Thinking Allowed: The unsung struggles

Mr Modi doesn't mourn the son we have lost or declare how he feels the pain of his mother.

Update: 2016-01-24 19:35 GMT
Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room in Hyderabad. (Photo: Facebook)

A mother has lost her son!” cried Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Politics aside, the fact is that we lost a son! I can understand the pain.” Mr Modi seemed deeply saddened as he spoke about the suicide of Rohith Vemula. He was finally breaking his silence after five days of outrage over the death of this dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.

Meanwhile, politicians from all other political parties had offered their condolences and expressed shock and horror at such acute caste discrimination in a seat of higher learning. Rohith and four other dalit students had been hounded by students affiliated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, suspended from the university and banned from the hostel and the campus by university authorities, reportedly nudged by minister of state for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya.

Tired of fighting, this extraordinarily sensitive young man opted out. Because “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity... To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”

Rohith wanted to be a writer. “A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.” But his caste identity stood in his way. “In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” To him, “life itself (was a) curse. My birth is my fatal accident.”
Rohith’s last note was a simple, touching and beautiful farewell letter. It was published in conventional and social media, and triggered an avalanche of sympathy and outrage. Within hours political parties were falling over each other to offer their condolences and take up the issue of caste discrimination and political influence in universities. So when human resources development minister Smriti Irani tried to brush the matter off as “not a dalit vs non-dalit confrontation” allies of the BJP, and even people in her own party, begged to differ.

While it is laudable that people across the country and of all political affiliations are sympathising with Rohith after his death, it would be even better if this moment of solidarity with the dalit students yields a wider commitment towards fighting caste discrimination. For us, the urban educated middle classes who largely control the mood of the media and society, it is easy to identify with a bright young research scholar in a university who wants to be a writer like Carl Sagan and leaves behind a fine suicide note in English.

We can feel his pain. We feel outraged. We call it institutional murder. We vehemently demand justice. Which is not what we do when a safai karamchari dies in a drain, cleaning our shit. We do not identify with men who are forced to crawl into manholes almost naked, usually with no protection against the noxious gases and putrid waste that they are steeped in to earn a meagre living. Hundreds of such sanitation workers are killed every year. They die of the poisonous gases or they die drowned in shit. They die because they do not have protective gear and proper work conditions. Because we do not care. And because they do not have a choice. That is institutional murder. And we are all guilty of it. Because we choose not to see it.

There have, of course, been valiant efforts to change this sordid state of affairs. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits engaging anyone for hazardous cleaning of a sewer or a septic tank. Manual scavenging is now banned. The Supreme Court has specified that getting someone to enter sewer lines without proper safety gear would be a crime even in emergency situations. Each such death would draw a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the family of the deceased. The guilty could be jailed for upto five years and fined upto Rs 5 lakh.

Yet safai karamcharis continue to die in shit pits. It does not stir us to demand action against such institutional murder. Two months ago, in November, Vinay Sirohi, 22, died at Delhi’s Keshopur Sewage Treatment Plant. The Delhi Jal Board tried to brush off responsibility saying he was a contract worker who had no business being in that pipe anyway, and his death was “very suspicious”. But a co-worker who was with him when Vinay entered the sewage pipe revealed that Vinay had been called to repair a leaking pipe. He had taken off his clothes and watch, and kept them aside carefully, with his wallet and his motorcycle keys. He died when he accidentally slipped into a connected pipeline in that gushing, slimy river of waste. The Delhi Jal Board grandly announced that it would grant his family Rs 1.5 lakh as compensation and give a job to a member of his family “on compassionate grounds”.

We have such compassion. We grant a fraction of the Rs 10 lakh specified by the court as compensation for such horrendous deaths and push a son or brother of the victim into this awful job. We do them all a favour by offering another guy a life without dignity, quick access to terrible ailments from typhoid to hepatitis B, blindness, lacerations, neurological problems and brain damage, and the possibility of an exceptionally filthy and violent death.

And our governments feel the need to make this dubious favour into a benevolent law. Recently, the government of Maharashtra reserved all jobs of sanitation workers for the Scheduled Castes. Would such reservation help the SC communities, deprived and violated through generations, get social justice? Or just to get a life? Wallowing in filth all day, most safai karamcharis are heavy drinkers. And if one drowns in the sewage we are told he was drunk and slipped. It was his own fault.

They die every day, these dalits we can never identify with, or care to speak about or bear to hear about. Politicians do not rush to their homes to console their families and call for justice for what really is institutional murder. Mr Modi doesn’t mourn the son we have lost or declare how he feels the pain of his mother. For they are not us. Rohith Vemula was.

If we genuinely want to get justice for Rohith, we need to look beyond the talented scholar and dreamer who had a chance to follow at least some of his dreams. We need to also look at the dalits who do not even get that half a chance to heave themselves out of the cesspool of deprivation that they are born into and trapped in forever.


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