‘Reservation’ for the socially and educationally backward classes in schools and colleges brought Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula to the University of Hyderabad where he won a place in the general category as a PhD scholar in Life Sciences. ‘Preservation’ of the old social and economic order brought him death.
It is a miracle of our times that a Dalit, son of a security guard and a self-employed seamstress and instructor, could climb the ladder of education and be admitted as a scholar in a central university. On the way, he did not drop out. He was not pulled out by his parents to find low-paying work in order to bring a few rupees to support the family. He was not failed in school or college. He was not rusticated for some vague misdemeanour. He was not accused of a crime and thrown into prison. But he failed at the last hurdle.
Rohith and his friends held a protest against capital punishment and against the attack in Delhi on the screening of a documentary called Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. The ABVP (student wing of the RSS/BJP) opposed the protest. Both groups were entitled to exercise their right to free speech as long as they were at a safe distance from each other. That is the essence of freedom and democracy in an open society.
What happened was the opposite. An ABVP leader, in his Facebook post, called the members of the Ambedkar Students Association (a Dalit body) “goons”. He was forced to apologise. He alleged that he had been beaten by some members of the ASA and the ABVP demanded action against them. It was a minor dispute between two groups that should have been resolved in the manner such minor disputes are resolved, but it was not.
Multiple authors of a script
Enter the Proctorial Board of the University. Enter the Minister who is also the local MP. Enter the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Enter the new Vice-Chancellor. Enter the Executive Council of the University. Enter the Police.
The ABVP complained to the Minister/local MP, the Minister wrote to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, and the Ministry wrote to the University and followed it up with five reminders! In quick succession the University instituted an inquiry, suspended five students (all Dalits) including Rohith, the Vice-Chancellor revoked the suspension temporarily and ordered another inquiry by a new committee, the next Vice-Chancellor scrapped the enquiry committee and ordered a fresh inquiry by a sub-committee of the Executive Council, the EC confirmed the suspension, and the students were directed to move out of the hostel. The script of a tragedy was being written by multiple authors, but none paused to reflect on the consequences of the action they had been pressured to take. The tragedy indeed occurred on January 17 when Rohith hanged himself.
Entitled vs disentitled
Who has the power to move a Minister/local MP to write a letter to the Minister of Human Resource Development alleging (based purely on hearsay) that the ASA was indulging in “casteist and anti-national activities”? Who has the power to move the Ministry to forward the letter to the University and write five reminders within a few weeks? Only the “entitled” can.
The history of India is the history of a struggle between the “entitled” and the “disentitled”. The ABVP, claiming to represent the Hindu society, is the entitled. The Dalits are the disentitled. The four-tier arrangement in Hindu society did not include the Dalits. If anyone defied the four-tier arrangement or its rules, punishment was swift: exclusion and expulsion.
The University of Hyderabad, under the new Vice-Chancellor, acted like Hindu society. It barred the students from all “non-academic and political activities on campus” (exclusion) and directed them to “move out of the hostel” (expulsion). A dean said that the University had taken a “lenient view”. If the University had decided to take a “stern view”, would the acharyas of the University have asked for the tongues of the Dalit students to still their voices of protest (as Dronacharya asked Ekalayva for his right thumb)?
The gathering storm
As a nation we do not seem to have grasped the enormity of the storm gathering across this land. The disentitled are gripped by fear, suspicious of governments, feel helpless and isolated, and unable to find support among the dominant social and political organisations. Historically disentitled groups include Dalits, religious minorities, scheduled tribes, women and gays.
Rohith seems to have got to the heart of the crisis that was, as far as he was concerned, existential. He captured it in a few words: “My birth is my fatal accident.”
Just as “No one killed Jessica Lall”, no one Is — or will be held — responsible for the death of Rohith. Not the ABVP that exerted unrelenting pressure over a period of seven months. Not the Minister/MP who discovered the ASA’s “casteist and anti-national activities”. Not the Ministry of Human Resource Development that wrote five reminders in four months. Not the University that tossed the matter from one authority to another until a punishment satisfactory to the “entitled” was imposed.
Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula, who wanted to be a writer of science “like Carl Sagan”, has left us a letter (his only letter) that documents the precarious state of the nation. Read it, again and again.