The role played by Union ministers in events leading to his suicide will feed the view that the BJP is reflexively still an anti-Dalit party.
The Narendra Modi government has lately been subjecting itself to self-inflicted wounds. Last month, the CBI thoughtlessly raided the office of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, a ploy that instantly backfired. Next, the NDA was embarrassed about mishandling the Pathankot terrorist attack and had to witness well-regarded analysts point to serious flaws in the counterterrorist operation.
Now the BJP is contending with the fallout of the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) who was pursuing his PhD in Life Sciences. Vemula’s monthly stipend of Rs 25,000 was stopped in July and he was suspended in December along with four other students following an altercation with an ABVP leader. The course of events in recent months saw Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya write to the ministry of human resource development in August about “casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” in the university, sparking accusations of abetment to suicide.
There have been protests in several cities. The BJP will hope the Vemula moment will pass but there are several reasons why his death will haunt the party politically.
For one, Vemula’s memory will endure. Not merely for the political circumstances around his death, but partly because he wrote a moving, eloquent farewell note, which may in time be considered a classic in its genre and emerge as a powerful rhetorical, socialising instrument for Dalits and the wider Left. Rohith wanted to be a writer of science, “like Carl Sagan”. And write he certainly could, doing all the things masters of the craft ask us to do: Write short sentences. Use active voice. Animate the text with verbs. Let every paragraph have a purpose, however small. Speak from experience. Deploy a lot of soul.
He wrote :
“…I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colo(u)red. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In (e)very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living”.
Vemula’s note not only powerfully represents the alienation Dalits experience but his death sows fresh doubts about the BJP’s ability to cultivate and consolidate a pan-India vote that cuts across communities. The ruling party has been trying to overcome its Brahmin-Bania origins, it rallied around an OBC Prime Minister who projects himself as a moderniser capable of delivering economic growth to all Indians, transcending caste differences.
Vemula’s death complicates that narrative. The spectacle of Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya lobbying the HRD ministry through a letter, accusing a student association bearing Ambedkar’s name of indulging in “anti-national politics” makes it very easy for others to represent the BJP as (still) a reflexively anti-Dalit party. That Smriti Irani’s HRD ministry sent four letters to the university (after Dattatreya’s letter) seeking a response about issues raised by him, makes it quite difficult to give this episode a different spin.
The BJP may not consider the situation to be entirely dire. It has after all developed goodwill among Dalits and Adivasis, particularly in rural areas, through Hindu nationalist groups that use a raft of development initiatives, not unlike Christian missions, to recruit marginal groups to their cause (with some of them even going on to participate in anti-Muslim violence). But Vemula’s death will add to the anti-BJP sentiment on urban campuses which its leaders care about, worried as they are about opinions circulating on social media.
The BJP needs a damage-control strategy and has to keep a few things in mind as it plots the way forward.
First, realise the import of Vemula’s death across the country, as it extends well beyond the campus of the HCU. Political parties will take advantage of the party’s discomfort. The alacrity with which the Telangana government filed a case against Dattatreya suggests that it perceives its turf as being threatened by the BJP as well. The BJP is nursing ambitions in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and is hoping to capitalise on dissatisfaction with TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu. That will also be affected as Dalits are an important swing vote in the state.
In addition, this controversy will aid the Dalit-Muslim consolidation in Uttar Pradesh which Mayawati is trying to bring about again for the 2017 assembly elections. Dalits also constitute 31 percent of the population in Punjab that also goes to polls next year. Voter preference are governed by factors, including those beyond caste but sensational events like this make it more challenging to secure support among marginalised groups. Note how Lalu Yadav managed to exploit RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on reservations in last year’s Bihar election.
Two, understand that the reputation of MHRD stands further diminished. Acting on tip-offs about alleged “anti-national activities” just because students protested the execution of Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon betrays a complete misunderstanding of the purpose of universities —that they ought to be democratic spaces where contrarian perspectives must thrive for democracy’s sake and the advancement of knowledge. It is worth recalling that many liberals denounced the hanging of Memon and hence the student group’s activism on that score comes nowhere close to being seditious.
Three, the BJP is likely to dig its heels and stand by Irani and Dattatreya even as they face calls for resignation. Be that as it may, it can aim to contain the damage by exerting its influence on the ABVP. The ABVP thrives in universities by articulating a form of muscular nationalism that emphasises unity and social solidarity. It also purveys anti-minority rhetoric and manifestly opposes leftist views and liberal forms of cultural expression. It has papered over the difficulty of diverse base of support by piggybacking on the Modi brand. Now it needs to give careful thought about how it handles the aftermath of this incident as it will shape campus politics and politics further afield. It needs to display contrition about Vemula; failing to do so will make it appear as a sectarian organisation – and that too will hurt the BJP over time. It is fairly clear that the party will endure the effects of Vemula’s death long after it stops dominating the news.
The writer tweets as @SushilAaron. Views expressed in the write-up are personal