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 administration.

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.

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