Rohith Vemula: Indian Left and the Dalit Student Suicides

 

By Saswat Pattanayak (Written for CounterCurrents)

Rohith Vemula did not just commit suicide – he was murdered. And this murder was not committed by the right-wing ABVP – it was conducted by the left-liberals. The “Dalit problem” citing which Rohith gave up his life, is not the creation of any fringe elements among communal Hindus – it is sustained by the liberal Hindus who tremendously profit from the status quo it provides. None of this is an exaggeration – these comprise a reality that must be confronted. The entire Hindu society, the Savarnas, are the perpetrators – no one among them is eligible to be member of the jury.

This is so because, whenever the colonial masters have been credited with infrastructure and development, the critical thinkers have added to the discourse a very crucial aspect – that, the ruling class of any given era also deserves to be blamed for the maladies. For instance, it is often said that the British could not blame the Indians for Satti and child marriage practices – if the British could take the credit for building colleges and for educating the Indians, they should also take the blame for the prevailing societal violence against women and widows that took place under their rule.

The ruling ideas of any era belong to the ruling class, and so do the existing contradictions. The ruling class of Indian academia are not the British anymore. They are the left-liberals. And Vemula’s suicide is not the first one to have been committed by a Dalit student at a higher education institute of India. Quite the contrary; it is an alarming continuation. The only reason why Vemula’s news has so caught up the protesting landscape is precisely because there is a right-wing government at the center and its youth wing ABVP that is purportedly responsible this time. In a macabre parallel, the Occupy and the anti-war activists have re-emerged now that the liberals need to be salvaged. The truth is the left parties and their student bodies which dominated the academia ever since India turned a sovereign republic, have consistently downplayed caste discriminations on campuses. Reason why the Left is responsible for Vemula’s demise today is because it did not sufficiently critique the hostile environment its own student leaders and professors were/are enabling all these years.

If the education system in India takes pride in being predominantly leftist, then it must also accept the utter failure in practicing the tenets of progressive politics. The hypocrisy of the Indian left is exposed threadbare in its historical incapacity to take a principled stand against caste atrocities that are systemically flourishing across top research centers of India. From policy makers, to academicians, to vice chancellors – almost all the shining stars in Indian institutes are progressive intellectuals strongly aligned with the Indian Left. College campuses have historically been dominated by youth brigades of Congress and CPI/M. Textbooks are overwhelmingly authored by leftist historians. Open Air Theaters and Ganga Dhabba meetings and the IIT/IIMs are crowded by liberal intellectuals at both student and leadership levels. And instead of addressing the legacies of segregations, all these institutions of higher learnings in India, spearheaded by JNU have remained busy with earned accolades for being tolerant and diverse.

Just as they have been rightfully receiving laurels, they must also be made accountable for what systematically continues in a parallel manner in all the major universities across India. What is it that makes the deans and heads of departments invariably always upper caste Hindus? What is it that sustains a climate where “reservation” is treated as though it is a favor, and not a right? What is it in academic environment that encourages student politics of dissent, but the dissenting voices are indeed from the profiteering social classes? What is it that labels minority students “casteists” while the students whose ancestors invented caste system and passed it down as a virtue, are labeled youths for “equality”? What is it that produces so few scientists, engineers and doctors within the Dalit students? What is it that drives so many Dalit students to suicides and yet the pattern remains unreported in mainstream media?

The Left needs to answer why most Indian universities glorify Marx and Engels, but do not even admit Ambedkar and Phule in their midst. Expulsion of Rohith Vemula and other Dalit students need not have come as a surprise, therefore. The hegemony of left politics inside campuses remains without a dispute, but its consequences upon the Dalit students deserve studious attention. It is not Savarkar or Golwalkar whose presence in university curricula overshadows that of Ambedkar or Periyar. Gandhian and Nehruvian scholars are the ones who have for decades marginalized, if not silenced the voices of Dalit icons inside campuses.

More than just the historical battle between the ideologies, the prevailing animosity against Dalits in Indian educational settings have been nothing less than ghastly. All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) is a classic case in point. The Medical strike of 2006 had “merit” students holding placards in broad daylight of Delhi announcing their disdain towards a possibility that their own children may end up becoming cobblers if reservations are implemented. Being the most prestigious governmental institute in medical sciences, AIIMS has continued to offer such a casteist climate that the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had to personally intervene and set up a three-member committee headed by UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat in 2007 to assess the situation there.

The findings at AIIMS pointed to nothing other than a climate of “Caste Apartheid”. 100% of Dalit students reported caste-based ragging, 88% complained of hostel isolation, 76% reported mess discrimination, 72% of Dalit students expressed bias in Cricket, 92% in basketball, 72% highlighted teacher bias in classroom. Regarding the caste-based ragging, a Dalit student said, “They would call us to their rooms and order us…’tell us 10 reasons why you should get reservation…if you don’t we’ll beat you.”

Despite media coverages of the above, neither the government nor any educational institute aided by powerful leftist student bodies established procedures to address the climate of segregation. Insight Foundation reported the suicide of Linesh Mohan Gawle, a second year PhD student from National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi on April 16, 2011, the suicide of Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS student from AIIMS on March 3, 2010 and even recorded testimonies of family members in a documentary “The Death of Merit”. The complete report “On Suicides of Dalit Students in India’s Premier Educational Institutions” is available on Countercurrents.

The instances of suicide among Dalit students are too many to be blamed on “right-wing political student groupings like the ABVP”. This shifting of blame to an external agency, preferably “fringe elements” is a convenient method adopted by liberal Hindus who wish to retain the status quo while coloring it progressive only because they enjoy the privilege to see published their feel-good stances of meaningless empathies. A win-win situation where the protest is registered, self-respect enhanced, and the tag of being social reformers keeps giving. In a sickening parallel to charitable organizations that need a state of poverty to remain so they can stay relevant. Bizarre but true, political parties like the Congress and the Left need caste hostilities (and despondency among Muslim youths) to remain, so that they can occasionally support the politically correct positions as progressive political outfits. Appears like Caste in India must not be annihilated, but sustained, across the spectrum – Left to Right.

This double standard has been long exposed at the level of electoral politics, where the Dalits and Muslims are increasingly choosing candidates not aligned with either the Congress or the Left. But more crucially, it is also being increasingly realized among the Dalit students who are joining “study circles” to seriously examine Ambedkar and Periyar and the likes who are deliberately kept out of academic curricula.

Rohith Vemula was himself one of those who realized that the Left in India was “inefficient” to tackle caste issue and to unite the working class. Even as he remained an admirer of Marxism, Vemula was disenchanted with the left politics on the campus that was led by the SFI. He made a call to “resist the communal ABVP, reject the inefficient SFI and to support the UDA for a stronger union”. But he was not limited only to student politics on campus. More importantly, he had made a theoretical intervention that is worth analyzing. On August 13, 2014, Vemula wrote, “The shift of my political identity from Marxism to Ambedkarism is a conscious move into building a new future on the basis of more humane, more inclusive society. Thus compelling the present stratified society, perforce, to take off it’s elitist mask of generosity and solidarity in the name of seamless majoritarian cultural unity or nationalism. My core intention is to challenge and expose the upper-class hypocritical advocacy of progressiveness which shamelessly maintains it’s ties with the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender. To fight against the symbiosis of cultural chauvinism and communal politics, to popularize the subaltern, dravidian history and to shout out sharply the radical realism amidst the euphoria of freedom. With my basic world view conditioned by marxism, I dream and work for a society which Baba Saheb has always aspired.”

If the Indian Left needs a wake-up call, this is it. Yet another occasion to own upto the utter failure on its part to align with the working class interests of those who are most exploited in India. Luckily for them, despite pointing out the “upper-class hypocrisy” represented by the Indian Left, Rohith Vemula never quite gave up his hope in communism. With his astute and critical observations that shall comprise the legacy of Rohith Vemula, he refused to fall for political polarization and bourgeois opportunism. He called for the revolutionary unity of the working class instead, and for a much more efficient and radical Left that would spark revolutionary spirits.

Almost a year after his analysis on shift in his political identity, Vemula would assess and hail Marx as “one of the greatest of minds that ever lived on this Earth.” He wrote the tribute on Marx’s birth anniversary on May 4, 2015, “He (Marx) along with Engels produced the fierce theory of revolution. He explained the capitalist exploitation and gave a scientific sense to out anger. His dialectical materialism proletariat revolt idea, historical materialism and class conflict concept will forever help the oppressed sections in revolting against the oppressive systems. Long live Marx..Long live Marxism…Long live Revolution.”

No rest in peace.

Jai Bhim, Comrade Rohith Vemula!

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Silent Majority

First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Pakistani.

Then they came for the women, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Feminist.

Then they came for the Adivasis, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Naxalite.

Then they came for the Dalits, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Ambedkarite.

Then they came for the rationalists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the farmers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Gandhian.

Then they came for the beef-eaters, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Sickular.

Then they came for the historians, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not an Intellectual.

Then they came for the filmmakers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a starving Artist.

They are coming after the working class, dividing us up, every single day –
And I know I will not speak out still –
Because I am not really a revolutionary.

– Saswat Pattanayak, Peoples’ Poet, 2015

(My reflection above is inspired by the famous poem by Martin Niemoeller who was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. The idea is to convey that one Hitler or one Modi is not responsible for the mayhems in any society. They are accomplished with the tacit support of the otherwise decent people who choose to remain silent while oppressive policies continue against “other” groups to which they immediately do not identify with. In Indian context, too many of us have remained silent throughout as state machinery and hindu nationalists have continued to target various marginalized groups. And it will not be far when those of us who have been thus far spared of the wrath have to also pay the price for maintaining stoic silence. Revolutionaries do not remain silent at atrocities – they have always spoken up and chosen sides and vocally articulated their position. And the circumstances to produce revolutionaries are not ordained by divine orders. They are for us to realize. Each of us has the ability to speak up, to protest. Let us not wait for an opportune time guided by just our own interests.)

Roots (and prospects) of Justice

Our justice system has failed to protect the very principles of liberty and equality it was tasked to defend and become a willing participant in the State oppression it was supposed to prevent. Reforming it requires us to revisit what we’ve previously held sacrosanct, says Saswat Pattanayak. (Kindle Magazine)

“I request this House to adopt the same conciliatory attitude to all political minorities and to adopt the same principles as have been adopted by the Soviet Union…I propose my amendment and request Dr. Ambedkar to accept it—That in the Preamble for the words ‘We, the People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Democratic Republic’, the words ‘We The people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a union of Indian Socialistic Republics to be called U.I.S.R. on the lines of U.S.S.R.’ be substituted.”

—Amendment proposed by Maulana Hasrat Mohani, 17 October 1949

Maulana Mohani’s visions were threefold: “Our Constitution must be federal, it must be centrifugal, and the constituent States or Republics should willingly hand over certain central powers to the Centre”. He was highly critical of the draft under consideration and minced no words: “We should take our minorities into our confidence. Instead of doing that, you are going to outcaste them altogether. You are passing anything you like, without the slightest consideration for the interests of even your political minorities.”

The Constituent Assembly of India had quite predictably negatived Maulana Mohani’s proposed amendment. The feelings were reciprocal—Mohani, the man who symbolised religious harmony and coined the phrase “Inquilab Zindabaad” also remained the only voice of dissent in the Assembly and refused to go along with the finally adopted Constitution. His desire for a free voluntary democratic Indian Union of sovereign units never materialised.

Almost seven decades have passed since, and the sole dissenter Maulana Mohani has been vindicated. India has failed on both grounds: our states are constantly at odds with the Centre, and our political minorities are routinely persecuted. Both social justice and individual liberties are duly neglected and travesty has become synonymous with justice.

Social (in)Justice

India’s most devastating failure to tackle social justice started only a year after independence was gained. The Hyderabad massacre of 1948—the deaths of around 40,000 people, mostly Muslims killed by Hindu mobs—was well documented but remained suppressed for decades and no justice was rendered. Two decades later in 1969, the Muslim community was again targeted, this time in Gujarat where Hindu nationalists killed hundreds of Muslims and destroyed nearly 40 mosques and 50 dargahs. Exactly two decades later, Bihar (Bhagalpur) witnessed the worst communal violence until that period, resulting in over 1,000 deaths (900 of them Muslims) and the displacement of over 50,000 people. The Moradabad riots of 1980, the Nellie massacre of 1983, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the anti-Muslim Bombay riots of 1992–93 and the 2002 Gujarat riots together have resulted in innumerable deaths and massive distrust among minority communities. Add to these the recent Muzaffarnagar riots, the plights of Northeast and Kashmir and we have a region fragmented into different imaginary and competing republics, bound by the law of the land, but not by its spirit.
What can explain the dismissive manner in which the accusations of over a hundred “political” rapes in Kunan Poshpora (among many others in Kashmir) have been handled? What about the justice in caste-based violence resulting in the rape of Dalit women in India (statistically, 21 rapes every week)? So absurdly absent has judicial intervention been that people not only have “taken the law unto their own hands”, but private militias have been established to oppress the Dalits. As a result, the dispossessed are either too often casually disregarded as willful participants in the violence, or are publicly used as case studies carrying Maoist aspirations.

From vilifying insecure communities and terrorising the marginalised, to carrying out broad daylight romanticised “encounters”, the Indian justice system has stoically overlooked communal clashes, rendered selective justice, oppressed political minorities, ignored indigenous peoples and fostered hegemonic nation-building excesses. In the latest instance, the Hashimpura massacre has turned out to be a textbook example of injustice. Even as the police and the military orchestrated the murder of 42 innocent Muslim youth, no one has been found to be guilty. Nearly three decades have passed, and yet not a single member from the military could be brought to the trial for investigational purpose. From entertaining charges of sedition against Arundhati Roy and Geelani, to actually declaring Dr. Binayak Sen guilty, the judicial system is notoriously indifferent to heinous crimes of hateful nature, while it promptly penalises conscientious dissenting citizens who express unpopular political opinions. Even as the sacrosanct wings of democracy in the form of executive-legislative-judiciary-military have long ceased implementing laws that can guarantee a life of dignity for all the citizens of India without discrimination, they have been acutely enthusiastic about reminding people of how serious a charge of “sedition” can be—a remnant of a cruel colonial legacy that has been neatly preserved.

Individual Liberty

Like Maulana Mohani, there was another unsung member of the Constituent Assembly who had predicted the approaching disasters: Mahavir Tyagi. While Mohani was concerned that in our anticommunist quest, we were ignoring an emancipatory USSR Constitution, while heavily borrowing from colonial legacies of oppressive Constitutions of the imperialist world, and that, by doing so, we were facilitating prospects for dangerous communal violence in the coming years, Tyagi was equally emphatic in rejecting the proposals of the Drafting Committee that had introduced the clause of “Preventive Detention”, which curtailed basic individual liberties and in turn made the judiciary system a draconic one.
“What relevancy is there for a detention clause in the Constitution which is meant to guarantee fundamental rights to the citizens? I am afraid the introduction here of a clause of this kind changes the chapter of fundamental rights into a penal code worse than the Defence of India Rules of the old government. I have suffered under the Defence of India Rules long detention“. Tyagi went one step further and proposed that a truly emancipated people must possess the capacity to overthrow a government that acts destructively against the rights of the people: “I would ask Dr. Ambedkar and the Drafting Committee if they are also prepared to arm the people also with the power to overthrow a government which works destructively against the fundamental rights which they have granted to them. Surely the people have got the right to overthrow, abolish or alter such a government and to constitute another government which they think would be more likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

It was not a matter of sheer coincidence that both the divide-and-rule policies resulting in communal violence and curtailment of liberty by means of detention without trial were gifts from British colonialism. R. Palme Dutt cited in India Today (1940) the official policy of the British Raj: “Our endeavour should be to uphold in full force the (for us fortunate) separation which exists between the different religions and races, not to endeavour to amalgamate them. Divide et impera should be the principle of Indian government.”

And yet, despite having an anti-colonial spirit at the forefront of freedom struggle in India, we heavily retained the colonial judicial chapters. Ironically, the British have themselves completely abolished sedition as an offence, but India has zealously guarded the provision, which reads: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government estab­lished by law shall be punished with im­prisonment for life, to which fine may be added”.

Let alone entertaining Tyagi’s demands for rights to the citizens to oppose reactionary governments, the Indian injustice system is rife with criminalising citizens without providing them with basic safeguards. Nearly 70 percent of the prison population in India comprises citizens who haven’t been tried (pre-trial detainees or remand prisoners), even as the occupancy level in the prison system is at 118.4 percent. Monthly pending cases in just the Supreme Court amounts to 61,300 (February, 2015). The number of pending cases in the High Courts is 44.5 lakh and in the lower judiciary, the number is 2.6 crore.

Judicial Activism

Even as the pending cases and prison system are depressing indicators, the enthusiasm to encourage judicial activism is a parallel development that is founded upon utter hopelessness. If democracy is meant to reflect the will of the people, then judicial activism/overreach is in reality a legitimate tool to undermine that will. There is no doubt that public interest litigations have done a world of good and that the Supreme Court of India has enormously improved the country’s state of affairs, but at the same time, by essentially violating the separation of powers principle, the courts are setting wrong precedents. Most notably, the manner in which the Chief Justice of India and four other judges get to select and appoint judges clearly sends alarming signals.
Most of the judicial activism is made possible owing to interpretations of our Constitution, which are perfectly legal (naturally), but it will not be a stretch to visualise the courts as the new bureaucracy. Not to mention, considering the social locations of the powers to be within the judiciary, a tad elitist (again, naturally so).

As the recent “Nirbhaya” documentary episode demonstrated, not only was the ban itself rightfully controversial and therefore ignited discussions, but the media interviews with the defense attorneys displayed almost a trend of judicial vigilantism. Whatever be the nature of its content and regardless of how useful to or judgmental of the feminist movements it is, the excuse that the telecast of it can influence the due process of law is open to debate. The vigilantism accompanied the manners in which one attorney threatened a member of the audience with an accusation that he was insulting the Supreme Court if he was going to pose critical questions to the lawyer. The lawyer then went on to boast how his daughter would never do something for which he would have to set her on fire—as he was the custodian of his adult daughter.

As shocking as such revelations appear to be, the truth is the lawyers and judges hail from the same patriarchal society which enables rape culture, the same casteist regions that pervade the entire landscape of the country, and the same corrupt playing fields that separate the commoners from the VIP judges for whom the traffic gets cleared on priority.

Back to the Basics

The same meritocracy, which continues to disadvantage the historically oppressed, finds its greatest manifestation in the country’s judiciary. It is undeniable that the justice system—law enforcement and courts alike—bears great responsibilities, especially during times when the executive and legislative branches have reached the lowest ebb. But it is even all the more important that while judicial activism arms the judges with the unprecedented privileges, they open up to much greater scrutiny.
One of the ways to move forward is to ensure social justice and individual liberty, while at the same time abolishing provisions for seditions and detentions without trials. Constitutional interpretations are necessary, but thanks to amendment provisions, there are greater hopes still. For amendments of course, using the participation of other branches of governance is crucial, so that overreach of any specific unit is contained.

India has multitudes of problems when it comes to issues specifically impacting the women and religious minorities. If we have not been able to adequately safeguard their interests, it is quite possible that we may need new laws in place, employing feminist languages that aim at liberating the oppressed.

For instance, in the past, we might have neglected to consider the USSR Constitution or the idea behind the Soviet of Nationalities or Korenizatsiya. Following Maulana Mohani’s proposal, if we look at 1936 Constitution of the USSR, we shall realise how we could adopt a right to free higher education conducted in the native language, a right to rest and leisure that guarantees a working day to last not more than seven hours. We shall realise how as important it is to provide for a fundamental right in the name of religious worship, it is equally necessary to let people enjoy the freedom to conduct antireligious propaganda. To make sure that citizens are “guaranteed inviolability of the person”. where women are accorded equal rights with men without exploitations, citizens have the “right to maintenance in old age and also in case of sickness or loss of capacity to work. This right is ensured by the extensive development of social insurance of workers and employees at state expense, free medical service…”

Whatever might have been our collective past, the future still shall hold promise if we revisit what we have conventionally considered sacrosanct. We need to improvise upon our own laws, to be more inclusive, to be more sensitive, to be more egalitarian. To do away with capital punishment, to consider marital rape as a crime, to prohibit corporal punishment. To prioritise structural reforms over a penal system. To redefine what constitutes a crime: a petty theft out of hunger owing to failure on part of the State to provide for basic needs, or accumulation of disproportionate private properties no matter how legitimate the means may appear to be.

A justice system’s success does not lie in exceeding the capacity of prison cells, as ours has done. It lies in establishing conditions in such a manner that prison walls will need to be crumbled down. That is the new era we have to work towards, and hope for.

As Sahir Ludhianvi so prophetically wrote:

“Manhoos samaaji dhaancho mein jab julm na paale jaayenge
Jab haath na kaate jaayenge jab sar na uchhale jaayenge
Jailoen ke bina jab duniya ki sarkaar chalaayi jaayegi
Woh subah hum hi se aayegi”

(As crimes cease to be structural givens of societies
Justice no longer served with torture, death penalties
A new world needs no oppressive prison
We shall usher in such a new dawn!)