Twice in two days, human resource development minister Smriti Irani delivered a fiery defence of her stance in the run up to the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad but didn’t name the 26-year-old even once.
Instead, the minister has repeatedly referred to the PhD scholar, whose suicide letter moved an entire nation to angry protests, as a child who was being dragged into politics.
This is a ploy, a careful and calculated one, to strip one of the most politically-charged events of our times of its power.
In her speech on Wednesday, Irani suggested that Vemula didn’t want to blame anyone for his death and that the Opposition was using his life to attack the government, and exploiting him.
Except that, Vemula led an exceptionally political life on campus in a relentless fight against caste, clashing with right-wing ideas, and extending his support for a wide-range of progressive causes, from transgender justice to eliminating the death penalty.
It was his commitment to such struggles that made the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on campus to give him their favourite moniker: Anti-national.
Calling Vemula a child is an attempt to erase those struggles and present him as the prototype of the student the right-wing wants: Unthinking, infantile, poring over books with no attachment to progressive causes and struggles. In his life and death, Vemula disproved this stereotype.
Irani said she wasn’t in favour of politicizing campuses – but as Vemula repeatedly argued, and thousands have repeated since, college and university spaces are relentlessly political, especially for those who don’t possess the social capital to be caste-less. Our educational institutions are hostile to anyone who isn’t a part of an inner circle of urban elites, driving lower-caste students regularly to suicide by threatening to fail them, muzzling their voice, ostracizing them and denying them dignity.
Vemula was a powerful voice articulating the contours of such oppression, who asserted that no attempt to silence the Dalit-Bahujan voice on campuses will be successful.
Through his political organizing, his studies, his ideas and his writing, Vemula presented a strong counterforce to the dominant narrative.
He was a part of a historical resistance by Dalit-Bahujan communities against oppression that erases our culture, silences our voices, takes over our lives and stigmatizes them. To call him a child is to deny this history.
Irani would do well to learn from Vemula’s mother, who didn’t flinch once from talking about caste oppression and has thrown her weight behind campus protests. She is proud that her child talked and fought against oppression.
Irani’s discomfort with caste may have prompted her to call Vemula a child – after all in her head, a child isn’t probably caste-marked.
But as Dalit scholars have said for decades, the life of a lower-caste person is never free of caste markers, many are branded from birth and targeted for oppressive systems. The privilege of being casteless is only for the dominant communities.
Irani was aggressive on Wednesday and mellow a day later but her discomfort with celebrating Mahishasura – she called it depravity– was evident on both days.
Her problems with presenting multiple Shivajis, and challenge to the Opposition to identify her caste were also telling.
Irani may think her so-called castelessness is a virtue but googling will confirm, it is the first sign of caste privilege in a society where most of what we achieve – education, jobs, friends, family, honour, dignity – hinge on our access to power.
Hence she dislikes celebrating Mahishasura, because it upends the dominant upper-caste narrative of calling lower-caste and tribal people demons and rakshas. Celebrating the tribal king who is killed by Durga humanizes him, takes away the stigma that reduces his people to monkeys and demons in our epics and gives them power.
Similarly, Shivaji who was in all probability a Bahujan king, has been appropriated by upper-caste narratives – such as the Shiv Sena – and is now presented a Brahmin monarch.
Irani wants our students to stop learning about these alternative histories, these struggles and realities, and instead rote the dominant tale. She wants them to not learn about riots, about multiplicity of faiths.
It is understandable why. Pliant children fed propaganda don’t question, and don’t fight with oppressive structures.
Sadly for the government besieged by protests across the country, Rohith Vemula wasn’t one.
Views expressed by the author are personal