Rohith Vemula: Indian Left And the Dalit Student Suicides
By Saswat Pattanayak
19 January, 2016
Rohith Vemula did not just commit suicide - he was killed. And he was not killed by the right-wing ABVP - his death was a result of the leftist institutional apathy. 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. These are not exaggerations - they 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 traditionally 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 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.” (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1070507/asp/frontpage/story_7744209.asp)
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. (http://www.countercurrents.org/insight300411.htm)
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!
Saswat Pattanayak is a New York-based journalist, atheist, feminist, LGBT ally, black power comrade and academic non-elite.