Dalit student’s suicide: Is Modi losing touch with the youth?

  • DK Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 20, 2016 14:51 IST
Students protest against over the death of dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad University, at Kalina University in Mumbai on Tuesday. (PTI)

Is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling dispensation at the Centre losing the plot? Barely twenty months after they catapulted Narendra Modi to power in New Delhi, students and the youth are agitating against the NDA government in different campuses across the country. Some of these protests may be politically or ideologically driven, as the ruling party leaders would have us believe, but their increasing frequency raises several questions.

Does it sound anachronous to talk about start-up India when campuses across the country are on the boil over suicide by a Hyderabad university Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, allegedly driven by some controversial actions of some Central ministers/ministries? It should not, but for the silence on the latter.

To dismiss it with the argument that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi -- who visited the varsity and also met Rohith’s mother on Tuesday -- and other opposition parties are playing politics over the death of the 26-year-old research scholar could be a plain platitude or a sublime expression of naivety.

If labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s portrayal of Hyderabad university as “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” -- in a letter to human resource development minister Smriti Irani -- was alleged to be the agent provocateur for Rohith’s suicide, BJP general secretary Muralidhar Rao did his bit to re-ignite the embers on Tuesday as he branded the deceased student as a supporter of terrorism.

Read more: All you need to know about the Dalit scholar suicide row

Amid all this, it’s Brand Modi that seems to be taking the real blow. Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, students in then Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar’s Sasaram constituency in Bihar would come to the railway station to study under lights and have question-and-answer sessions in groups to prepare for competitive examinations. During small breaks, they would discuss Modi and the changes he could bring in their life once he came to power.

Over one-and-a-half years hence, the Modi government’s initiatives in the education sector may not be very reassuring to them. They were soon made to believe that they would have better career prospects in a global market if they studied Sanskrit, instead of German, as their third language in school.

They were to believe that eminent nuclear scientist and then chairman of the board of governors of IIT, Mumbai, Anil Kakodkar, who was a member of the Irani-headed search-cum-election panel to choose IIT directors, had to resign because he batted for the wrong candidate. Before that, IIT, Delhi, director RK Shevgaonkar had to resign mid way through his tenure -- and then wait for several months to get his relieving orders -- as he refused to accept the ministry’s diktat.

Read more: Union min Dattatreya charged for Dalit scholar suicide, probe ordered

These aspiring students in Sasaram-- some probably still studying under some lamp posts -- along with their brethren in other parts of the country may now be watching the unfolding controversy over the selection of vice-chancellors of the Delhi and the Jawaharlal Nehru universities, discussion on ‘Lord Shiva as an environmentalist’ at the Indian Science Congress in Mysore, re-writing of history textbooks, et al.

As it is, there have been loud protests or simmering tension against actions of the NDA regime, or of those supposedly supported by it, in different campuses across the country, stretching from IIT Madras (over the banning of a students’ forum) to Hyderabad university, Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Aligarh Muslim University (over minority status of the institution), and Delhi University (over a seminar on Ayodhya temple), among others.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has many senior, experienced colleagues in his party and the Cabinet who had started their career in students’ politics and who could apprise him about how even small issues in colleges and universities have the potential to snowball into major political crises for a government.

Ramvilas Paswan, a close ally of the BJP today, may also have a lesson or two to share about students’ movements of the turbulent 1970s, which started on rather paltry issues of hostel food and fees but ended up shaking up the political order.

2016 is not the 1970s and the current students’ protests are not as potent or as organised either. But given that it’s Modi’s core constituency, even small rumblings of discontent are bound to hurt the party and the government.

(The views expressed are personal)

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