Rohith was failed by university’s prejudiced conduct, Dattatreya and Smriti Irani were willing colluders


Ashish Khetan

George Orwell once wrote that political purpose is one of the great motives for writing prose. He said that ‘desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after’ exists in different degrees in every writer.

Swapan Dasgupta is a self-proclaimed right wing commentator. His short bio on The Times of India website describes him as ‘one of the few voices of the Right, an endangered community in India’s English-language media.’

However, there is a thin line between political writing and political propaganda. Minus intellectual integrity and writer’s sensitivity, even the best of political prose degenerates into egregious pamphleteering.

Swapan Dasgupta’s last column in Sunday’s Times of India (Our universities are out of touch with Young India) is an offensive example of that.

In his opening paragraph, Dasgupta describes Rohith Vemula as a “student activist” and contends that his “different, conflicting impulses” cannot be the subject of “dispassionate analysis” since this so-called activist has now “entered the realms of political mythology.”

Is it an example of dispassionate analysis to call a promising PhD scholar a “student activist” before going on to decry activism as a collection of “unflinching certitudes and vacuous slogans”? Is Dasgupta stooping so low as to suggest Rohith’s political beliefs were not a result of deep thought and personal experience?

Full coverage on Rohith Vemula’s suicide

As for unflinching certitudes and vacuous slogans, how would Dasgupta describe the words used by a Union Minister claiming that a university had become a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” because a student group protests an execution? Apparently, in Dasgupta’s world protesting in the pursuit of an ideal is the act of a mind reduced by slogans. But rashly accusing students of being extremist and anti-national attracts no similar censure or ridicule from Dasgupta’s pen.

Instead he goes on to suggest the Right’s “challenge to the Left-liberal consensus” has led to a “vitiated atmosphere on campuses”.

Surely in Rohith’s case, with which Dasgupta began his column, the atmosphere was vitiated by Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter to Smriti Irani, the Minister of Human Resource Development, and his request that she “change the Campus for the better”.

This doesn’t sound like challenging the consensus, it sounds like shutting down dissent, or opposition to the government narrative.

Is it now the job of the government of the day to take up cudgels on behalf of leaders of the RSS’s student wing?

How strange that Dasgupta can write an entire article about campuses riven by political conflict but not discuss the conduct of the two Union Ministers. He pays lip service when he writes that both “the Right and Left have been guilty of seeing the other side as demons that have to be destroyed rather than contested.”

This is so general as to be meaningless. It “may be relevant”, Dasgupta concludes his argument, “to ask: are India’s universities doing justice to a Young India that is both restless and determined to forge ahead?” Again, how strikingly disingenuous.

Dasgupta’s question is not relevant in the slightest. Rohith was failed by his university’s partisan and prejudiced conduct and a political witch-hunt of which Dattatreya and Smriti Irani were willing colluders.

Is the government doing justice to “Young India” by interfering in university affairs on the basis of political bias? Why does Dasgupta not address specific questions on a specific issue rather than employ “vacuous slogans”? Might his closeness to a government that has appointed him to a paid role on the board of Larsen and Toubro affect his “dispassionate analysis”?

Rohith’s heartbreaking letter is evidence enough of the caste discrimination that has marred his young life. He saw his birth as a “fatal accident”.

He writes movingly of “wanting to be a writer of science, like Carl Sagan”. His life was evidence of his determination to forge ahead despite the most unlikely odds and the tough circumstances of his upbringing in Guntur.

Was it doing justice to him that Bandaru Dattatreya wrote that letter, that Smriti Irani’s ministry applied pressure, that there were half a dozen missive to the university by her ministry seeking action taken report, that a university panel flip-flopped pathetically with little concern for his physical and emotional well-being?

By the end, Rohith and his fellow students were on hunger strike and living in a tent. Is it doing justice to him that a columnist, for personal and political connections, should make snide remarks about “student activists”?

If Swapan Dasgupta can’t bring himself to produce the dispassionate analysis he claims is necessary, he should at least spare us the partisan polemic of trying to absolve the BJP ministers not only of blame but of any involvement at all in vitiating the campus atmosphere in the University of Hyderabad.

Ashish Khetan is the deputy chairman of Delhi Dialogue Commission in the Arvind Kejriwal led government. Views expressed here are the author’s own.