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!


Vidarbha Farmers: Genocide, not Suicide.

I am unsure if Shakespeare had such premonitions engulfing his worst tragedies, but the Hindu superpower India with its proud “economic growth rates” has been forcing me to wonder if we are missing the coming signs of the times. The tell-tales are here, the hints of misfortune are looming large, the sustained oppression by the Indian state on its peoples with “foreign aids” is rampant. And yet somewhere since last couple of years a major chunk of world’s geographical region is dancing away at a maddening pace, drinking the drink of its blood and dancing the dance of its death.

The world’s largest democracy is also the biggest booming free market economy. With exception to no other land today, the enthusiasm of the urban youths of India has emerged pure, and unbridled. The mass popular culture of subservient bollywood films, inferior diaspora literatures and profit hungry mainstream media have a projection of jubilance, of multifarious vibrancy in social lives that’s almost instantaneously appealing. In no contrast, the elite high class societal circles are doing their Manhunts, race courses and business parties, relatively different in degrees since they were upto the social mischiefs even decades before the educated mass had its date with ‘freedom’.

Far too often this comfortable dichotomy of mass/class paradigm finds entry into the social consciousness. Whether the cart drives the horse or the horse does it becomes a redundant issue so long as the movements occur for both. In economics, its called a trickling down effect of the riches of the rich which the rest have a privilege to enjoy depending on which ladder of the hierarchy are they located at the time of the rain.

What’s super ironic at such junctures of “progress” in any society based on the premise of those who define the progress is that the ladder is usually placed upon a pedestal to begin with. That is, the hierarchy of profiteers does not begin with the ground, but with the elevated first step that misses the dirt and the wretched entirely before the stepping up can take place.

These dirt of India, entirely absent from global long-term memory are the peasants of the country who hold the ground, but who do not feel the trickles falling on them. Remember how during the natural disasters, helicopters throw relief goods targeted at some places which are usually devoid of women and children. And even when the women and children are present, somehow they don’t succeed at running for the food packets because they are busy holding the grounds under thatched roof, doubly oppressed by the central governments and their oppressive patriarchal custodians. Case against the peasants is almost similar. In a predominantly agrarian economy like India, ever since its “independence”, the ruling class has acted like patriarchs while overstepping and conveniently ignoring them on its way to new heights of power.

Not that, anything else was expected of the ruling elites class characters. Systematically suppressing every peasant rebellion in India during the British rule, the rulers (kings, british, and Indian elites) promised non-violent glories in place of revolutionary emancipation. Although the different strands of national struggle for liberation against the colonialists needed to find support among the larger revolutionary masses, the people were half sensitized about the nature of the national struggles engaged in by a faction of elites who surely fought the foreign power, but also because they wanted to hold onto their own.

Five year plans in India were formerly known to be based on a socialistic desire to industrialize the country soon after the British were shown the door. But instead, the plans with every phase systematically were fine-tuned to improve the lot of the secondary and tertiary sectors at the cost of the primary. This suited the class characters of the ruling elites of course, but what’s more distressing is that it was accepted almost unequivocally as a “progress” for the country which housed more than 80% peasants, that constituted as much percentage of below poverty line populace for the whole country.

Agrarian Crisis Continues:

Agrarian crisis in India are nothing new. Indeed, without any effort to bring the peasantry back to cultural fold, the homegrown capitalists of India have only heightened the crisis with every passing phase. As a result, what we have today is indiscriminate murders of peasants of India. Forcing them to lead lives without a sense of human dignity or basic standards of life, they have been forced to take extreme steps. While some have invariably joined the naxal movements to raise up arms against the Indian state, many are killed by the state power structure.

The media, the maneuvered toy of the Indian capitalists plays the corporate tune at such mass genocide committed by Indian state. More than 800 peasants have been killed in this kharif season alone. The Indian media not only portray these heroic submission to state atrocities as “suicides”, it also pities the deaths. The world must remember that the peasants who are dying every day in India are not committing “suicides”. Indeed, suicides are reactionary steps taken voluntarily by people weak by their willpower. Indian peasants have been among the most brave lot of all peoples of the world when one considers the British oppressions and Indian government atrocities upon them. Despite that, the peasants have carried on with unmatched courage to face the “man-made” disasters perpetrated upon them by the ruling class. If now there have been deaths subsequent to this, just as there are everytime following artificial famines, its not because of their inability to pay off debts, its because of the state power machine inflicting deadly repressive measures against them in particular.

Suicide Pathology of the Elites:

Indian intelligentsia, pathetically devoid of critical reflections have been allowing the corporate media to thrive on assumptions about the citizens. Firstly, there have been no suicides in Vidarbha. Suicides are caused by people themselves. These deaths of peasants are state-aided murders.

Ramu Bhagwat’s report in an unforgivable mistake of Indian fourth estate called, The Times of India, is headlined “3 farmers kill selves; toll 200 in 2 months”. Even after an effete shame of a prime minister by the name of Manmohan Singh visited Dhamangaon village with empty rhetoric which made him famous at Oxford last year, these farmers died because they were unable to repay Rs 13,000 to State Bank of India. That’s how much for two farmers lives? Remember its less than $300. Or in Indian urban class value today, less than half of what a first IT job gets a teenager in a month.

The government of India gleefully enjoying its power trip has not resigned following hundreds of murders it commits on its poor by forcing them to death, because it clearly has no morality. Its opposition, the absolutely brazen right wing coalitions, who at the first place assisted their private business funders to cause price hikes is also unabashed in its hypocrisy. But the worse, the Indian media and the watchdogs of so-called democracy are continually harping on their masters’ tunes by calling deaths as suicides, as though it were the fault of the farmers, and lulling the rest of India into web of ignorance.

That, people have expressed disgust at Manmohan Singh’s promises which has not even helped them to gather little money to sow seeds after saplings were washed away by rain, has been completely lost on the mainstream perception. That if one contextualizes the background of peasant crisis in India, one will realize that this is no sudden aberration on part of teeming millions of peasants but a continuation of systematic exploitation unleashed upon them specifically during the days of the British and during anti-people regimes of Indian state which decidedly started favoring private industries at cost of public cooperatives. And most importantly, that the Indian journalists and researchers are not entirely ignorant of the agrarian crisis and the stoic silence around the issue which is a great socio-political crisis of neo-liberal India.

Despite the social significance of the struggle of the peasants against the Indian state, the self-professed enlightened young and old analysts have decided to treat the deaths as some personal deviance. Indeed, since suicide is a cognizable offence under the law, perhaps the peasants have been declared as criminals by the media experts.

Pathetic pity of indifferent experts:

Take a look at NDTV. Just like Times of India, this mainstream grapevine has a report by Supriya Sharma who proposes that the “suicide epidemic of this scale should be seen and treated as a crisis of mental health”. Indeed she goes on to interview a psychiatrist to trace the etiology. Whereas psychiatry is not such a despicable path to solutions, after all, that the media have a habit of finding problems elsewhere than where it is most obvious is something worth reflecting over. Dr Patil, the subject of Sharma’s study says of a farmer “patient”: “He lost his crop due to the rains. Last year he lost his crop because there were no rains. So for the last 2-3 years he consecutively lost money. So he got depressed.”

She goes on to report:

“When a farmer is in distress, if we could call doctors from Akola or a government official, he feels someone is there to listen to him. And if no one listens, he may feel ignored and contemplate suicide,” said a local.

All the cases are a grim encounter that reinforces the fact that the sprt in suicide cases in the region should be seen and treated as a crisis of mental health.

Journalists like Sharma are no simplicists, indeed no reductionists either. They are even literate to the point that they find a need to complicate the situation further to understand it better, in a perfectly academic fashion. But what happens in the process is that their limitations guide their intuition than their grounding in social history of the people they survey. As a result, the superficial flourishes, the blame-game continues at the most trivial manner and the headlines surge them to promotions since they systematically let the system go do its own brutalization even as people are “treated” for mental illnesses.

Oppressors’ aids for the brutalized people:

I will not delve into the other pathetic media stances where the need for peasant revolution for today’s India has been dismissed abjectly to the extent that there is no such mention to begin with. The kinds of questions that are being raised are only sufficiently complimenting the kinds of answers the corporate nation of India today seeks. For example, the conscientious journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai through their media request donations to help farmers by using heart-rending pictures. Tax-exemptions for the rich are obviously on the offing. Sardesai and his likes receive huge accolades for their so-called social concern, to “help the needy”. And the guilt-free doners go back to business of furthering their oppressions.

The cyclic amnesia of the Indian elites while it comes to dealing with their own crimes, (which they translate as peasant suicides) is beyond mere reproach. These are punishable offences that the elites must be taken to task for. Equitable distribution of wealth is not a role of some politicians sitting high on an elected platform. This takes place only through organized revolution by the oppressed classes against the feudal lords of India (who by mistake presume they are some advanced capitalist class, even as they continue to practice the most extreme form of casteism,—Karan Thapar was pronouncedly against the Dalits when it came to reservation issue, for example—sexism,–corporate houses washed their hands off for the murder of HP female employee at the dead of the night, and class society—the division between the rich and the poor has never been so widely marked ever before in the history of India—some people talking of donation of crores of rupees, and most other sell their children for paltry sums on astonishingly regular rate as in states like Orissa.

What we need at the moment is to organize the farmers to demand not aid, but reparation. The peasants of India in the past have upstaged the royal families, they have forced the colonialists out through mass uprisings, and now they need to get rid of the new feudal class of India, the class of oppressors who have been systematically making way for capitalism in India, to make gains for their own class interests, and detrimentally working against the farmers who have been rendered without food, housing and education, far too much, far too long. The feudal ruling elites of India did not demand reparations from the British and facilitated their comfortable exits so that they would continue from where their masters had left. But the peasants and farmers and working class of India must gather up all their might to ensure reparation for the exploitation they have been unleashed upon. And nothing less than an organized revolution by the most oppressed will replace the course of history.

Do not call their sacrifices suicides as yet. They are the martyrs of a feudal India in protest against the elitist rule in their name carried on by confessed agents of imperialism. And these ruling class of liberal politicians, conservative religious cults, their police, military, nuclear regime, and media stooges will be forced to tremble.

Watch out for the wrath of the wretched!