By Nijam Gara:
We all witnessed the glorious feat of Pusarla Venkata Sindhu as she won the Silver medal in badminton at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was undoubtedly a great personal achievement for an Indian female, given the odds stacked against them in this country right from their conception. The media made sure that she received adequate attention.
However, I could not help but wonder about the grim social realities that play behind the scenes when it comes to appreciation of talent. I was reminded of how different the scene was in the case of Rohith Vemula, the iconic Dalit student who galvanised the students of the country by committing suicide. This might seem like an unfair comparison but both Sindhu and Rohith were young, Telugu and subjects of national discussion. While Sindhu is readily owned by all Telugus, (they even fight over her regions), the other left this same society dejected and depressed. As Sindhu sweated it out in a private badminton academy, Rohith struggled in a central government university barely five kilometers away.
One had the grit and determination to make it to the world stage while the other also gained sympathy and support across the nation for being at the receiving end of gross injustice. He cared deeply for the oppressed, which included Dalits, Muslims, tribals, etc. This sympathy crossed over to oppressed peoples around the world, as evident by his facebook posts. He concluded that human life is reduced to one’s ‘immediate identity’, ‘nearest possibility’, to a vote, a number, ‘a thing’. Not many intellectuals can capture the banality of human life today so succinctly and scathingly in a single sentence.
But how was his intellect received by our society? His passion was countered with rustication, his penchant for science was silenced with ostracisation and he was eventually driven to the doors of death by two members of our parliament. He was hounded even after his death, his origins traced to the minute detail and his family members were subjected to unnecessary scrutiny. Seven months after his death, in the same week that Sindhu won a medal in the Olympics, a probe panel setup by the HRD Ministry has come to the conclusion that Rohith was not a Dalit, according to this report in the Indian Express. It’s obvious that they are more interested in saving the skin of Mr. Appa Rao Podile, the Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University and that of Mr Bandaru Dattatreya, BJP MP to avoid charge under Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
The economic realities of Rohith and Sindhu were vastly different. Rohith came from a poor family and requested in his suicide letter the payment of seven months of his hard-earned money as a PhD scholar, while Sindhu, apart from coming from a much more affluent background received more than Rs. 10 crores from different state governments as a reward for her Olympic medal. We are all happy that Sindhu has risen to the level where our governments feel proud and reward her accomplishments. Yet, we must also question why another young and bright student had to commit suicide and the interference of certain ministers’ from the Central government which resulted in his suspension from the University of Hyderabad prior to his death.
The Delhi government gifted Sindhu Rs. 2 crores and they gave Rohith’s brother (a qualified post-graduate himself) not a very high paying job. The Andhra Pradesh government also gifted Rs. 3 crores and arranged a grand gala reception for Sindhu. Yet, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has not expressed any sympathy towards Rohith’s suicide. It is almost as if Rohith is a blemish to the state’s perceived ‘image’ that Chandrababu Naidu likes to bask in. His counterpart in Telangana, K Chandrashekhar Rao, who brought the city of Hyderabad to a standstill to honour Sindhu also remained equally mum on the Rohith issue as his police failed to pursue the cases filed against the university that swallowed Rohith.
What is even more disheartening is the utter disdain that the country in general and the Telugu states in particular have displayed towards Rohith’s aspirations. While it would too much to expect that Rohith’s hidden intellect and burning passion be recognised by this society, it was disconcerting to see how the mainstream society left it to the Dalits to fight their own battle. The abysmal hierarchies and divisions in our society were evident – a striking contrast to how the country embraced Sindhu. Rohith may not have been a sporting legend, yet he has contributed to the society by shining a bright light on our ugly realities. National pride should not just be about spectacular sporting achievements, but also revolutionary social reforms. The greatest sporting legend of all time, Muhammad Ali, is remembered today for his courage in standing up against the racist and imperial United States back in the day along with his boxing career. Rohith Vemula is not a Sindhu but he surely has shown the traits of a Muhammad Ali for which he has been labeled an ‘anti-national’. If India wants become a mature society, it has to recognize the Rohiths along with the Sindhus.