By Vijay Darda | 25-01-2016
Atrocities on Dalits are not an unusual occurrence in our society. There was the incident when two dalit children were burnt to death when their family was attacked by their upper caste rivals near Faridabad. There is that infamous Khairlanji incident that shocked the collective conscience of the society some years ago. We all know that these social aberrations keep surfacing time and again. But there is a different regime at the centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been the voice of change. He has come to power on the promise that this regime would not be a business as usual experience for the people.
One of the key changes that he has promised is in the treatment of the weaker sections. To mark the 125th birth anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, this government was sensitive enough to schedule a special two-day session exclusively to celebrate his contribution to the Constitution. This was also seen as a commitment to enforce the rule of law in true letter and spirit of the Constitution. Also in his personal narrative, the prime minister emphasises his own humble origins as a teaboy.
In this backdrop, the tragic suicide of a Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad marking the sordid climax of anti-Dalit atrocities spread over a period of seven months is unpardonable. Like the prime minister, he too was a boy of humble origins. The brilliant son of a single mother who brought up her family on her meagre earnings as a tailoring worker, he had secured admission into the PhD programme in life sciences as a meritorious student and not on caste based reservations. As his painful suicide note shows, he was an articulate and creative writer who dreamt of a career like the famous science writer Carl Sagan. When such a spirited boy is driven to the point of committing suicide, it is not difficult to imagine the level of torture to which he has been subjected. If this had happened in some backward village, it could be attributed to the social milieu. But when such a tragedy takes shape in an institution of higher learning in a throbbing metro that has the nickname of Cyberabad the traditions of the society can be hardly held responsible for it.
As the details have emerged in the aftermath of Vemula’s suicide this is a tragedy that has been cooked in the files of the ministry of human resource development and the office of the vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad. Members of Parliament do write letters of complaint to the ministers, and as a matter of routine get replies as well. But usually these are proforma replies. The zeal shown by the ministry in writing emails and reminders to the university seeking reply on the labour minister’s complaint is unusual to say the least.
Similarly, the action taken by the university against the members of the Ambedkar Students Association for its clash with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader is also disproportional to the so-called crime. At the university campus, any disciplinary action is not expected to be punitive over such a long time. For the suspension and stoppage of stipend to continue for seven months, is simply a case of criminal neglect. This neglect was compounded by the vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile’s refusal to take note of the plaintive cry of Rohith where he said that all Dalits on admission to the varsity should be given a ‘vial of poison’ and a ‘decent rope’ to facilitate their suicide. When a vice-chancellor refuses to step in and offer relief to a Dalit student after such a plea, then there is no other interpretation that it is an abetment of suicide.
All this has happened before the tragedy. But the events that have happened after Rohith’s suicide are even more sickening. The human resource development ministry has appointed a judicial commission. But the first pre-condition of a fair probe is that those who have played a clear visible role in the entire episode and are still in their position of influence and power, and can still impact the course of this probe, be kept at bay. The expectation of natural justice, that they should be kept at arm’s length during the pendency of the probe, has been belied at the outset itself.
There have been a series of incidents in the past that have questioned the conduct of the people who belong to the prime minister’s party and his ideological fellow travellers. The attitude of the government has been to dismiss the opposition protests as merely political and to suggest that these are stray incidents that do not define the regime.
But the Rohith Vemula suicide falls into a completely different category. The officialdom has been involved in every aspect and there are two ministers who are fully aware of the step by step deterioration in the case. But they have not only refused to step in favour of the Dalit students, but have also tried to defend their conduct.
One can understand the BJP’s defiant attitude when confronted with opposition demands for the resignations of their ministers, but this is not a run of the mill corruption case. A Dalit student has been forced to take his life in an institution of higher learning, and unless the Modi regime fixes the responsibility of those culpable, it would not be able to restore the confidence of the Dalits.
Not taking action would mean that it is business as usual. Taking refuge under some legal jargon and giving the benefit of doubt to those who have been identified by the students would be counter-productive. The fact that within days of Rohith’s death the same authorities withdrew the penal action against the remaining four Dalit students is an acceptance that their earlier action was wrong. Indeed, if the vice-chancellor had acted on Rohith’s letter this situation would not have arisen. It is in this sense that this is an avoidable atrocity.
Before I conclude…
As we mourn the passing away of well-known Marathi thinker writer journalist Aroon Tikekar we also cherish his association with the Lokmat Media group. He belonged to a dwindling tribe of scholar journalists who had the ability to view the present both in the context of the past and in relation to the future. As we pray for his soul to rest in peace, we also hope that all his near and dear ones have the courage and patience to bear his loss.