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Rohith Vemula’s Death Reminds Us Caste Is Very Much Alive In Educational Institutions

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By Karthik Shankar : 

rohith vemula
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On 17th January, after hearing about Rohith Vemula’s suicide, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend two years ago. Some of the circumstances are eerily similar. He is also a Dalit who studies at the University of Hyderabad.

After a ghastly accident where a friend passed away, he was swept into the push and pull of dueling caste politics between the upper-caste student body and a Dalit group.

Nothing was about his possibly intercepted future anymore. He became a blank slate on which the University’s fiery caste politics played out and only he got burned.

Rohith Vemula’s story is an extremely upsetting cautionary tale about the way caste plays out in the sleek brick and glass buildings of our educational institutions.

The arguments that transpired last August, between members of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the Dalit Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), should have remained personal, whether related to the screening of ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai‘ or Yakub Memon’s hanging.

Tellingly, only the ABVP received the administrative and political support to have their version of events accepted as the gospel. Bandaru Dattatreya, a BJP member and the Union Cabinet Minister of State for Labour and Employment, was so invested in the matter he personally sent a letter to Smriti Irani last year that seems to have played a part in the ensuing expulsion of five students.

Rohith Vemula after he was asked to leave the hostel. Source: Twitter.

The barring of Rohith and his fellow students from campus for expressing their political views calls to mind the lingering image of Dalits being forbidden to enter temples. Is the sanctum of the scriptures so different from the libraries that house knowledge?

A lot of us are either completely unaware or apathetic to the presence of caste privilege on college campuses across the country. The ones with their heads in the clouds and a Bollywood tune on their lips imagine that the consecrated halls of educational institutions arrest the flow of all the cultural baggage, discrimination, and prejudice that students bring with them.

Caste, after all, has cleverly transmogrified in 21st century India. We now evaluate people’s utility based on their financial position, where they grew up, which school they studied in and their grasp over English.

Many others have a grudge to nurse on behalf of the friends and acquaintances who didn’t get admitted, believing that the reservations system stands in the way of admitting the ‘right people’ in. At premier engineering institutions where a student’s rank is almost a form of social currency, those who get in under the quota category are constantly reminded how they fall short of it on a daily basis, by unsympathetic seniors.

The lack of a support system for SC/ST students on campus also further exacerbates the problem. Students who are never cognizant about their caste have their caste identities reinforced every single day when colleges make this crudely apparent by issuing circulars that earmark textbooks for SC/ST students or releasing academic lists that list a student’s caste.

That’s not even getting into the contents of our textbooks which mostly memorialise upper-caste historical figures like Gandhi and Tagore and credit Hindu philosophy to the success of scientists like Ramanujan and C.V. Raman. Ambedkar by default becomes the sole Dalit bearer of our nation’s history.

Moreover, few SC/ST students have the privilege of being mentored by professors, most of whom are upper caste and come from relatively privileged backgrounds. If we can acknowledge that admission into an elite institution is not a level playing field and make concessions in the form of reservations, then we need to continue providing that support throughout a student’s academic life without making them feel ‘otherised’.

With all this at play, students like Rohith have to deal with hard political choices. Either be voiceless or amplify it by becoming part of organisations like the ASA that impose a collective identity on them. In the dance of democracy, their silence is accepted and their opinions are rebuked.

While I finish drafting these thoughts I suspect Rohith has receded to the background even in a story that was ostensibly about him. Talking about Rohith the Dalit means ignoring his other identities; son, friend and academic. He becomes a minor detail in a larger narrative – that grand tome called ‘Caste in India – Get Down’. Rohith Vemula’s story is tragic not because he’s a Dalit but because an educated and intelligent young man thought taking his own life was his only option.

Rohith made it a point of noting that he alone was responsible for his suicide but I don’t think he gave enough credit to the rest of us. Rohith’s suicide was the continuing product of five thousand glorious years of Indian civilisation. I doubt saffron academics put that in any textbook.

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