On Rohith’s Birthday, Taking Forward The Lessons From His Note, And From His Life!
By Pranay Patil
31 January, 2016
The amazing feat of stardust that manifested into Rohith Vemula would have turned another year older today. Twenty-six. In blood and veins. In scars and pains. The stars in Rohith’s eyes would have shone as brightly as ever, more determined to scout for new stories about the infinite mysteries of the universe. Stories, that perhaps, would have would have found their way alongside the works of Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and other greats. But alas, the “fatal accident” of his birth, coupled with the structural inequalities embedded deeply in the institutions of this country barged into his dreams, and stripped them off their brilliance. Eventually, they left him with no option but to retort to the highest form of sacrifice, suicide, to register his protest.
But before he left his mortal state, Rohith aimed one last arrow, his suicide note, towards the elite upper caste hegemony prevalent in the Indian state. The words in the note, a testament of his genius, opened a Pandora’s Box around the notion of social justice in the contemporary context. While enough has already been said about the circumstances that lead him to write the note, there is more to discuss on the implications for the universities of the country to foster an egalitarian environment for all students.
For most people, who are unaware of the privileges they are privy to by just being born in a particular group, the note brings a touching account of the onus of responsibilities carried by thousands of Dalits andAdivasis on their shoulders when they enter into universities. The constitutional measures have been successful in getting formal access to the deprived communities by the policy of reservation, but less has been done on bringing substantive access in realizing social justice in its true sense in academic institutions.
While overt discrimination can be quantitatively identified and at times, prevented by registering complaints and protests, the covert discrimination of students from rural, Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds is a problem that is prevalent, all known and still neglected. This overt discrimination leads to an otherization of students from marginalized communities. Instead of finding a home in the university, caste identity is often rigidified to an extent that “reserved category student” becomes the primary identity of students entering via affirmative action policy. This identity is then used to justify things like lower grades, lower communication skills on the grounds that the students entering via quota are simply not as good as others. A reserved category student has to put in more efforts in academia as well as extra-curricular than his/her peers because of the pressure of judgment from so many eyes. The echoes of “these reserved category people are just wasting another seat” often find their ways across the walls of the college campuses. The real root causes for performance asymmetry, like prevalence of English as a medium of instruction, lack of conductive academic environment to accommodate and appreciate diversity, and absence of empathy for students from lower socio-economic strata of the society are generally not given due importance, further intensifying the bridges between students.
Arundhati Roy argues in the Annotated edition of the Annihilation of Caste about merit being nothing but a euphemism for nepotism by the savarna Hindus. Social anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian of Harvard University echoes the same when she points out that what is understood as merit in India’s educational institutions is only another name for the accumulated cultural capital of India’s upper-caste elites. There are numerous occasions when a reserved category student finds himself in the debates revolving around meritocracy, reservations and social justice. A lot of these questions demand better understanding of the pernicious effect of graded inequality caused by the caste system. Under such circumstances, when students retort to their ideals, the writings of Dr. Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and the likes, to understand the caste system, and garner inspiration to embrace their identity, they are often met with critical lens from the establishment.
Any appeals for camaraderie, organization and agitation by the people from lower castes and classes are taken as a direct challenge to the status quo of the ruling elites. Any new slogans to democratize the public space with newer social justice agendas are criticized for its caste narrowness. Organizations like the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), just like the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) face the wrath of the college management by being labelled casteist and anti-national platforms. How ironic is the situation wherein the worst victims of caste system for thousands of years are now called casteist for discussing Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar inside academic institutions, by the same Brahminical elites, who were the custodians of this heinous system for centuries!
In the university where I am currently studying, during one of campus placement talks, a recruiter, who happened to be alumnus of IIT Madras, mentioned about his colleague’s background as ocean engineering graduate, and tried to pull off a self-deprecating humour by adding that ocean engineering was considered as SC/ST branch in the college. Not a single soul among us registered our protest against this casteist remark, for we were too concerned in narrow domain of getting a job. Needless to say, such kinds of casteist notions are deeply ingrained in the minds of people by cultural narrative propagated by the Brahminical school of thought across the country. How can a university set-up be an egalitarian place wherein inequalities still rule the roost? How can a society strive to be equal when the value of a man is reduced to his immediate identity?
From Eklavya to Rohith Vemula, thousands of students have been victims of subjugation by the virtue of their immediate identity. The stars in Rohith’s eyes might have been put to the rest, but his words will live on, and haunt us. The system might have silenced him, but it failed to imagine the power of science, the power of dreams to transcend boundaries. Hundreds and thousands of students across the country now own the cause that Rohith believed in. They share his dream, the same dream that Dr. Ambedkar, Periyar, Savitri Bai Phule, Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj and other propagators of social justice lived for. They will carry the same stars that he had, march on towards the world he longed to see, and carry on the fight, until victory!
Do you see the stars in my eyes?
Pranay Patil is currently a fellow at the Young India Fellowship Program, Ashoka University. He is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad and has worked with Flipkart as an Analyst.