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January 14, 2016
Band Pick – The Pilgrim
January 25, 2016

Freedom of Oppression

A university has no room for caste politics. But the centre insists.

Universities are places of idealism. A safe, progressive environment for you to discover, debate, understand and eventually come to terms with the politics you represent. They are also the only place where you can be as passionate about Ambedkar, as you can be about, say, Led Zepplin. In most cases, they are a time warp between home and the world. You’re in no hurry because you know you will make it, and at the end of it, there will always be hope and possibilities. No wonder then, when we grow old, our nostalgic obsession for college and life of yore is often universal.

So what is it that takes all that hope and idealism away? And would want to make you kill yourself? When Rohith Vemula hanged himself last week in a friend’s hostel room, he was one week short of his twenty-seventh birthday. He was a bright PHD student who topped his exam and also a JRF fellow. A popular and socially active student, the only thing he did not have going for him was the fact that he was a Dalit. It seems stupid even writing that. But in the end, this was all that he was reduced to— a lower caste outsider who must be put in his place.

Vemula left behind a five-page suicide note that was as heart breaking as it was eloquent. He wrote about many things—about society, about wanting to be a writer, but most of all, about being disillusioned. “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past,” he wrote.

Systemised oppression is seldom overt and works in insidious ways that are designed to block you from moving forward. Vemula fought a life-long battle with this oppression. It took an ugly turn last year when he was part of a protest for blocking the screening of Muzaffarnagar abhi baki hai at his university (Hyderabad Central University). The ABVP, which is now turning into an extreme right wing organisation, also serves as the student wing of the BJP. It opposed the screening of the film because it showed their party in poor light.

After the protest, in August last year, Susheel Kumar, an ABVP, leader filed a police complaint in Hyderabad stating that Vemula and four other students at the Hyderabad Central University had assaulted him and kicked him in the stomach. According to reports out now, the Union Human Resource Ministry, at the behest of a letter written by BJP minister Bandaru Dattatreya, sent at least four letters to the university. In his letter, Dattatreya demanded that action be taken against the Ambedkar Student’s Association. He also expressed concerns stating that the university had turned into a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.” Yet the BJP lead government insists that the suicide has nothing to do with a caste war.

Kumar’s complaint and the repeated letters to the university resulted in a court case and two university inquiries. In November, Vemula and four other students were suspended from the campus. Which meant, although they could attend classes, they could not make use of any other amenities, including the hostel and the cafeteria. Targeted, isolated and disillusioned after a month long protest, a disheartened Vemula hanged himself.

Amidst much uproar, the HRD minister, Smriti Irani has sent a two member committee to the University for an inquiry. But they are unlikely to highlight any real facts or target the University for being casteist and biased. Because despite opposition from Dalit leaders within the party, the BJP is still unwilling to admit or correct its stance on the issue.

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” Vermula’s words hold true. Especially because while his death has sparked off a debate and mass protests across the country, it has also made absolutely clear, that minorities in this country will continue to be targeted. That those minorities who stand up, will be shown their place. And everybody who opposes the oppression, will be dubbed a leftist, liberal or anti-national.

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