share of political office, government jobs or
educational opportunity. To bring them to the table, to guarantee them
representation, the constituent assembly made reservations for scheduled castes
and scheduled tribes mandatory.
It's important that we identify the goal of reservations and
name it accurately. The goal is not equality. No one, certainly not Ambedkar,
imagined that reservations would emancipate Dalits in the mass. The argument
that reservations represent a pernicious tokenism that creates a 'creamy layer'
while leaving the rest marooned in their deprivation, misreads, deliberately or
innocently, the point of reservations. Reservations are meant to create a Dalit
vanguard that represents an excluded community at the high table of privilege.
In an unequal society divided not just horizontally by class
but vertically by identity, one of fraternity's many meanings is the fellowship
of elites. It is the reason that Muslims scan the civil services lists to see
how many of their own have made it. It is why the lopsidedly upper-caste
ownership of India's mass media and the uniformly savarna origins
of its editors and anchors matter. It is why the social composition of India's
army, its police, its judiciary and its corporate class should concern us. The
absence or radical under-representation of large communities in these
institutions should worry us because they indicate a lack of fraternity that can't
be waved away by the magic wand of merit or the soothing invocation of a more
inclusive but impossibly remote future. Fraternity can't wait upon an eternally
deferred equality; our founding fathers understood that when they wrote
reservations into republican institutions.
Fraternity had a chequered career in France in the 19th
century. It was sometimes appropriated by Christians, socialists and
traditionalists alike, to imply that the republican virtues were rooted in
Christian brotherhood. The sangh parivar's insistence that the
political culture of the republic be marinaded in the juices of Hindu
community, is a variant of this conservative construction of fraternity. The
concerted attempt by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to co-opt Dalits and
assimilate them into their vision of a Hindu Rashtra is a form of paternalism,
dressed up as brotherhood.
Rohith believed in fraternity of a radical kind, the
brotherhood of the marginalized. He expressed his solidarity with Muslims whom
he saw as a beleaguered minority. He helped screen the documentary film on the
communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and he demonstrated against the hanging of
Yakub Memon. He and his Dalit friends chose to invoke a brotherhood that
threatened and challenged the sangh parivar's narrow, majoritarian
nationalism. Little wonder that every organization of the parivar - from the
Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad on campus to the Bharatiya Janata Party at
the Centre - was mobilized against him.
Rohith Vemula's death was the result of an absolute
dissolution of fraternity and community. The university, which is meant to be
an autonomous community of the intellectually engaged, allowed itself to be
used for political vendetta. Instead of being a temporary haven from the savage
hierarchies of the real world, it replicated them by suspending Rohith and his
friends, unhousing them and cutting off their stipends. Having come this far
(he was a doctoral student) he was abruptly shown his prescribed place in the
world by a vice-chancellor who chose to do the bidding of a hectoring State.
There was a time when the State (even the colonial State)
didn't send policemen into a university campus till the vice-chancellor asked
for them because the university's students were considered his wards. Some
years ago, the university at which I teach, Jamia Millia Islamia, was sharply
criticized for extending legal aid to students arrested for being complicit in
the Batla House encounter. It was accused of overreaching, for showing
solidarity with students tainted by terrorism. As the father of
university-going children, I know which attitude I'd prefer if they got into
trouble on a residential campus. I would rather have a vice-chancellor who
acted as if he were in loco parentis even if he exceeded that
brief, to one who behaved like an over-zealous public prosecutor and hounded
his student to death.
Rohith Vemula died a Dalit, abandoned by the other
solidarities that ought to have rescued him: the camaraderie of studenthood,
the fraternity of campus life, the shared, subversive delight of being young in
a middle-aged world. His fate reflects the rejection of fraternity in our
institutions, in their hostility to reservations, their barely concealed
contempt for students on a quota. His death asks us a question: is the republic
a secularized version of the caste system or is it its fraternal antithesis? In
1793, the beleaguered French republic's motto was revised to read " Unité,
Indivisibilité de la République; Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la mort'
[Unity, indivisibility of the Republic; liberty, equality, brotherhood or
death]". Tried beyond endurance, Rohith Vemula chose death. A republic
worth its name should be haunted by that choice.
Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit PhD scholar at the
Hyderabad Central University (HCU), in his suicide note, blamed none, friend or
foe, providing the feed to his killers to claim their innocence. An aspirant to
write one day like Carl Sagan exploring the universe with his flight of
imagination, he was driven to the depths of his inner self, the torn self of a
Dalit, in this caste-ridden land, by his tormentors, to conclude the futility
of existing. His death should make it clear that suicide is not the killing of
oneself; it is death by situation, which comprises of traditions, customs and
institutions, that provide cover to the murderers.
Rohith’s situation survives in the form of a makeshift tent
erected in an open arena of his university campus, in which he lived for 12
days along with four of his comrades after having been expelled from the
hostel, and their struggle for self-respect that outlives him. It is depicted
by his stinging letter of December 18 to the vice chancellor of the university,
his lament to his friends that he did not have any money to treat them on his
27th birthday, which was a few days away, never to dawn, and his last call to
his mother, which was ominously cut by him abruptly. This is enough to tear the
veils, expose the murderous situation and possibly the murderers.
The details of the case are by now in the public domain. The
alleged assault on one Nandanam Susheel Kumar, the president of the HCU unit of
the ABVP, for which the five Dalit students, including Rohith, were punished,
was never established. Rather, all the official inquiries, doctor’s testimony
and the witnesses confirmed that it did not take place. Still, the Dalit
students were punished. The curious flip-flop of the university administration
that followed clearly indicates the full play of caste prejudices and the
influence of extraneous forces, apart from the utter ineptitude of the
The big twist to the incident came from a letter written by
Bandaru Dattatreya, the minister of state for labour and employment in the Narendra Modi government,
to Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani,
branding the HCU as “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”
and demanding necessary action. In support, he wrote that the Ambedkar
Students’ Association had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon. The office of
Irani, the controversial HRD minister, who perhaps assumed HRD to be “Hindutva
resource development”, suggestively wrote to the VC as it did in response to an
anonymous complaint against the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT
Madras, which had led to its ban, triggering nationwide outrage.
The manner in
which it was followed up by as many as four letters from under secretary to
joint secretary indicates the amount of pressure exerted on the VC for taking
action against the students. It is this express support from the minister to
the inherently casteist administration that led to the punishment, which was no
less than capital punishment in the university context. How on earth can
research scholars possibly exist without accessing hostels, administrative
buildings, public places or talking to their fellow students? It did mean death
to them as research scholars.
After their expulsion, the students lived in the open in the
biting cold of Hyderabad and still the VC did not realise the gravity of his
misdeed. On December 18, Rohith had written a stinging letter to him, accusing
him of taking an unusual personal interest in the clash between the Dalit
students and the ABVP. He sarcastically hinted at the plight of Dalit students
at the HCU, asking the VC to provide poison and a rope to all Dalit students at
the time of admission, and also make available a facility for euthanasia for
students like him.
The letter was alarming enough for any responsible person to
take serious note of the state of mind of the student, who was driven to his
wits’ end on account of continuing harassment and penury, as his stipend, with
which he partly supported his mother and younger brother back home in Guntur,
was stopped in July.
Curiously, on the one hand, the government is going gaga
with the extravagant observation of the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb
Ambedkar in one-upmanship with the Congress to woo Dalit
votes. On the other, it seeks to curb the radical voices of Dalits on what
Ambedkar stood for. Ambedkar risked emphasising higher education over
elementary education because he saw that only the former can create critical
thinking in people and moral strength to stand up against the free play of
caste prejudices of dominant elements. The government is crushing these
potential torch-bearers of Ambedkar in every possible manner while singing
paeans to him.
As dissenting Muslim youth are easily branded as terrorists
the world-over, Dalit-Adivasi youth are being stamped as extremists, casteists
and anti-nationals. Indian jails are filled with such innocent youth
incarcerated for years under vague charges like sedition and unlawful
activities, etc. The BJP’s
aggressive drive to saffronise institutions, particularly higher education
institutions, portends that many more Rohiths will follow in the coming years. All those who have been mute spectators of these vile
processes under way to decimate the pluralistic structure of our country and
restore supremacist Brahmanic rule are responsible along with the dramatis
personae directly involved in this case.