January 31, 2016

Moral Authority Lost

THERE are times when a single incident can shatter the moral authority of a government. The death of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), who was driven to commit suicide is one such. 26-year old Rohith, along with four other dalit students, was suspended from the university at the instance of the union minister of state Bandaru Dattatreya, who is also the MP from Hyderabad. Though an earlier enquiry had concluded that there was no need for action to be taken against the dalit students belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association, it was Dattatreya’s letter to the HRD minister Smriti Irani that the Hyderabad University had become a den for “casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” that led the university vice chancellor to suspend the five students. The HRD ministry wrote four letters to the university authorities asking what steps were being taken on the letter sent by Dattatreya. Hence the action of prohibiting Rohith and four others from the use of the hostel and other facilities, which culminated in his committing suicide, can be directly attributable to the role played by the two ministers, Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani. The Hyderabad Central University had seen eight suicides by dalit students in the past ten years. This shows the extent of casteism in the higher educational institutions in the country. It is extremely difficult for students of dalit background to make it to the higher educational institutions and research centres. Even if they do so through reservation, they face discrimination and harassment and undercurrent of anti-dalit sentiments. While this has been the reality existing over the years, the advent of the BJP government has brought a new ideological edge to the anti-dalit sentiments. The BJP and the RSS are unable to tolerate dalit students posing any challenge to their Hindutva values. Last year, at the IIT Madras, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) was banned by the authorities. The reason for this action was the same HRD ministry writing to the IIT authorities forwarding an anonymous complaint that the APSC had been criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and government policies. It was only after widespread protests that the ban was lifted and the dalit student circle allowed to function. The anonymous complaint was from some RSS minded people in the campus who objected to the ideological positions taken by the APSC. In the HCU case too, the Ambedkar Students Association was taking up issues which were politically and ideologically opposed to the BJP and the Hindutva circles. The dalit students had screened a film on the Muzaffarnagar riots and held a discussion on the death penalty when Yakoob Memon was hanged. It is these activities which invited the attacks by the RSS student organisation, the ABVP. It is on the basis of the complaint of an ABVP student leader of an alleged assault, which was not proven, that the BJP ministers took it upon themselves to see that Rohith and his fellow activists were punished. The RSS and the ABVP have branded all progressive and Left activities in the campuses as “anti-national”. Thus, the action taken in the Hyderabad University was part of the Hindutva offensive to crack down on secular progressive ideas and activities in the campuses. Rohith was thus a victim of both the anti-dalit prejudices of the vice chancellor and the university establishment and also of the BJP and its RSS mentors. The struggle being waged in the HCU and by students and the academic community around the country on the tragic death of Rohith has wider connotations. It concerns the struggle of the secular democratic forces against the reactionary communal forces who want to uphold the moribund upper caste order and the Hindutva outlook. The shocking way the HRD minister and other BJP leaders sought to counter the charges leveled in the Rohith affair has only highlighted their culpability in the matter and their hostility to dalit aspirations for equality and social justice. After witnessing the widespread outrage and protests, the government began to backtrack from its brazen stance. The HRD minister announced a judicial enquiry into the circumstances of Rohith’s death. The university withdrew the suspension orders on the four dalit scholars. Narendra Modi, faced with protests in the Ambedkar Law University in Lucknow, talked of the loss of a son of mother India. But these are all hypocritical responses and will not do. There will be no purpose served by the judicial enquiry going into the conditions of dalit students in the university. There is already a report of a Committee headed by Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, former UGC chairman, on marginalised groups. What is required is the implementation of the recommendations of this report. The Vice Chancellor P Appa Rao has to be removed forthwith. Both he and Bandaru Dattatreya must be charged under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and for abetment of suicide. The continuance of Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani as ministers in the union cabinet is untenable. The prime minister should realise that if his government has to salvage some of the moral authority it has lost, they have to go. (January 23, 2016)