Last night, one of my friends who is currently doing Masters in English Literature at Hyderabad Central University, rang me up. The conversation lasted for only 58 seconds. It went like this:
“Have you heard of any news related to our college?”
“No,” I replied.
“One of the five Dalit boys who was suspended last year committed suicide in the hostel room,” he said.
There was an awkward silence for five seconds. I told him to ring me back after some time. The news deeply disturbed me. This despite the fact that it was not the first time I had heard of something as terrible as suicide. I grew up in a middle-class family. I have been exposed to death in various forms from an early age. I lost my grandmother when I was 11. And as I live near the railway station I often heard about instances of people committing suicide by jumping in front of a train.
When I heard about the death of Rohith Vemula, I was ashamed. You read it right. I was ashamed.
Like my peers in schools and colleges, I used to oppose the caste based reservations in education and the service sector. I grew up listening to stories of how my father’s colleague had an edge over others during promotions because he belonged to a certain caste. I have seen my brother’s best friend cracking the School Service Commission (SSC) examination in his first attempt because he too was from a Scheduled Caste. Even I got really pissed off when my friend cleared Jadavpur University Entrance Examination with 65% marks thanks to his caste certificate. I was not eligible for the seat with 78% marks. We, who belonged to the General category, used to make fun of those who got admission in a reserved seat. The general opinion was that we were the victims and they were the privileged class in society.
When my English teacher in High School taught us an excerpted piece from ‘Annihilation of Caste’ by B.R. Ambedkar, he did not discuss the invention of caste or how it worked in society. As a 13-year-old child, I felt bad for little Ambedkar as his friends did not let him drink water from the common vessel. I thanked God as there was no such discrimination in our school in 2007. Discrimination based on caste seemed an “outdated practice” to me.
But one thing always struck me. Caste always seemed to be a problematic issue once you crossed the threshold of the city. The boy who was beaten to death for wearing a chappal in Madya Pradesh or plucking flowers in Bareilly was a Dalit. The girl who was raped by 13 men for having an affair with a boy from a different community in Subolpur village of West Bengal belonged to a Scheduled Tribe. Such instances are innumerable. But none of them took place in the city. That the lack of proper education narrows people’s minds was always the perfect justification for all those mishaps.
As part of my journalism course, I went to a remote village of Thiruvallur district in first week of January. Children of Dalit families are not allowed to mingle with other children in the village. They generally do not wear chappals. Like in several other villages, they live in small clusters outside the main settlement. Again the ‘lack of proper education theory’ came to our rescue. Their superstitious beliefs and prejudiced minds are the result of their inadequate exposure to education. Education gives us perspective, broadens our mind and gives us the ability to accept others’ point of view we thought.
Then how come the same ‘discrimination’ took place in one of the most famous central universities in India? Only a few highly qualified students with good percentage clear the entrance examination. I have seen my friends working hard to get admitted to these institutes. But still five Dalit boys were thrown out of the college one wintry morning. The reason? A scuffle between two parties in the campus. Rohith Vemula, one of the five boys, hanged himself on Sunday night (17th January) in a hostel room. What was his fault? He belonged to a particular caste. He was the supporter of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA).
He did not blame anyone in his last note. He did mention, however, that “my birth is my fatal accident.” It was indeed.
The involvement of a minister has been flashing in the media for a few days. Can the society shrug off the blame of murdering a child? Yes. It was a murder. And society, our system, is the murderer.