Rohith Vemula did say in his letter that no one was responsible for his death, that nobody -- whether friends or enemies -- should be troubled for his death, which was his decision alone.
He talks of his love for writing and nature, science and the stars. But his death has triggered agitation, and organisation. And, hopefully, some education will follow, as Rohith’s icon, Babasaheb Ambedkar said, “Educate, agitate, organise”.
For far too long, Indian universities, especially publicly funded ones, have functioned as safe houses for the privileged -- by caste, class, gender. But as inexorably as time, change has arrived. The glacially slow deepening of democracy in India is now reaching its tipping point and manifesting in the gradual change in the composition of the student body in both universities and professional colleges. Where it used to be as much as 95% Brahmin and upper-caste, now due to the families of the backward classes becoming more aspirational, the demographic dividend, and the Mandal legislation, there has been a slow but steady increase in diversity of these institutions. While the first lot of students from small towns and backward caste, Dalit and Adivasi groups may continue to face systemic oppression and exclusion, there are increasing numbers -- and voices -- of these young people who are no longer willing to take harassment.
For instance, even now, there are specific tables and hostel wings in one corner of the canteens and colleges --including AIIMS and JNU -- which are more or less relegated to the students from the ‘reserved’ category. But in the last six to eight years -- these youngsters are resisting. Small attempts at assertion started on campuses like JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), EFLU (English and Foreign Languages University) and Osmania University. They are also more willing to participate in resistance movements and struggles, and assertion of their identities and leaders like Periyar, Ambedkar, Savitribai and Jothirao Phule, etc, since it is they and their people who still experience the brunt of caste, caste, regional, language and gender disadvantage in these spaces. Leading to the issue in the IIT Madras, where the backward class and marginalised students who organised the Ambedkar-Periyar discussion club were penalised and then the action was retracted due to the blowback. There were assertions like the beef festival and Mahishasura celebrations in Osmania and JNU, as well as in University of Hyderabad. Indian academia has not taken kindly to these assertions of the subaltern youths.
In the last couple of years even ABVP, youth wing of the ruling BJP, has responded forcefully against the nascent struggles and assertions of the students in universities and professional colleges, particularly where these assertions uphold values which counter the majoritarian Hindutva ideology--basically militant nationalism laced with a generous dose of Brahminical values and perceived as conflicting with the equalitarian Constitutional values. The authorities have so far forgotten their real stature as upholders of free thought and dissent, and in conformity with their caste behaviors have allowed the HRD Ministry to dictate how such dissent should be suppressed. In the present case, smarting from the humiliation of apologising for and retracting abusive Facebook posts, ABVP approached the higher-ups to punish the five students from the Ambedkar Students Association: fellowships were withheld, and they were banned from entering the hostels and other buildings except their classrooms and labs, sparking criticism that the action smacked of untouchability practices. Their 14-day sleep-in protest in the open on campus culminated in Rohith’s suicide. In his letter dated 18th December to the authorities, he directly states that “they could supply ropes to the students to hang themselves, or serve them with 10 mg of sodium azide…”.
Indian universities’ already creaky record in academics has taken another serious beating. The reservation debate -”why do Dalits need reservation in education and employment after over sixty years?” has just got a fresh case study.
Not just the academy - the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, the professions, the media, the private sector - all these spaces are now changing, and likely to become - for better or for worse - much more diverse than in the past, and the ascendance of the ruling classes and castes is being breached slowly and steadily, increasing scope for friction in the near term. Hence, it is time for those who live in ivory towers and gated and walled palaces to understand that in the best and most just and democratic way possible, there is change afoot. Using young people from disadvantaged communities to fight their battles is not going to work for long. The winds of change are blowing, so society needs to set course for the future so the whole country and especially its youth from the marginalized groups get their place in the sun. The alternative can only be a bitter and protracted power struggle, the outcome of which is a foregone conclusion, given the highly diverse demographics of the population and which our country as a whole - and the ruling classes in particular - can ill afford.
(Cynthia Stephen is a Dalit activist and independent researcher who writes on the intersectionality between caste, gender and religion.)
(The views expressed in this article are personal.)