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Post-truths about Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula  

Rohith Vemula left us on January 17, 2016. The Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) activist at the University of Hyderabad was a young Dalit leader of strong political convictions — opposed to the Hindu right and committed to Ambedkarite anti-caste philosophy and democratic politics, importantly, associational freedoms. There is no doubt that Rohith has in death, as in life, brought anti-caste resistance to the centre of deliberative democratic politics on campuses across the country, and brought new meanings to bear on the power of associational freedoms at a time when we are rapidly losing sight of it.

 

We are told a year after his passing that the government of Andhra Pradesh has decided that Rohith was Vaddera — an OBC, not a Dalit. Really? A discovery of a (post-)truth when the person is no longer alive to make an assertion to the contrary. When there is a certificate, witnesses, and a Supreme Court decision on the inheritance of caste status for Dalits and Adivasis from the mother, the government ‘discovers’ evidence to the contrary. Why this overdrive? 

 

What is an atrocity?

There is a case of atrocities registered against the Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. We now have an amended Act with a covering letter that states that it is being strengthened to make it more effective (F.No. 16/5/2016-CP&R, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India). Section 3 of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act defines ‘economic boycott’ as (i) ‘refusal to deal with… other person’; (ii) ‘to deny opportunities including access to services’; (iii) ‘to refuse to do anything on the terms on which things would be commonly done in the ordinary course.’ ‘Social boycott’ is defined as including acts against a person ‘to isolate him from others’. A ‘victim’ is any individual belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe ‘who has suffered or experienced physical, mental, psychological, emotional or monetary harm… and includes his relatives, legal guardian and legal heirs’.

Section 4 of the Amendment Act expands the definition of atrocity. When a person not belonging to a Scheduled Caste or Tribe ‘by words either written or spoken or by signs or by visible representation or otherwise promotes or attempts to promote enmity, hatred or ill-will against members of the Scheduled Castes or the Scheduled Tribes’; ‘prevents him from using or having access to a place of public resort to which other members of the public or any section thereof have a right to use or access to’; ‘obstructs or prevents’ an SC/ST member in any manner with regard to… ‘entering any educational institution… shop or place of public entertainment or other public place’ or ‘imposes or threatens a social or economic boycott of any person, family or a group belonging to a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe’, he shall be punishable.

Punishments and rewards

In the aftermath of the differences between the ASA and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists on campus, Bandaru Dattatreya, Minister of State of Labour and Employment, wrote to the Minister, Human Resource Development: “The Hyderabad University… has become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics… when Yakub Memon was hanged, a dominant students’ union… Ambedkar Students’ Association has held protests against the execution. When Shri Shushil Kumar, President, ABVP in the campus protested against this, he was manhandled… What is more tragic is that the University Administration has become a mute spectator to such events.”

The incident occurred on the night of August 3, 2015; the proctorial board censured both groups of students on August 12. Yet, on the basis of the ministerial communications in which the ASA is described as “casteist, extremist and anti-national”, and the ABVP by implication its opposite, the new VC constituted a subcommittee in contravention of procedure and issued a suspension order against the ASA on December 16, 2015 naming five students that said, ‘the above students… are not permitted to participate in the students’ union elections, enter the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups.’ There was no order against the ABVP students. Less than a week after the suspension order, Rohith sent a chilling handwritten letter to the VC titled ‘Solution for the Dalit Problem’ in which he recommends termination of life as the only option available to Dalit students — himself included. It evoked no rapid administrative reversals.

Mr. Dattatreya is a politician who will promote his political interests. The HRD Minister shares Mr. Dattatreya’s political anxieties and therefore issues communications to the universities. They are at a distance from the university and not members of the university community.

It is the university administration led by the VC which is at a proximate distance and directly connected in terms of responsibility and culpability in actions of this nature. It is no argument to say after the fact that there is no discrimination on campus. The events strongly suggest the opposite. It is also not the ASA that is casteist from a close examination of the materials on record. For this rhetoric to be absorbed by a liberal arts institution is tragic.

What is also worrisome is the nexus of punishments and rewards. Following the government’s bidding (for that is what it appears to be from all accounts), we have seen the terrifying spiral of punishments. We have seen rewards for the VC: an award for excellence in academic work despite findings of plagiarism, and for excellence in institution-building. We have also seen the gift of de-certification of a victim that drastically diminishes criminal culpability in a case involving a grave institutional wrong, since the only way to extricate him from criminal proceedings is to alter the certification. All these point to the the Central and State governments acting in unison. Institutional dignity and autonomy lie in ruins.

 

Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. The views expressed here are her own.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 3:05:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Post-truths-about-Rohith-Vemula/article17046212.ece

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