On 18 January 2016 the country woke up to the disturbing news of another Dalit scholar, Rohith Vemula, committing suicide while fighting a social battle against caste atrocities in his university, the esteemed University of Hyderabad. Rohith was one among the five Dalit research scholars of the university who were suspended and evicted from their hostels following a controversy with those belonging to the student wing affiliated to the ruling party forming the government at the Centre. This was at a time when the university had already stopped their UGC stipends for some months, albeit under the strict instruction of the MHRD. Rohith was a member of Ambedkar Students Association and therefore often came in conflict with the right-wing students associations. The administration in UoH was already right leaning and the VC was a stooge of the party in power. Rohith’s death was called an “institutional murder” and the VC was charged for Abetment to Suicide under the Prevention of SC/ST Atrocities Act. He had applied for an anticipatory bail plea but was rejected by the court.
Questions have been raised as to why Rohith being a Dalit becomes such a crucial aspect of his identity or why has it been made into a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. The truth of the matter is, Rohith’s morale has had to take so many beatings throughout his life precisely because he was a Dalit. And that is evident in his last words to all who cared to listen. He did not leave behind a cursory “suicide note”. What he left behind is a treasure trove of sentiments, emotions, aspirations and dreams – to reach for the stars and nothing less than that. His last letter to the world is a testament of how each beating that he took in his life, moulded him for something that he or someone from his community is not expected to achieve. Thus, this article is not a narrative on Rohith’s struggle against a caste biased society. It is about how the fight of a young scholar who was a first generation learner in his family, and whose every day was defined by his identity as a Dalit inspired large section of the student community to raise their voice against caste atrocities. Rohith’s suicide sparked outrage and protest across the country and even garnered some support from the media as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits and other lower castes as is prevalent in many of the elite educational institutions of the country. Rohith has been a victim of not just the educational institution that he has been associated with, but of the social institution of caste itself that draws its sanction from Manusmriti that makes people perceive the caste system as something valid and normal. It makes them blind to the inhuman atrocities that are dealt out to Dalits and lower castes, even within the supposedly sanitized environment of a higher educational institution.
However, on 22 March 2016 what the country did not wake up to was the brutal police attack on students and teachers who objected to and protested against the return of the ‘killer’ VC. There were clashes between ABVP supporters as well as the police who were trying to provide a smooth entry to the VC and the protesting students. News channels kept airing a token footage of the horrific act of the police forces on the students until the news trickled out that more than 30 students were arrested along with 3 teachers; their whereabouts remained unconfirmed for a long time.
Later reports and subsequent meetings with the remanded students and teachers revealed that they were beaten up during the arrest as well as in the police van in which they were transported. In fact, now that they have come back, having granted bail, what they heard was something we have been apprehending for a long time. The arrested students were told, “Your human rights are collapsed. Even if I hang you, no one can question.” Girl students were threatened that they would be raped and were humiliated. A female faculty member was pulled by the hair and dragged into the police van. Huge numbers of police were deployed on the university premises, especially the VC’s lodge, which was allegedly ransacked and vandalized by the protesting students. There are still counter evidences to the same but the present article will not go into that. The university gates were sealed; water and electricity supply cut off; messes shut down; internet blocked and worst of all, all students using debit cards issued by the university branch of the State Bank of Hyderabad (which was most of them as it is a prerequisite in all universities to open a university branch account for transfer of fellowship money) found their cards were blocked. In other words, the students were trapped inside their own campus, without food, water, internet (modes of communication to the rest of the world) and even money. No one, other than staff and students were allowed to step inside the campus. The non-teaching staff, under pressure from their union leaders, who in turn were boot lickers of the party in power, went on strike reacting to the protest by closing the university mess halls. Little did they know that they will be used as shields to protect the administration, conveniently putting the blame of the lock-down situation in the campus on them. Some of the students who took the initiative to cook were also arrested, and one even beaten up so severely that he had to be admitted into an ICU. Every action in the university was taking place in gross violation of human rights.
However, despite all this, the national media, which did not think twice before conducting media trials on the JNU students arrested on charges of sedition, remained deafeningly silent about this issue. Nor were those who triumphantly detected the doctored videos the JNU students which were being used to frame them. Friends and families of students on campus flooded the social networking sites calling for support and representation from the media. And yet there was a stoic silence from the otherwise loud and garrulous mainstream media that thrives in India. Their reports took no stand, did not criticize anyone, did not question the unconstitutionality of the brutal attacks and the police violence on the students inside a university campus. For them, the issue of nationalism, a sublime political idea conveniently used by the present government at the centre, is more important than the question of caste, a living reality for the likes of Rohith Vemula and many other first generation learners whose morale has had to take so many beatings throughout their lives precisely because they are Dalits. Media failed the students and teachers of the University of Hyderabad in fulfilling the very core of its duties as watchmen of the society and its people. It is their silence that made it obvious to the nation that what concerns the centre is a question of nationalism and the periphery can never come to the centre.
The media was eventually forced to pick up the story as international agencies like Amnesty had begun to take interest in the matter and the human rights violation that was taking place. This was because the news slowly started trickling out through social media posts as well as online alternative news portals who were more than ready to cover the events. The media is the fourth pillar of power or more popularly called the “fourth estate”, a societal or political institution that is not officially recognized but which wields enough power to influence the masses. The way the mainstream media reacted or rather did not react at all to the issue makes one recollect the alternative meaning of fourth estate according to a medieval European law, where a set of lawyers sold justice to the rich denying it to rightful litigants who could not bribe their way into the verdict.
The JNU and the UoH incidents can no more be treated as select and separate incidents that point no fingers at the government in power. In fact, they are glaring evidences of the strategic moves of the BJP to divert public attention from the Dalit issue that was being raised countrywide following Vemula’s death. Caste is not an issue that is voluntarily accepted and its problems openly discussed in Indian society. The section of the student community who have the power, privilege and articulation to address such social problems are either affiliated to the Left (which considers society divided on the basis of class), the Right (or in other words the Hindutva forces who will but of course refuse to find any problem with the caste structure) or the apolitical for whom affirmative action like reservation is nothing but draining off of the country’s resources. Rather questions of nationalism are what catches everyone’s attention and is an easy emotion to play upon. In both the JNU and the HCU cases, the moot point of conflict have been the citizen’s right to question a constitutional law, a right that all citizens of the country have. Kanhaiya Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rohith Vemula, all had one thing in common – they were questioning a law of the land that still allows the ancient practice of capital punishment – whether it was Afzal Guru or Yakub Memon.
The State, the authorities, the social institutions will always have more power against an individual. They will bend laws, they will create truth out of clear fiction and they will crush a dissenting voice. And yet it is due to one individual, one voice that changes are affected. That individual will ride above doctored videos and false press releases and statements. What can be seen across the country is a rising trend of the government meddling into the affairs some of the top educational institutes of the country by installing stooges and puppet administrations, threatening dissenting voices by bringing down the force of the state upon them. With the growing intolerance in the country, the government is further closing down the only free space left for any kind of dialogue – the universities. Educational policies are being revised with an emphasis on common syllabi, stripping away the education system off its heterogeneous nature. Dissenting voices are being quashed and silenced. However, the HCU incident showed us there is still hope. Not in the nation, not in the media, not in the judiciary; but in the human will to not relent.
Photo Credit- Bilal Veliancode