The Indian social structure — hierarchical authoritarian fragmented caste ridden and communal — remains stubborn in spite of constitutional governance and six to seven decades of transitional politics. Rohith Vemula, a brilliant scholar from University of Hyderabad ended his life conveying a message, to the rulers, and more so to the people of the need to accelerate democratic transformation of the society. In his suicide note he did not name anybody and also said nobody was responsible to his death.
This is an exceptional maturity as this note is poetic, philosophical and reflective calling for introspection into what is wrong with the society. The tone and tenor of the debate following his death, by the Sangh Parivar, particularly the ABVP, is so disappointing that at no point they look reflective. On the contrary, they indulged in a blame game triggering controversies trivial and unfortunate.
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This is one tragic death that ought to have made right wing organisations apply their mind and ask their followers to reflect and endeavor to ensure that such tragedies do not repeat in other institutions. This lack of reflection smacks of a deep-rooted interest in status quo. Dr Ambedkar warned the oppressed that if there is a revolution, the Brahminical ideology has the potential of performing a counter-revolution. This is a profound insight. This explains the abrupt end of Rohith. After the advent of Independence, partly due to the electoral politics and partly social movements, the consciousness of the marginalised did rise.
The doors of educational institutions which were closed for centuries got unlocked and the first generation students from the villages started entering the portals of universities which gradually led to a change in the social composition of learners. This created a new context. The transition would have been smoother if the upper caste and upper class teachers and students welcomed this change as a part of building a more humane and democratic India.
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The privileged sections on the contrary started feeling that their opportunities are shrinking giving rise to endemic tensions. As a Dean of school of social sciences in this university, sometimes it was a herculean task to convince the faculty to guide these scholars. They also think that in a competitive world the career prospects depend more on one’s own national and international publications and not training in the rural mother tongue for educated boys and girls.
The competitive ethic and age old prejudices reinforce each other. The Dalit and rural students strongly feel that this is nothing but upper caste prejudice as their feelings are based on their own experience. This is what has led to the birth of Ambedkar Students Association in the University. It became an umbrella to newly joined students taking up the issues with the teachers and university administration.
In their search for ways and means of empowerment, they even aligned with ABVP an articulate right wing student group. This did not last long as there were intrinsic caste tensions which are historical reflected in attitudinal orientation. It is natural that rising consciousness led to politics of confrontation and social polarisation with the rise of right wing politics in the larger political system. The intolerance and communalisation of politics in various parts of India reached alarming proportions.
Communalisation of politics and their onward march has directly affected the universities. ABVP, emboldened with the coming of their party to power, started behaving in a much more aggressive manner in universities, dictating what should be debated in the university and what should not assuming the role of moral policing. The present crisis has its origins in this disposition. After Yakub Memon was hanged ASA took out a procession against capital punishment which annoyed the ideological sensitivities of ABVP which dubbed it as anti national and called the members of ASA goons.
The capital punishment is something that the entire world is debating. They instead of debating on the issue took it to Bandaru Dattetreya, who wrote a letter to MHRD minister. As a public representative, he could have advised the students to settle the matter within the university or called both the students groups and resolved the matter.
The letter by any standard is intemperate as it dubbed the entire university as a den of extremists, casteists and anti nationals. A responsible minister dubbing the entire university that way is something very objectionable. University of Hyderabad is one of the reputed universities in the country, in NAAC rating it is on the top. No university can scale such heights if it is den of anti-social elements. All these epithets refer to the open debates taking place at the campus, thus making the university a place of excellence.
ABVP’s mindset is so framed that they do not like many debates for their own ideological reasons. The crux of the problem lies in intolerance and the standard method that they choose is silencing the dissent through hook or crook. Unless the BJP as a party and its so-called fringe elements realise that democratic dissent however unpalatable it is, has to have its place. There is no way that this nation can be governed unless the democratic climate is promoted and protected.
It is a historical inevitability that the oppressed of this country have a legitimate claim to democratic space guaranteed by the Constitution. Development of this nation has to be measured not by its economic growth rate, but on the scale of freedom and distributive justice. Silencing the democratic voices is a sure way of destroying the universities. It is these concerns that made Rohith leave a suicide note drawing attention of the entire society to this suffocative climate.
Rohith performed a historical act provoking the entire nation and the debates that followed his sacrifice is what he aspired for. But the experience has been that the rulers trace the crisis to democratic space itself and they come with a solution to scuttle and stifle the democratic voices. If that happens, it would be a great injustice to the memory of Rohith. Enlargement of democratic space and making universities vibrant places of creative and adventurous ideas is the only the way to create a climate where the centuries of prejudices are debated and fought in creating a truly democratic nation.
The writer is former Dean of School of Social Sciences, UoH...