Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s act of joining fasting students on the University of Hyderabad campus on Saturday drew words laced with fire and brimstone from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which alleged that the Opposition was playing “politics” over Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula’s death.
Is there any merit in the ruling dispensation’s criticism?
On the face of it, probably yes. Gandhi visited the campus twice in a span of two weeks – remarkable for a leader who is alleged to be episodic in his approach. Is it a desperate search on the part of the Congress for a Belchi moment? Thrown out of power in 1977, his grandmother Indira Gandhi had undertaken an elephant ride through slush – with an umbrella over her head – to reach Belchi village, about 90 km from Patna, which had witnessed the killing of nine Dalits. That was said to be the inflection point from where her political fortune took an upswing.
With his party’s tally reduced to 45 in the Lok Sabha, the Congress vice-president means to tread a similar path by being seen with those aggrieved with the system – be it students at the University of Hyderabad; protesters at FTII in Pune; the family members of a Dadri man who was lynched to death for alleged consumption of beef; or a Dalit family in Faridabad that lost two children in a fire allegedly set by members of the upper caste.
The Congress probably has more reasons to join the students in Hyderabad. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections had yielded 33 of Andhra Pradesh’s 42 seats to the Congress. However, after the bifurcation of the state – a movement of which students were in the forefront – the Congress’ tally dipped to two (nothing in Seemandhara and Rayalseema regions, and two in Telangana) in 2014. Besides, after being inducted as the Congress general secretary in 2007, Gandhi had made it his mission to bring students and the youth into the political mainstream and therefore cleanse the “system”. He failed in his endeavour then. Now that his party is not in power, he may hope to get a more responsive audience.
As for the alleged politics over Vemula’s suicide, the human resource development (HRD) ministry wouldn’t be organising workshops for “sensitising” administrators at universities on issues concerning socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged students.
The Smriti Irani-led ministry’s move has, however, thrown up many other questions. What’s going to come next – a workshop on students from northeastern states, another on Muslim students, probably a couple on tribals, and let’s not forget LGBT students!
Last Friday, the same politics also forced the University Grants Commission to write to the vice-chancellors of various universities – impressing upon them the need for an equal opportunity cell. It has also brought the discrimination of students on caste and religious lines to the centrestage of public discourse – an issue seemingly known to everybody but hardly discussed.
The BJP, for its part, has been denying allegations that its ministers played any part in creating the circumstances leading to the suspension of Dalit students, and subsequently, Vemula’s tragic decision. While Irani accused the Congress of making it a Dalit-versus-non-Dalit issue, reactions from the ruling party suggest otherwise. The HRD minister was the one who highlighted the fact that labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya – whose letter terming the Ambedkar Students’ Association as “anti-national” allegedly led to the suspension of the students – was a ‘Yadav’ and the ABVP student who had been allegedly attacked by association members was an ‘OBC’.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said on Saturday that as per her “complete knowledge”, Vemula was not a Dalit. However, the ruling BJP needs to do better than that to counter the opposition’s attempts to project it as anti-Dalit. Projected as primarily a Brahmin-Bania party, the BJP currently does not have a single Dalit in its team of central office-bearers.
Given the selective amnesia of our political representatives, the moot point now is: how long will this debate over Vemula’s suicide last? His death will, for sure, resonate in the next budget session of Parliament, which is likely to commence on February 23. It may also find resonance in the April-May assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But after that, it is anybody’s guess.
Many parties, including the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Left, the Trinamool Congress and the Lok Janshakti Party, had sent delegations to the University of Hyderabad campus after Vemula’s suicide hit the headlines. With the customary visits out of the way, most seem to have moved on to other things.
The other day, LJP leader and NDA minister Ramvilas Paswan did a fine balancing act. Addressing a press conference at his residence, he refused to answer queries relating to Vemula’s suicide – stating that he was speaking in his capacity of a Union minister. He, however, announced that once the press conference was over, his son and MP Chirag Paswan would come forth to voice his party’s views.
Accordingly, an agitated Chirag showed up and demanded an independent inquiry into the Hyderabad incident. A proud father stood a few metres away, listening with just the hint of a smile on his lips.