A PM's Belated Tears Are No Substitute For Justice

“PM Modi tweets every minor and random thing — be it a Mayor election or wishing somebody on their birthday. But he has not said anything on issues of grave injustice, like the murders of Akhlaq, Dabolkar and Kalburgi…What delayed him for so many days? Just because we protested he was forced to shed crocodile tears. He was forced to speak up merely for fear of losing Dalit votes in the 2017 elections.” (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/dalit-student-who-protested-against-modi-evicted-from-hostel/article8143459.ece)

This is what three students who raised slogans for Rohith and against the Prime Minister, had to say about his mention of Rohith at the Convocation at B R Ambedkar University in Lucknow. It seems the protesting students saw through Mr Modi’s ‘wrong number’ quite accurately. The idea that Modi’s Ministers can write letters and then hold Press Conferences justifying having branded Rohith ‘anti-national,’ while Modi himself can sing a slightly different tune in Uttar Pradesh, shows that out of the corner of his teary eyes, he can see the UP elections coming up.

As Prime Minister began to speak, he was greeted by slogans by the three young students who were there to receive their degrees. Ram Karan Nirmal, Amrendra Kumar Arya, and Surendra Nigam raised slogans of ‘Rohith ham sharminda, dronacharya ab zinda hain’, evoking the myth of the forest-dwelling Ekalavya, forced to chop off his thumb and sacrifice his ‘merit’ because Dronacharya wanted Arjuna to be ‘the best.’ They shouted slogans of ‘Narendra Modi Murdabad’ and ‘Go Back’, demanding to know why the PM had been silent on the death of Rohith. After the protesters were evicted from the hall, the PM said, “When there is news that a youth of my country, Rohith, was compelled to commit suicide, what his family must have gone through. Mother India has lost a son. There will be reasons, there will be politics (surrounding it) but the fact remains that a mother has lost her son. I feel the pain very well.”

But the irony is that the three young men who forced the PM to speak, have been subjected to the same treatment that Rohith faced. They were evicted from the University hostel room they had booked for their stay in Lucknow, and two of them have been booked under Section 151 (disturbance of public peace). Like Rohith, they have been punished for voicing dissent – for actually following the ideas of Dr Ambedkar, after whom their University is named. One of them is a gold medallist in human rights – he and his friends ensured, as Dr Ambedkar had exhorted, that their knowledge was not confined to classrooms and exams – they used it to stand up and be heard for Rohith, for Akhlaque, for Kalburgi, for Dabholkar.

A Mother’s Pain

Modi’s words on Rohith raise more questions than they answer. He called Rohith ‘a son of Mother India’ – why, then, has he failed to sack the two Ministers who got Rohith expelled by repeatedly calling him ‘anti-national’? Why not ask Amit Shah to sack BJP General Secretary P Muralidhar Rao who, in a series of tweets, demanded a probe into Rohith’s organization the Ambedkar Students’ Association, for its ‘anti-national’ linkages? http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/congleft-politicising-suicide-bjp/article8135859.ece

A prominent BJP leader, Subramaniam Swamy, called those who protested for justice for Rohith “dogs.” Can Mr Modi tell us if Ram Karan Nirmal, Amrendra Kumar Arya, and Surendra Nigam are “dogs” or “sons of Mother India”? Mr Modi quoted Dr Ambedkar’s exhortation to “‘educate, agitate, organize” – are not the protesters at HCU and all over the country, including the three students at Ambedkar University, following Ambedkar’s advice in its true spirit? Also, how to explain the penchant BJP leaders (VK Singh, Swamy, Modi himself) have for dog analogies when it comes to Dalits, Muslims and those who speak up for the rights of these sections?

Modi also needs to answer if he can even imagine the pain of a mother who was denied the right to bury her son according to the norms of her Mala community. Instead, the police cheated her, and cremated him secretly, away from his grieving friends and his own village. The Telangana police denied a mother the right to have her son’s grave in her village, to mourn in her own way. In death, as in life, Rohith was denied dignity and humanity. On my visit to the HCU campus, Rohith’s fellow students (the tears and rage in whose eyes was in strong contrast to Modi’s theatrics) kept asking why Rohith’s body was treated as a shameful secret to be burned in a hurry, like garbage.

Modi said he could “feel the pain” of the mother who had lost her son. Can he feel the pain caused to Rohith’s mother, when the BJP GS Murlidhar Rao questions Rohith’s Dalit status, thereby disrespecting the Dalit mother who gave birth to and brought up her son? Why is the BJP parading Rohith’s father’s statement that he is OBC (something no one denies) to rub salt into Rohith’s mother by denying that Rohith had a right to choose his mother’s caste identity? The position of the law on the matter is quite clear: a person born to a Dalit mother can avail of SC reservations if s/he can show that they “did not have any advantageous start in life but on the contrary suffered the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged.” Rohith’s mother said that his father had abandoned the family before his birth, and she single-handedly brought him up. The Supreme Court’s January 2012 in the Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika versus State of Gujarat verdict specifically mentioned cases of “a pregnant tribal or Scheduled Caste woman, abandoned by her forward caste husband, who would go back to her people and community” as cases in which the offspring would be doubtlessly SC/ST.

Modi’s performance of ‘spontaneous’, teary-eyed emotion and choked voice was belied by his careful, crafty choice of words. Modi often flaunts his own caste status, calling himself ‘ati pichde parivar mein paida hua gareeb ma ka beta’; he referred to Dr Ambedkar as ‘Dalit ma ka beta’. But he was careful not to call Rohith the son of a Dalit mother – something that would have silenced his party leaders who are accusing Rohith of falsifying his Dalit status.

At HCU, the students’ movement distributed copies of Rohith’s writings and Facebook posts. One of those holds a clue as to how he viewed his own identity, and his relationship with his mother’s life and struggle:

“Who is Gurram Jashuva and why is it important to remember him on his death anniversary day (July 24th)?

“Mahakavi Gurram Jashuva was the first compelling organic Dalit voice in Telugu literature, who exposed the hypocrisy of caste ideology. Jashuva was born to a Dalit (Madiga) woman and Golla (BC) father. He, in his whole life strongly asserted his mother’s identity and voiced for abolishing of untouchability and for women’s rights… He was humiliated, subjected to an intense mental agony and treated as a literary outcaste by the scholarly world that was dominated by the upper castes….”

No doubt, Rohith had every legal right to claim Dalit identity and avail caste based reservations, as established by the court verdict I have cited. The police ‘investigating’ his caste status and the BJP leaders calling him and his mother liars is much in the same way that the meat in lynch-mob victim Akhlaque’s fridge was investigated for whether or not it was beef! The victim is the accused, as most Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, and woman victims are ‘accused’.

But more than that, it is clear from Rohith’s post on Jashuva, that for him it was probably a conscious political choice to ‘strongly assert his mother’s identity,’ as a tribute of respect to her struggles in bringing him up, as a way of embracing Dalit identity with pride. It is this that the BJP leaders and social media hecklers, with their Manusmriti mindsets, simply cannot begin to grasp.

Ambedkar and Modi’s Politics

On November 12th 2015, Modi was greeted with protests in London and parried questions from the press by quoting Ambedkar. A post by Rohith on the same date reads: “Wherever Modi was welcomed with strong protests, he brings out Ambedkar’s name. Modi’s mentioning of Babasaheb’s name and social justice term in UK Assembly is frustratingly ironical when his party members kill Dalits and Muslims on a daily basis.”

Hearing Modi quote Ambedkar at the BR Ambedkar University, even as Dalit students raising slogans in Ambedkar’s name are evicted from his presence, one is reminded of Rohith’s post. Rohith was an activist of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). His ideology informed his activism. He helped organize a protest against ABVP’s disruption of the screening of a documentary on Muzaffarnagar communal violence, because for him Ambedkar was not just a political prop; he remembered that Ambedkar wrote, “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt be the greatest calamity for this country. It is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. It is incompatible with democracy. It must be stopped at any cost.”

Rohith was branded ‘anti-national’ in life, and is being branded the same in death, for having organized a protest against Yakub Memon’s hanging. He did so because Dr Ambedkar declared that “the proper thing for this county to do is to abolish the death sentence altogether”; and because the hanging a man for crimes committed by others affronted his sense of justice.

If Rohith is being branded ‘anti-national’ for opposing death penalty and opposing the vision of Hindu Rashtra, will the BJP admit that by the same yardstick, Dr Ambedkar too would have to be called anti-national?

Rohith understood the spirit of Dr Ambedkar’s philosophy. Modi, with his RSS training, simply fails to. One of the most glaring examples of this failure is the term used by Modi to praise Ambedkar. Penning a hagiography of RSS chief Golwalkar in 2008, Modi described Ambedkar as a ‘modern Manu.’ The man who burnt the Manusmriti, who abhorred and rejected all that Manu stood for, is called the modern Manu! Modi simply could not understand what an insult to Ambedkar that was. How could he? The RSS taught him, after all, that the Manusmriti should have been India’s Constitution (as observed by the November 30th 1949 issue of the RSS mouthpiece Organiser).

The point is that Modi and his party can’t have it both ways – they can’t use Ambedkar as a shield when faced with questions about their lack of respect for the Constitution, and brand political activism in the name of Ambedkar as ‘anti-national’.

Deadly Consequences of Branding Dissent As Disloyalty

There are many who argue that Rohith’s suicide can’t be blamed on administrative and Government decisions. Can we at least stop denying that his suspension, expulsion and subsequent academic and financial hardships contributed in large measure to his frustration and sense of betrayal? The question we should be asking is – is it not an atrocity that a bright, promising young scholar, who hoped not only to touch the stars and be a science writer, but also to change an unjust society, was made conscious of the ‘fatal accident of his birth’; that even in a University, he could not be ‘treated as a mind’ but was ‘reduced to his immediate identity.’

What led to his suspension and expulsion?

There is really no escaping the fact that he was punished – in the absence of evidence of any guilt – because a local BJP MLC, and then the Union Labour Minister and Union HRD Ministry chose to escalate an ordinary campus-level political disagreement to the level of ‘anti national activity’. They vindictively decided to ‘teach a lesson’ to students who had gotten into an argument with an ABVP leader. Opposing the ABVP was branded by them as ‘anti-national.’

Medical records – filed as affidavits in Court - show that the ABVP leader had, quite simply, lied about having been severely injured by ASA members. At best, his medical examination showed mild scratches. Later, he was admitted for appendicitis – which, the doctor opined, could not be the consequence of any beating.

The whole matter could have rested there. The Proctorial Enquiry had all the above findings at their disposal. Even if they were inclined to suspect a minor clash between ASA and ABVP members, they could have dispensed the matter with a warning to all parties.

But the shadow of BJP ‘VIPs’ hung over the whole matter right from the start – forcing the Proctorial enquiry to disregard the lack of evidence and recommend suspension of the five ASA activists. Confronted by the lack of evidence and challenged on the basis for the Proctorial recommendations, the earlier VC revoked the suspension and promised a fresh enquiry. But the new appointee, Mr Appa Rao, failed to order a fresh enquiry, and allowed the Executive Council to expel the students.

The VC claims that they had no choice – the High Court where the ABVP leader’s mother had filed a case had sought an ‘Action Taken Report’; but surely the ‘Action Taken’ could have been a fresh enquiry? Surely the VC could have informed the Court that based on the contrary evidence of the medical records and the police, he could not end the career of five students?

The decision to expel the students and impose what amounted to a social boycott (barring them from access to hostels, messes and common spaces) was quite clearly to appease the MHRD that was insistently sending letters seeking action on a ‘VIP’ letter by Union Minister Dattatraya, that had branded the ASA as ‘casteist, extremist and anti-national.’

The ABVP leader felt slighted at having had to issue a written apology to Dalit students (in violation of well-established but unwritten feudal norms that prevail on many campuses). Dattatraya and the MHRD were behaving as muscle for the RSS – they were, like the mafia, avenging a slight to ‘one of their own’ – i.e an ABVP man. They were telling the Ambedkar Students Association that if they dared to ‘educate, agitate, organize’ against the RSS, they should be prepared to face severe consequences.

Nor was HCU an exception. Even as Modi sheds crocodile tears for Rohith, those who honour Rohith’s memory continue to be harassed by BJP and RSS supporters. At the Haryana Central University in Mahendragarh, some faculty members and round 30 students held a candle light march seeking justice for Rohith. The ABVP unit there circulated photos of the candle light march claiming these were for the Pathankot terror perpetrators, and filed a complaint to the police seeking action against the ‘anti-nationals’. Their complaint, among other things, claimed it was anti-national to raise slogans against Brahminism and saffron terrorism. So, if Rohith was branded anti national for opposing death penalty for Yakub Memon, students and teachers are being branded anti-national by ABVP now for seeking justice for Rohith.

ABVP – Serial Vandalism and Violence

The contrast is all the more glaring when one sees the silence of the MHRD on the ABVP’s has unspoken veto on public meetings on many campuses. I myself have been a victim of ABVP’s violence and vandalism at Lucknow University where the ABVP held me hostage in the Rector’s room and prevented me from giving a talk, branding me ‘anti-national’ for opposing honour crimes. Siddharth Varadarajan, a noted journalist, was held hostage and prevented from giving a talk at Allahabad University. When I spoke at Allahabad University, the ABVP could not disrupt the talk in view of the huge gathering of students, but burnt effigies and demanded dismissal of the faculty members who had organized the talk (on women’s rights). These acts of violence by the ABVP receive no rebuke, let alone a spate of letters, by the HRD Ministry!

In 2006, Prof Sabherwal was beaten to death by the ABVP in Ujjain in full public view – yet all accused were acquitted in 2009 because fearful witnesses turned hostile. Did any BJP MP, MLA or leader brand the ABVP ‘anti-national’ and ‘extremist’ for the same?

In 2009, the ABVP barged into the office of a woman Principal of Gayatri Devi College in Indore and roughed her up, causing her to collapse. In September 2012, the ABVP roughed up a Muslim woman student in Mangalore, tearing her sleeves and headscarf. In 2013, the ABVP in FTII Pune, beat up students for refusing to say ‘Jai Narendra Modi,’ and branded them ‘anti-national’ for screening Anand Patwardhan’s film Jai Bhim Comrade and hosting a performance of the Kabir Kala Manch. It is the BJP’s blessings that embolden the ABVP to indulge in such habitual violence.

‘Letters’ by RSS men are becoming powerful weapons. A letter by an RSS man led the MHRD to send letters to the IIT-M seeking a ban on the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle. The same pattern was repeated in HCU. At Banaras Hindu University (BHU) recently, someone wrote a letter complaining that lectures given by Dr Sandeep Pandey (a faculty members and renowned activist), were ‘against national interest.’ BHU didn’t even wait for letters from the MHRD; kneeling before being asked to bend, they summarily terminated Dr Sandeep Pandey’s contract!

In HCU, as in the instances cited above, the Universities’ failure to respect their own autonomy, and their voluntary surrender of all autonomy at the altar of power, should concern us greatly. In HCU, the VC chose to set aside his own predecessor’s decision and the findings of a Proctorial enquiry – and act to appease MHRD demands and ‘VIP’ letters from a Minister. The same was the case in IIT-Madras, which derecognized Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in response to a similar missive. Lucknow University, after ABVP vandalized my talk, did take action against one ABVP leader – but they also simultaneously expelled an AISA activist for inviting me, arguing perversely that by inviting me, AISA had created the circumstances for the ‘insult’ to an ‘esteemed guest’! Surely it was the ABVP that had attacked me and University insulted me by cancelling permission for my talk?

Anti-Dalit Hatred and Prejudice

On social media, anyone posting in support of justice for Rohith is being flooded with abusive comments and rants, calling Rohith ‘shit’; saying Rohith deserved to die; saying Dalit parents should take a lesson and warn their kids not to support Muslims, else they will all meet Rohith’s fate; calling to ‘kill all Dalits.’

ABVP supporters in JNU can be seen raising slogans of ‘Brahminvad Zindabad’ in a video, in reaction to slogans against casteism.

Others – who are not necessarily BJP supporters – have chosen this occasion to reflect how SC/ST quotas are an evil measure. Yet others tell us that Rohith was a ‘good’, ‘meritorious’ Dalit, who got admission in the general quota not SC quota (the implication of this seeming ‘praise’, of course, is that those admitted in the SC/ST/OBC quotas lack merit.)

These reactions should be taken seriously – as a small taste of the daily – subtle and open - hostility that Dalit students face down every day, every hour, in our higher education campuses.

Ironically, Rohith’s fate ought to serve as a reminder of the reality of caste-based discrimination in higher education. Over and over, Committees headed by eminent people have confirmed such discrimination and recommended measures to end it. A spate of suicides by students (mostly Dalit or otherwise socially vulnerable) led the Andhra Pradesh High Court to issue recommendations to Universities and higher education institutions in 2013 – none of which seem to have been implemented at the HCU and other campuses.

At HCU, I met students from various campuses who told me of the arbitrary punishments and discrimination faced by students everywhere – especially students who are Dalit or Adivasi, Kashmiri, women, or Muslim. Social prejudices that rack our society, rack our campuses too.

Speaking to the seven students who are on indefinite hunger strike at HCU, I was struck by their clarity. One of them told me that their key demands included measures to protect ‘every student’; “No student should have to feel vulnerable and helpless in the face of injustice,” they said, “We want specific measures to support and protect Dalit students, yes, but we also want protection for each and every student.” Another added “Rohith must be the last student in India to feel they are left with no choice but to end to their life.”

Finally, I was struck by the HCU students’ wish for unity, for introspection, for conversations. Rohith, as is well known, had left the SFI to join the ASA. Many BJP supporters on social media ask maliciously about whether or not his suicide note mentioned his disappointment with both, which he scratched out. Such questions can and will be addressed – I am sure his HCU comrades, in their grief, ask themselves whether there is anything they could have done to prevent his suicide. These are questions all loved ones ask themselves, when one of their own ends his life.

But these questions must not be used to divert from the fact that he was falsely accused, victimized, expelled and socially boycotted by those who enjoy great power. Rohith might – or might not - have felt conflicted about or hurt by his comrades. But those hurts cannot be equated with the relentless political witch-hunt by the University and Ministers. After all, those who selectively cite the scratched-out part of his suicide note, conveniently forget his far more explicit letter of a couple of weeks back, to the Vice Chancellor, suggesting that if the VC could not give Dalit students justice, he should at least give them ‘a good rope’ to commit suicide.

I would hope that Rohith’s legacy for activists – like the legacy of balladeer Vilas Ghoghre, that Jai Bhim Comrade reflects on – should be one of more conversations and meaningful mutual introspection, dialogue and solidarity between the Ambedkarite movement, the Marxist movements, the feminist and queer movements, the movements in Kashmir and the North East – in fact, among all those who dream of an egalitarian world, in which we can all see and reach for the stars and breathe free.

One of Rohith’s Facebook posts lists the long saga of Dalit massacres in which the perpetrators went scot free. Karamchedu. Kilvenmani. Tsundur. Laxmanpur Bathe….

Sometime in the next few weeks, the Bathani Tola appeal against the acquittal of all the accused will be heard by the Supreme Court. Naeemuddin Ansari, who lost six members of his family in that massacre by the Ranveer Sena, wants to be present in Court. Bathani Tola, like Rohith Vemula, was punished for daring to agitate and organize against feudal and communal power. They both await justice, as do so many others.

The flame that Rohith lit must not be extinguished. The students’ movement of this country, the people’s movements of this country, will keep it flying high.

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