A Dalit groom wears a helmet as upper caste people threw stones at his wedding procession near Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh. Image: The Hindu
‘I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.’ – from Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula’s ‘suicide note’, January 17, 2016.
The death of this shining star of the Hyderabad Central University has once again brought to the fore the plight of the Dalits and other students from disadvantaged communities. The situation is particularly bad for those who dare to defy social norms and try to get into that segment of society or take on those roles that are not considered by the upper castes to belong to them. On the one hand their aspirations and dreams – no matter how high, are crushed before their very eyes, while on the other, elite students are told to ‘dream big’ for ‘unless you dream big, how will you attain it?’
Caste discrimination is not new and continues to be rampant even in places which are part of ‘modern’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ India, an India that is supposedly ‘dynamic’ and ‘forward looking’. While existence of separate kitchens for the Dalits was reported from the police lines of Patna last year, some years back the same scenario was highlighted as being practiced at the University College of Medical Sciences (UCMs), New Delhi. At that time too, SC/ST medicos of the UCMS were protesting rampant caste discrimination in their college and they were severely beaten up by the upper caste students and faculty of their college. Discriminatory practices in the cooking and distribution of mid-day meals across the schools of the country are so routine that they have stopped making news.
The brahmanical mindset is so deeply entrenched in the Indian psyche that its omnipresent oppressive structures are considered to be ‘normal.’ Few bat an eyelid at the thousands (upon thousands) of caste disaggregated matrimonial columns in the mainstream newspapers that run week after week, and have been doing so, for decades. These columns are not advertisements given by some illiterate farmers and daily wage workers from remote rural areas. These advertisements are issued mostly by the urban elite, most of whom would like to be counted among the ‘modern’ thinking and ‘forward’ looking of Indians. Marriage being a fundamental institution in Indian society, how modern and forward looking can we expect that society to be which contains within it, families that have such deep caste- based roots?
A day prior to the death of Rohith, there was news of the Dalit groom of a CISF constable, Neetu Meghwal of Pali District of Rajasthan, not being allowed to mount a horse for their wedding. This was the case, despite the presence of senior Government functionaries on the occasion.Fearing a backlash from the upper castes, the family of Neetu had sounded out the administration, for protection, to ensure that the wedding would take place without any disruption. Instead of ensuring the rule of law, the functionaries of the Government got the signature of a relative of Neetu on a document stating that they would not wish her groom to mount a mare during the wedding. As per brahmanical tradition, status quo was maintained and the groom could not mount a mare.
What is being increasingly witnessed over time is the alacrity with which the administrative machinery across the country is getting subverted to protect archaic, feudal and brahmanical institutions and practices in the country, which are in fact, criminal. This, despite the fact that these very institutions are meant to be protectors of the law and to uphold Constitutional provisions.Instead, these are the very agencies that are complicit in not discharging their legal duties with due diligence.
Caste discrimination is not new and continues to be rampant even in places which are part of ‘modern’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ India, an India that is supposedly ‘dynamic’ and ‘forward looking’
With the mainstreaming of these brahmanical forces in government, manifest in Hindutva forces coming to power at the Centre, what is even more disturbing today is that the state machinery is brazenly being used by the right wing to promote their brahmanical agenda and to actively silence any discussion, dialogue or debate, especially that which expresses dissent against the prevailing social order. The Dalit students of Hyderabad Central University, organized under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association had organized a screening of the film on the Muzaffarnagar riots ‘Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baaki Hai’. ‘The movie connects and weaves many strands, highlighting the depth of the political and communal chasm. It exposes the propaganda that directs a bulk of violence against a particular community, in this case primarily Muslims’ (The Hindustan Times, August 28, 2015). As the film has raised searching questions, jolting rightist forces out of their comfort zones, and exposed their motives in the consolidation of the votes of the majority community, in the run up to the 2014 general elections, they did not wish that it be screened.
The disruption of the screening of the film by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) was an illegal act and restrictive of the constitutional right to free speech and expression. Not only was the screening disrupted illegally, false charges were leveled against Rohith and other members of the ASA. The University administration suspended the students while the ABVP activists roamed scot free. The involvement of the Central Minister, Bandaru Dattatreya in aggravating matters further --by sending a letter to the HRD Minister Smriti Irani, which labelled the ASA members as ‘casteist’, ‘anti national’ and ‘extremist,’ -- and the subsequent suspension of the ASA students, shows the complete takeover of the State machinery, and it’s use to muzzle any voice of dissent. The non payment of scholarship money for seven months was another ploy used to break the back of the ASA struggle against the saffronisation of education.
Rohith wanted to be a ‘writer of science.’ Instead he felt that he had become a ‘monster.’ There was apparently a tremendous amount of guilt that had built up in his mind as he faced a sense of being completely letdown. The absence of any redressal mechanism and the reinstating of the brahmanical order, ironically by using institutions and legal mechanisms created as part of the establishment of a democratic framework have left marginalized sections feeling disillusioned. The gains made after decades of struggles of toiling people seems to be withering away. Urgent corrective action needs to be taken. Voices of dissent and all democratic forces need to reconsolidate their efforts and we need to work more than ever before to wipe out the menace of caste which is the fundamental institution of undemocratic exclusion, Brahmanism.
(Rajeev R Singh is a rights activist and has been associated with various forums and rights issues,especially those concerning Dalits)