By Bestin Samuel:
It is indeed an ugly blot on the world’s largest democracy that one of its finest universities has become the playground for extremely dangerous, authoritarian politics backed by the central government. The arrest of the elected president of the JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) Students Union in a shameless attempt to silence the even smallest voice of dissent. This speaks volumes about the deep-seated fear of resistance in a coterie that supposedly governs 1.25 billion individuals.
Each one of the 1.25 billion has a voice, an opinion, a thought, a vote. The unfortunate reality – which no more retains its shock value – is that only the last of those matters in the current scheme of things. From food habits to art to books to social media opinions, the wings of state censorship are attempting to control most aspects of our daily lives. On one hand, it is obvious that freedom of speech is being blatantly violated and that it needs to be strongly condemned. On the other, India would do better not to be carried away in the hysteria created by the JNU injustice, risking the closure of conversations on Rohith Vemula.
The news of Rohith Vemula’s suicide came as a thunderbolt to a country that had comfortably come to terms with the issue of caste discrimination. Caste had become to the average Indian, a reality, a painless thorn, an injustice that most had come to embrace. With student communities in the country’s premiere universities throwing their collective weight behind the cause of basic human rights for Dalits, caste in India was on the table again. Men and women who said caste didn’t exist started thinking if it did. In their homes, offices, educational and public institutions.
Following the brilliant researcher’s suicide, the country was finally confronting the elephant in their drawing rooms. Caste had surfaced in the media, and how! A plethora of discourses and individuals were being revisited and reclaimed. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, The Annihilation of Caste, and Mandal Commission were only some of them. And while the debates kept raging, making it impossible for the civilisation not to sit up and take notice and respond, JNU happened.
The media and politicians were quick to latch on to the national-anti-national-sedition hysteria. This was easy – the location was New Delhi, the issue was universal, and the debate was one that had been taken up time and again by academics, politicians and even Bollywood. Pakistan, Hafeez Saeed, LeT and Afzal Guru were more than enough to fling into oblivion the raging debate on caste, sparked by the events at the University of Hyderabad.
Ignoring the cancer within, here was a country trying to clean up the neighbourhood litter. Arguments flew thick and fast about the freedom of speech and expression as well – an argument that is ‘casteless’, an argument that does not discriminate, and an argument that does not make you introspect to see if you are guilty.
Agreed, JNU is leading the way through its determined efforts to defend a citizen’s right to dissent. And yes, a democracy must grant to its people the right to their opinions. But as Carl Sagan’s wife Ann Druyan mentioned, let us not forget the “actual cost of bias.” While it is imperative that any attempts of the state to kill dissent, smother diversity of opinions and enforce fascism needs to be condemned, India must not let the Delhi police brush under the carpet the country’s rotten caste bias.
Rohith Vemula’s death merits a longer debate and stronger steps – not a quick, tearjerker of a farewell from our insipid collective conscience.