Rohith and the real anti-nationals

It is a casteist mind that sees Rohith’s actions as casteist. Rohith was a patriot because he held a mirror to society, because he reminded it of itspromise of assuring the dignity of the individual. This is the highest obligation of any intellectual: to tell the nation what is right.

Updated - September 02, 2016 11:46 am IST

Published - February 02, 2016 12:17 am IST

The tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula reminded me of the poem ‘To be or not to be born’ by L.S. Rokade, where the Dalit poet tells his mother that her labour, during his birth, was long because he did not want to come out into this cruel and wretched world. Sadly, such prolonged labour continues today and it took Rohith Vemula’s death to bring this home to us. His death forces us to recognise that twin issues are waiting to be given birth to in our public discourse. In the ensuing debate, only one has received attention. The other, however, is equally important and equally incriminating. We need to give it voice, for by remaining silent we risk the danger of normalising it and making it appear a legitimate and valid concern.

During the last few weeks we have been debating the insidious and cunning forms that discrimination takes in Indian society, especially in its public institutions. That such discrimination persists, particularly in enlightened spaces such as universities, after 66 years of the Republic, is a puzzle that calls for relentless questioning. How deep is the imprint of the Manuwadi system on the Indian mind? What must the republican project do to annihilate it? Why do the current officials of the Indian state serve as its torch-bearers? Why do layers of deceit overlay our political culture? Why does the state treat Rohith’s suicide as an exceptional event and not recognise it as a societal pathology? If only he had come to us, the state seems to say, we would have sorted things out. Is that true? These are hard questions but they must be asked and the evidence examined.

Read: >The clarity of a suicide note

A majoritarian Parivar project Take the five communications the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) sent to the registrar and vice-chancellor of Hyderabad Central University (HCU). Within two and a half months — that is, between September 3 and November 19 — one email and four official letters were sent. All mails had only one message: provide a clarification on the claims made by the Minister of State for Labour and Employment that the HCU has become “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” and that the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) unit on campus was manhandled when he protested against this. Only one side in the dispute is referred to in these mails. No mention is made of the view of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). From the MHRD, the least one would expect is fairness — that is, listen to both sides and then take a decision. But it seems that for the MHRD, the ASA does not exist as a party with a view. The flurry of mails seems like a witch-hunt masquerading as an inquiry. It is quite clear that somebody was pressing the under secretary, deputy secretary and even the joint secretary to build a case against the ASA.

Read: >Ancient prejudice, modern inequality

This fact is important to note. For the Sangh Parivar, only the Ambedkar movement can legitimately stand in its way of converting a plural society into a majoritarian one. The imagined nation of the Parivar appears to be silent on the sources of caste violence, on the centuries of indignity heaped on the Dalit by caste society. While there are great glories of Indian civilisation, there are also great indignities; for every Abhinavagupta, there is a Manu. These contradictions the Ambedkarite movement is highlighting as it challenges the Brahminical construction of the nation. So for the Manuwadi strategists, the movement must be undermined, its leaders co-opted. A policy of ‘divide and rule’ must be forcefully followed as a long-term political strategy. Rohith’s death disrupted the plan. Hence it has to be called anti-national.

Who is a good nationalist? This is the other issue that the letters reveal. It must not be eclipsed by the first debate. Rohith, and the other four students, were suspended from the HCU for indulging in “anti-national” activities. Three of the mails have as their subject the following: “Anti-national activities in Hyderabad Central University premises — Violent attack on Sri Nandanam Susheel Kumar, PhD student and President of ABVP — reg”. To charge Rohith and his colleagues with being anti-national, for debating in a university the death penalty awarded to Yakub Memon, raises some fundamental issues. Who is a good nationalist? Who is anti-national? What does being patriotic mean? Who will give such certificates of patriotism? What can and cannot be discussed in a university? These are hard questions but a 66-year-old Republic must not shy away from asking them.

Read: >He has left us with only his words

In helping answer these questions the best ally one can get is Rabindranath Tagore. In his classic novel Ghare Baire , Tagore has Bimala (the main character) state the following about her husband, Nikhil, who did not support the Swadeshi movement. I quote:

“And yet it was not that my husband refused to support swadeshi, or was in any way against the Cause. Only he had not been able whole heartedly to accept the spirit of Bande Mataram.

“‘I am willing,’ he said, ‘to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.’”

This is the passage Martha Nussbaum quotes in her opening essay ‘Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism’, in a book titled For Love of Country , to develop her argument. In this fascinating book there are two key ideas. What were the core features of the Indian nation when it was constituted? And what does being patriotic mean in India today? Let us look for answers.

Read: >Discrimination on the campus

The preamble to the Constitution states many things, among which are fraternity, seen as “assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation”, and liberty “of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”. These are among our core principles. Where did they come from, how were they forged, who endorsed them, how deeply are they believed, are immaterial questions today since democratic India regards them as the standards that we should refer to when we have to deal with a social dispute.

The crucible of dissent When the ASA was accused of being anti-national for organising an event to discuss the death penalty on Memon, they were only exercising their freedom of expression and were doing so in a space deliberately constituted to exercise that right, a university. A university is about ideas, about dissenting ideas, about pushing the boundaries of knowledge and probing it for its hidden falsehoods. A university is about being Nikhil. Charging students for indulging in anti-national activities because of a discussion they organised in a university is a perversity and would convert our country into a Stalinist gulag.

Read: >Death of a Dalit scholar

Will somebody please tell the MHRD what a gulag is? Furthermore, such interventions by the MHRD, three with the headline ‘anti-national’, have created a climate of fear among academics.

Let me state clearly my belief: no substantive discussion in a university can be anti-national as long as protocols of discussion are maintained. Dissent must be heard. No one would want to be called anti-national for it brings in its wake the primordial passions of hate and anger onto oneself. It produces self and social censorship. This is what Rohith experienced. This is what his letter tells us. It produces McCarthyism, the worst period of American intellectual life. Societies that do not confront such processes of censorship are on the slippery slope of McCarthyism. India is on such a slope.

In addition to the fear of censorship must be debated the question of patriotism. I believe Rohith was a patriot because he held a mirror to society, because he reminded society of its promise of assuring the dignity of the individual. He did this not only as a Dalit scholar. He did this as an intellectual. This is the highest obligation of any intellectual: to tell the nation what is right. This is what Tagore meant when he wrote right with a capital ‘R’. It is in fact a casteist mind that sees Rohith’s actions as casteist. Perhaps the vice-chancellor and registrar of HCU should write to the MHRD saying that the Minister of State and the president of ABVP are the real casteists.

Read: >Can the subaltern speak for himself?

In the volume edited by Nussbaum, the British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his essay ‘Cosmopolitan Patriots’, writes, “the idea of the equal dignity of all persons can be cashed out in different ways, but it is what undergirds the attachment to a democracy of unlimited franchise; the renunciation of sexism and racism (read casteism) and heterosexism; the respect for the autonomy of individualism which resists the state’s desire to fit us to someone else’s conception of what is good for us.” This is what the Sangh Parivar has been trying to undo. Do not read it as nationalism. What Rohith was fighting for is, in fact, the real thing.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and holds the Dr. S. Radhakrishnan Chair of the Rajya Sabha for 2015-17.)

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