On the 17th of January 2016, Rohith Vemula, who was a second-year Dalit PhD student of Life Sciences, hanged himself inside the campus of the University of Hyderabad (UoH). The suicide note which was later discovered was clear evidence of what led to the tragic events of that day. Rohith had been one of the five research scholars (all part of the Ambedkar Student Union (ASU)) who were suspended from the University for allegedly attacking an ABVP leader. It soon became evident that Rohith’s death was institutional murder. Ministerial level interference in university politics by the HRD minister and another Union Minister was proof of how the university and the government in the centre worked together to inflict systemic oppression and isolate Rohith, leading to his eventual death. Multiple letters were exchanged between the ministers dubbing Rohith and the ASA as ‘anti-national, casteist and extremist’ and asking for action from the centre.
Swift protests followed in the UoH campus with demands to end systemic oppression of Dalit students on university campuses all over India. The issue of brahminical hegemony and caste discrimination had taken centre stage through the protests. The immediate response of the state machinery was to impose section 144 in the area and it was used to detain and manhandle students. A large number of students were held at the Parliament Street Police Station and there were reports of students clashing with the police. The government and state machinery’s response to the protests was pitiable. Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani referred to ‘malicious intent as being responsible for dubbing Rohtih’s death as a caste battle’ and multiple attempts were made to dodge the issue of systemic oppression faced by Dalit students on campuses including false statements that Rohith was not actually a Dalit. Further proof of brahminical hegemony can be gauged from the fact that after Rohith’s death, Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother was continuously harassed by the media and by RSS and BJP ideologues who raised questions on her character.
On the 12th of February 2016, JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was taken into police custody in connection with charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy. This was following an event that was held at the university campus against the hanging of Afzal Guru where ‘anti-national’ slogans were believed to have been chanted against the Indian state by a group of students. Kanhaiya’s arrest also sparked a series of swift protest by the students of the university, saying that Kanhaiya had not raised any anti-India slogans. The state machinery and its ideologues were again quick to give a pitiable response to the events including calling for the university to be shut down since it is a ‘den of anti-national thought’. The high shrill campaign launched by Arnab Goswami and the likes on national television managed to give a strong us vs them, national vs anti-national theme to the events that unfolded. Things got even more uglier when lawyers affiliated to the BJP along with a BJP MP assaulted students and journalists in the Patiala House Court premises where the case against Kanhaiya Kumar was to be heard.
There is something strikingly similar about the events that occurred in Hyderabad and Delhi. In both cases, there was a systemic and organized attempt to oppress and persecute students in universities. The state machinery today thrives on this (there are multiple other examples including the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan to FTII and the ban inflicted on the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle at IIT Madras). The oppression that Dalit students face because of brahminic hegemony in university campuses is not new but the tragic death of Rohith Vemula managed to bring that issue back to the forefront of discussion and protests. In Kanhaiya’s case, he was the representative of the entire community of students at JNU, who were brave enough to dissent and raise a voice against the state.
Secondly, both Rohith and Kanhaiya were charged of being ‘anti-national’. In Rohith’s case, it was because he protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and in Kanhaiya’s case, because he was the student representative of a university which hosted an event which protested the hanging of Afzal Guru. Both protests interestingly were against capital punishment and questioned the nature of justice system. The charges, particularly in Kanhaiya’s case are supported by Section 124 A of the Indian Penal Code (Sedition). This is actually the most amusing part of it all. An archaic law dating back to the days of colonialism is being used in a modern day democracy by state machinery to supress dissent shown by students. One would think that this is substantial evidence of the urgent need for us to revisit our colonial era laws.
Thirdly, in both cases the state machinery and the government responded with force and greater suppression. If we need any proof for fascism, one only need look at how dissent is treated today. The government has shown a remarkable consistency in its response to protests and has managed to master the process. It has used its ideologues to try and intimidate and inflict mindless violence, used the state machinery to get people to fall in line and has used all kinds of fabricated evidence to try and deny that anything happened at all. That rings an Orwellian bell, almost.
The events at Hyderabad and Delhi are far more coupled than we would like to think. Both these have managed to bring to the forefront, basic issues pertaining to India’s democratic character. Issues pertaining to freedom of expression, institutional and systemic oppression of Dalit students in universities, the need to revisit archaic laws and most importantly, the right to dissent are all themes which are common through both. It would be the greatest of disservice to Rohith, to Kanhaiya and to each of the students involved in the protests directly or indirectly if we trivialize the debate. Students in these two cities have responded loudly and resoundingly to the issues that the country faces today. The debate is thus about an oppressive, brahminical and patriarchal state which by its very character seeks to inflict oppression and persecute those that do not fall in line. Even with the slogans that were chanted at JNU, one can argue till the cows come home about what was said, why was it said etc. but the fact of the matter is, in a true democracy, there ought to be a scope for an individual to express that opinion especially considering that no political slogans ever appear in a vacuum.
The need of the day is for solidarity. The protests at Hyderabad began with calls for Justice for Rohith but then grew with each day and struck at the essentially oppressive nature of the state with respect to caste. The protests at Delhi are now standing up against the same oppressive state. The calls will ring louder if looked at as one struggle; a struggle which aims to take us back to the ideals espoused by the Constitution of India. Freedom of expression, freedom from exploitation and above all, an all-inclusive India. This was highlighted rather eloquently by Kanhaiya Kumar in his speech just before his arrest and by Shehla Rashid, the Vice President of the JNUSU. If in the process of doing so, we are dubbed as ‘anti-national’, maybe it is our definition of a what it means to be national that needs changing.
Featured Image Credit: Indian Express