It was exactly a year ago that a bright Dalit scholar, Rohith Vemula, chose to give up his fight after prolonged harassment by Hyderbad University authorities, BJP lawmakers and ministers and ABVP students.
Rohith’s death was a crude reminder of the everydayness and ubiquitous vulnerability and victims-hood of Dalits even in this day and age. It highlighted our failure as a society to address this persisting injustice and more so for our denial of prevalence of caste based discrimination.
Since his death in January last year, there has been a concerted effort to erase the identity and memory of Rohith and make us forget the culprits, who forced him to end his life. Which is why on this somber occasion it becomes important that we must remember Rohith and more so those who drove him to death and have denied him justice ever since.
Rohith grew up as a Dalit, familiar with the grave and frequent injustice heaped on his community. His caste and rampant discrimination one faced being a Dalit made him more enlightened and resolute to fight the stigma.
Though he has now gone on to become an icon for Dalits’ struggle, there has been a concerted effort to demonise the former Research scholar and his legacy.
Firstly, he became a role model for Dalits’ upward mobility. Here was a bright young man, who despite all the oppression made his mark in academics and through sheer hard-work and brilliance escaped the crushing economic conditions he continuously faced since his birth. Despite being entitled to reservation, Rohith chose to secure admission and scholarship under general category.
Secondly, his academic brilliance was not merely confined to books. His suicide notes as well as his other posts reveal to us the immense intellectual calibre that he possessed. Rohith was a resounding negation of the age-old casteist belief that Dalits could not be thinkers and true achievers.
Thirdly, unlike many elite Dalits, who prefer to enjoy their success and empowerment in private instead of using the opportunity to be voices for voiceless against injustice that many others still faced, Rohith fought injustice and inequality in all its form.
He didn’t choose the easy path of being co-opted by the system. He didn’t get lulled by the spoils of riches the system shared with him. Instead, he chose the hard and painful path of struggle.
Fourthly, for centuries Dalits who, didn’t submit have been silenced, often through brutal means like killings. But we thought in modern India, such things would be unimaginable. But courtesy the hideous brutality of BJP, Rohith’s death serves as a reminder that the horrors of caste are still not a thing of the past.
But what all needs to be remembered is the shameful role BJP and the central government played in driving Rohith to his death. His suicide exposed BJP’s hypocrisy and insincerity in pretending to be a facilitator of Dalit empowerment.
Firstly, It was ABVP university unit president Sushil kumar who got into the tussle with Rohith just because he opposed death sentence even if it was for terrorist like Yakub Menon. It was this tussle (reflective of BJP’s illiberal-ism and intolerance) that led to all the subsequent tragic happenings.
Secondly, BJP’s MP and union minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, repeatedly pressurised the HRD ministry to force university to punish Rohith and his group branding them anti-nationals. It was the result of this incessant pressure from the two Modi ministers- Dattatreya and Smriti Irani- that Rohit was deprived of his fellowship and driven out of his hostel, pushing him to take his life.
Thirdly, the Dalit research scholar had even implored the university administration to not push him into such hardship and make life unbearably difficult for him. Yet, pro-Modi government VC didn’t care enough to understand and help a student who was under his guardianship.
Pushed against the wall by the BJP regime, a bright hope of Dalit emancipation became a symbol of how helpless the Dalits were against the might of an arrogant and brutal regime which would crush any voice that it found uncomfortable in the community. He is also a reminder of the falsity of the hope of any possibility for Dalits to be truly independent and empowered as long as the BJP’s political thought process- the Hindutva- with its belief in the Varna system of Vedas holds sway.
The cover up of Rohith’s death
If one hoped that Rohith’s death may make BJP more humble, force the party to introspect about its politics of intolerance and apologise for its role in the student’s death, one was mistaken. Instead, it added to its sins by trying to respond by lies, obfuscation and attempt at effacing the memory of Rohith.
Firstly, it attempted to deny its role in his death before quickly abandoning this trick in the face of embarrassment caused by surfacing of too many written communications between the ministers.
Secondly, it tried to limit the dalit backlash by denying Rohith was a Dalit. The party was uncomfortable that Rohith’s victimisation was primarily because he became the voice of Dalit resurgence causing too much discomfort to Hindutva forces.
Finally, the VC disallowed the hut and memorial in his remembrance. BJP shrewdly created new distractions to divert public attention from Rohith’s memory and the tainted VC, Appa Rao Podile, was conferred an award by PM Modi.