The suicide of a Dalit student is not just an individual exit strategy, it is a shaming of society that has failed him or her. Rohith Vemula’s death comes as the sad, unforeseeable climax of a struggle that he was spearheading against casteist, communal forces. One of the five Dalit scholars who were expelled from the University of Hyderabad on charges moved by the right-wing student organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, he kept the spirit of resilience alive until his last moments. Even as Rohith being driven to death shows us the vulnerability of our most militant students, it also lays bare the true state of our educational system: a vice chancellor with a decades-old history of rusticating Dalit students, the involvement of Central ministers to settle scores on behalf of right-wing Hindu forces, the entire administrative machinery becoming a puppet of the ruling political forces, and the tragic consequences of social apathy.
There could not be a more potent image of the caste system at play than the expulsion of these five Dalit students. Even though the ensuing strikes highlighted the sense of solidarity among the Dalit Bahujan student community, the act of expelling these students itself carried grim reminders. Just as the Manusmriti ordains the outcaste to leave the caste quarters, the very ritual of punishment appeared to have all the symbolism that accompanies a caste cleansing. Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, discontinuation. In a society where students have waged massive struggles to ensure their right to access higher educational institutions through the protective, enabling concept of the reservation policy, no one has dared to shed light on how many of these students are allowed to leave these institutions with degrees, how many become dropouts, become permanent victims of depression, how many end up dead.
Students like him
That Dalit students like Rohith Vemula enter universities to pursue a doctoral degree is a testament to their intelligence, perseverance, and a relentless struggle against caste discrimination that attempts to destroy them from the first day.
Textbooks ridden with caste hegemony, the atmosphere that reinforces alienation within college campuses, classmates who take pride in their dominant caste status, teachers who condemn them to miserable fates and thus enact a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure — these are the impossible challenges for Dalit students to surmount. Caste which ingrains the notion of intellectual superiority, when replicated within the boundaries of academia, becomes a poison potent enough to kill and consume lives. Classrooms, instead of becoming sites of resistance and subversion, become assertions of unbridled caste power by those who believe in the twice-born, sacred threads of knowledge transmission, and who are inherently obliged to maintain the status quo.
The tiny minority of students from oppressed backgrounds who try to camouflage and masquerade out of the fear of being ostracised are punished at the time of exposure — like the mythical Karna — with the curse of fatal failure. Those Dalit students who emerge in their own right, with their identity out in the open and for all to see, become the proverbial Ekalavyas, left alive, but unable to practise their art. This is not the fate of students alone because within these corridors of caste power, Dalit-Bahujan faculty are also at the receiving end of ostracisation. As much as I have watched in awe my mother’s struggle in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras, I have also watched with absolute helplessness the woman I love crumble and disintegrate. The dismal representation of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes faculty members in our IITs/Indian Institutes of Management and universities renders the caste discrimination absolute because students from similar backgrounds do not even find a support group to hear their difficulties or give them advice.
In front of interview panels of Brahminical professors whose hostility reminds one of firing squads, how does a student hold his or her own? These professors, who on the one hand might have mastered nuclear physics, but on the other hand cradle their dearest caste prejudices, represent only one dimension of the problem of caste terrorism in academia. When combined with right-wing political student groupings like the ABVP, it reaches a deadly high.
Our universities have become the modern killing fields. Like all other battlegrounds, institutions of higher education also specialise in things beyond caste discrimination. They are also notorious for the sexual harassment visited upon women students and faculty members alike, stories that are hushed up, stories that are twisted to character assassinate the victims who resist, raise an alarm, do not allow sex to be extracted under threat, compulsion or coercion. Just as Rohith’s suicide has broken the silence over caste as a killer, one day we will also hear the stories of women who were driven to death by these ivory towers.
What we see in the case of the University of Hyderabad is the deadly combination of caste supremacy and political pandering. The role of the state machinery, especially the police force, to threaten and subdue students has been established as a classical method of repression on campuses. In the days that followed the derecognition of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, IIT Madras became a veritable site of siege, with uniformed men and women everywhere on the campus, guarding its gates night and day. (The decision was revoked later after much protest.) Now, we have a similar massive deployment of armed police on the Hyderabad campus, and the imposition of curfew under Section 144.
A pledge to keep
Rohith, you have left behind your dream of becoming a science writer like Carl Sagan, and left us with only your words. Each of our words now carries the weight of your death, every tear carries your unrealised dream. We will become the explosive stardust that you speak of, the stardust that will singe this oppressive system of caste. Within every university, every college, every school in this country, each of our slogans will carry the spirit of your struggle. Dr. Ambedkar spoke of caste as the monster that crosses ones path every way one turns, and within the agraharams that are the Indian educational institutions, our very physical presence must embody the message of caste annihilation. Let every despicable casteist force wince when they encounter a Dalit, a Shudra, an Adivasi, a Bahujan, a woman staking claim within academia, let them realise that we have come here to end a system that has kept trying hard to put an end to us, that we have come here to cause nightmares to those who dared to snatch our dreams. Let them realise that Vedic times, the era of pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudras who hear the sacred texts, the era of cutting the tongues of those who dared to utter the knowledge that was denied to them, are long gone. Let them understand that we have stormed these bastions to educate, to agitate, to organise; we did not come here to die. We have come to learn, but let the monsters of caste and their henchmen bear in mind that we have come here also to teach them an unforgettable lesson.