“When grave injustices exist in a free society few are guilty but all are responsible”.
The death of Vemula is a crude reminder of the gruesome reality. It is a reality we all are guilty of perpetuating through our silence on caste discrimination,our apathy to politics and an increasing mainstreaming of hyper-nationalism and reactionary conservatism due to our failure to stand against it.
Unfortunately it takes a death of a bright scholar to awaken the nation from its slumber, but even so the nation must not delay the long due introspection and self correction. A good starting point can be to analyse various ways in which our system, politics and society are accused in extinguishing a young and promising life.
Everything about HRD minister’s role in it is wrong
As a shocked nation mourned and outraged about the loss of this Dalit Scholar, the HRD minister was quick to wash her hands off the death and asserted their was no interference regarding the matter by her ministry. But subsequently with revelation of four reminders by her ministry to the Vice Chancellor asking for him to personally intervene, this has proved to be a white lie. But lying is the least of Irani’s sins in this episode.
Her ministry’s reminder described the acts of the these dalit activist as “anti national.” This is troubling at many levels. Firstly how can the ministry which is supposed to be a fair arbitrator, so blatantly take side in favour of the student wing of her own party against its tussle with another student body? Why did it not hear the other side as natural justice would require?
Secondly the ministry clearly failed to do any facts check and blindly backed the complaint as reports have now questioned the ABVP’s claim of assault by these Dalit students.
Thirdly such loose use of “anti national” label by no less than india’s HRD ministry is frightening. How can being a rival of political body be anti national? Surely the nation is not the same as one political body(ABVP in this case). Or if the argument is that the student activities were anti national as they were protesting against Yakub Memon’s hanging due to their opposition to death penalty, even then one fails to understand how is opposition to death penalty anti national?
Surely a democratic society like India cannot silence and discredit such legitimate protest. What makes such intolerance more worrying is that it comes from HRD ministry. This is no fringe element ordering the critics of the central government to go to Pakistan or questioning their political rivals loyalty to India at the drop of the hat, it is a ministry in whose hands the nation has trusted the responsibility of deciding what values India’s future generation will grow up with. If it’s own value system is so rotten then one must be worried about India’s future.
Also the ministers very interest in the whole episode reveals grossly distorted priorities. Should a HRD minister of a nation of 1.2 billion with an education system facing humongous problems at all be interested in such trivial matters as rivalry between some students here or there?
Progressive as anti national
The labelling of the dissenters as anti national in this case is not an one off incident. The Sangh Parivar is quite prone to labelling the opponent of its conservative, reactionary, hypernational and parochial viewpoint as anti national. The brunt of such intolerance has been borne most by the progressive forces fighting for environmental protection(Greenpeace), Women Rights (right to not be told what to wear,right to work ,etc-things RSS is not very comfortable with), struggle against caste system, human rights,etc.
Being progressive and liberal is increasingly becoming a more difficult thing to be in the changed environment. One is subjected to slander and abuse by Sangh groups, an unsupportive state apparatus and a societal ostracisation, where whole of your past is dug out and any personal weakness paraded in the public to shame you for your opinion. If only perfect people have the right to disagree with ideology of party in power, then Indian democracy won’t have much of a future. It will get reduced to an one party autocracy.
Democracy allows imperfect beings, that most of us are ,to also carry an opinion and not be hounded for it. This is something all of us must protect by standing up against those who don’t value dissent and hound dissenters. In this duty we have not fared particularly well, that is why the reactionary element who are in a minority are able to decide what the rest of society should do.
Silence around caste and contradiction
In this particular instance ABVP could not digest how a Dalit body could be so aggressive against it. Perhaps it believes it only as a representative of the traditionally privileged caste Hindu has a monopoly to aggression.
The Sangh Parivar has always faced this dilemma in its relation with Dalits, tribals and lower castes. While it seeks to incorporate them within its fold to expand its presence and build a unified Hindu block, it has not yet completely figured out how to deal with the assertive among these groups. These assertive dalits don’t want give and take with the Varna system, they seek its complete demolition while hindutva groups have Varna system at centre of their ethos.
Even Gandhi and Ambedkar clashed on this point. While Gandhi wanted reformation of Varna System, Ambedkar argued for its abolition as he held it to be non reformable and intrinsically evil. That conflict has continued since then and manifests from time to time in violent power struggles too. The banning of Ambedkar Periyar group can be seen within the same frame as can be the hostility between ABVP and ASA that led to the unfortunate suicide.
The contradiction has remained unaddressed in part due to our silence around caste injustice. Now it has become fashionable to dismiss anyone seeking to bring out role of caste in inequality,oppression and other injustices as Casteist. By turning a blind eye to reality of caste, caste won’t disappear.
What such conspirational silence about caste does is -impede the struggle for its reformation.The first step towards addressing any existent wrongdoing is recognising it and discussing it.So one hopes this tragic death would force the nation to once again start the discussion about our incomplete struggle against caste system.
Distrust of politics
Finally as the issue gained national traction once again we were subjected to the farce of a political party in power (which does nothing if not politics) lecturing opposition on not doing politics over the issue. In a nation distrustful of politicians, such position may not raise many eyebrows but it is a dangerous tendency that has been allowed to grow unchallenged at our own cost.
Democracy and politics go side by side,we can’t have democracy without politics.So whatever our frustrations with politics ,lets face it their is no alternative to it.
If politics is discredited ruling party can easily evade responsibility for its actions.So every time it is found on a wrong foot and its opponent seek accountability it can shift the discussion to wether politics is being done over the issue.Ultimately this deprives the citizens of a responsible government.
Also as politics is an important instrument through which the voice of disempowered is raised if we disallow politics we end up shutting the voice of those on the margins.
So in this case lets not squabble over whether politics is being done over the issue, it should be done. Lets focus on the issue which is far more important. The incident should force India as a nation to deal with complex issues of still pervasive caste oppression, political interference in our universities and its role in our universities not being upto global standards,lessening space for progressive forces and our strained relation with dissent and free speech.If we can do so , many Vemula’s who have yet not become victim of the system can be saved. For them and as tribute to Vemula the nation must have this
The author has studied at IIT-Roorkee