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How To Kill A Dalit Research Scholar

28/01/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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How does one speak of the loneliness of the research scholar? The silence of archives, the isolation of laboratories, and too many hours spent inside your head? What drives a research scholar in India -- with the pittance that passes for scholarship, distributed as largesse by callous university authorities at will, without an office, without libraries, without books and journals and access to basic resources -- to go on, to work, to research and write and somehow still survive?

And how does one speak of a Dalit research scholar in Indian public-funded universities that were never planned as anything but bastions of exclusion to begin with? Where Dalit-Bahujan scholars are necessarily seen as encroachers, infringing upon spaces where they do not belong? In the vicious logic of caste hierarchy, the "Dalit research scholar" is an oxymoron, an unwelcome pollutant in the site of excellence that is the university. Rohith Vemula's letter to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad (UoH), shortly before his suicide, dubs this the "Dalit problem", offering a caustic "solution" for the "problem" in the shape of mercy killing for Dalit scholars.

[I]n a remarkable instance of literal-mindedness... one of the foremost concerns of the investigating authorities seemed to be whether or not the deceased research scholar was indeed a Dalit.

It is a different matter, then, that a war of words has now broken out over Rohith's suicide note, with the HRD minister--delightfully dubbed #ManuSmritiIrani by protesting twitterati--arguing that "the truth" of the matter lies in the fact that "this is not a Dalit vs. non-Dalit issue," and that, furthermore, that "the document which is being circulated as Rohith Vemula's suicide note does not mention any name or MP or Minister."

Some voices in the mainstream media appear to agree; in the words of a piece in Firstpost, wherein the writer appears to share the literal-mindedness of the law enforcement officers and Ms. Irani, "It is simply insane to twist his last few words, drop them in the boiling cauldron of student activism, subaltern politics, class war, plain political opportunism and pin the blame on one person [Bandaru Dattatreya], making him the Fall Guy for an unfortunate death."

Indeed, in a remarkable instance of literal-mindedness, shortly after Rohith Vemula's death, one of the foremost concerns of the investigating authorities seemed to be whether or not the deceased research scholar was indeed a Dalit. And so the Times of India dutifully reported an unnamed police officer speculating as to whether or not those named in the FIR--including Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya and P Appa Rao, the Vice Chancellor of UoH--could be charged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. "The officer," we are told, "speculated that even if Rohith was an SC, it would not be possible to try those charged under the SC/ST Act. This is because in his suicide note, Rohith had not mentioned those charged were responsible for his suicide. Thus, it may not be easy to make out a case of atrocity under the SC/ST Act, the cop said."

[C]ourtesy the simplicity of the blessedly literal, Rohith Vemula's "Dalitness" is rendered inauthentic and his suicide a matter of mere personal choice, nothing more.

A matter of due investigative process and nothing more, a mere question of legalese. The article, after all, also informs us in the headline itself that it was "merit" and "not SC status" that got Rohith his place in the university; as though his rightfully earned place in the general merit list of the university ensured his existence outside the nexus of caste oppression or in isolation from the long line of Dalit-Bahujan students (nine, in the past seven years) who have taken their own lives in the same university.

And if one is reminded of similar literal-mindedness that led to the meat found in the fridge of Mohammad Akhlaq, the victim of the Dadri lynching last year, being sent to laboratories for testing as to whether it was beef or mutton, well. Surely one would not be so mean-spirited as to cry foul and obstruct the path of justice?

How does such blessed innocence fare in the face of the paper trail that points to repeated reminders sent to the University by Ms. Irani's ministry, asking them to respond to the Union Labour Minister's concerns over "casteism" and "anti-nationalism" on the part of Rohith and his comrades, or the minor matter of Rohith's fellowship being stalled for seven long months, at the very end of which he was denied food and shelter by the university he was enrolled in? "His stipend was stuck due to lapses in processing the paperwork. On many occasions, the funds arrive late and are disbursed in lump sums," claim unnamed university officials, matter of fact, even as Ms. Irani cites "standard operating procedure." And thus courtesy the simplicity of the blessedly literal, Rohith Vemula's "Dalitness" is rendered inauthentic and his suicide a matter of mere personal choice, nothing more.

[Rohith] immersed himself in a politics of protest and solidarity... That such a voice was dubbed dangerous (read: "anti-national") is, in retrospect, hardly surprising.

How would such willfully innocent literalism fare in the face of Rohith Vemula's letter addressing the "Dalit problem", one wonders? "Please serve 10 mg of Sodium Azide to all Dalit students at the time of admission. With direction to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar," Rohith wrote, with Swiftian disgust, "Supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students. As we, the scholars, PhD students have already passed that stage and already members of Dalit Self-Respect movement unfortunately, we here are left with no easy exit, it seems. Hence, I request your highness to make preparations for the facility 'EUTHANASIA' for students like me."

Perhaps it was the writer in Rohith that identified the symbolism inherent in what he dubbed the "social boycott" of five Dalit scholars; Ms. Irani, after all, has been categorical in her insistence that it was the High Court that "refused" to put a stay order on their "punishment", a punishment that does not -- or so the Minister insists--by any means follow the familiar script of centuries of caste segregation.

Perhaps it was the writer in Rohith, in a flight of fantasy, that recognised parallels between his own "punishment" and that of the segregation and isolation of Dalit-Bahujan scholars that so many Indian institutions boast of. The Sukhdeo Thorat Committee's 2007 report on caste discrimination in AIIMS, New Delhi, offers damning evidence of such institutionalised tactics of resolving the "Dalit problem", perfected to an art from: from segregation in hostels and isolation mess halls, to exclusion in student activities and bias in classrooms and laboratories. The Committee accuses the AIIMS administration of "failing to prevent or even tacitly supporting" the formation of the anti-reservation Resident Doctors Association, and writes, "It appears to us that that AIIMS authority has not recognized the gravity of the social divide that has emerged over a period of time. Neither did it develop any mechanism to check this tendency of caste divides."

The Thorat Committee's report was rejected by the AIIMS authorities; Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS scholar at the AIIMS, committed suicide on 3 March , 2010.

In death, Rohith Vemula has pried open a can of worms about access to knowledge and higher education in India, especially for the historically oppressed...

In his own life, Rohith found solutions to the research scholar's isolation in the beating heart of the university -- in the myriad spaces of interaction and in the vibrant ideological hues that still define Indian public-funded universities, even in this day and age of shrinking funds and the always-hovering spectre of privatisation. Rohith found antidotes to the clinical isolation of academics and the caste segregation that is in the foundations of Indian academic spaces in his politics. And in defiance of the regime of the literal and the apolitical that confines the scholar to their "education" alone, Rohith saw no contradiction in his love for science and his love for people, immersed himself in a politics of protest and solidarity, speaking up not just for Dalits and Bahujans but reaching out in alliance to Muslims, to women, to the trans community, speaking out wherever he found injustice and oppression.

That such a voice was dubbed dangerous (read: "anti-national") is, in retrospect, hardly surprising.

That his "punishment", along with that of four other scholars, followed the well-worn narrative of social segregation and economic deprivation, cutting him off from the pulse of the university, tightening the screws until he was owed as much as Rs 1,75,000 in stipend by the authorities, is no coincidence.

The writer in Rohith articulated the reinforcement of the very isolation he fought against in his life and politics in his final letter; in a burst of sheer poetry, he wrote, "May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness." The tent in the university's shopping complex that had been his home following his expulsion was, incidentally, named "Veli Wada" (Dalit Ghetto).

It is telling that Rohith chose the space of the university hostel denied to him for his act of self-annihilation...

Rohith has now departed for the stars, and amidst the squabbling over the authenticity of his Dalithood and "merit", we are left with a series of questions about the public university and public-funded research in India. India's expenditure in research and development stood at 0.82% of the GDP in 2011 (as per the World Bank's estimation). The year 2014-15 saw a Rs 3,900 crore reduction in government spending in higher education--one can only imagine the horrors in store in the future. Student protestors, meanwhile, continue to "occupy UGC" with little or no mainstream attention, even as the Union HRD Ministry "reviews" who is worthy of a scholarship, if at all.

In death, Rohith Vemula has pried open a can of worms about access to knowledge and higher education in India, especially for the historically oppressed and most vulnerable sections of the Indian society. It is telling that Rohith chose the space of the university hostel denied to him for his act of self-annihilation, as though in anticipation of every vulture seeking to speak in his voice in his absence and reduce his final act to a stray incident, inserting himself forever in public memory and in the long history of Dalit-Bahujan scholars seeking to wrest spaces for themselves in India's public institutions.

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