When Rohith Vemula asked an Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP ) member to apologise for calling members of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) goons, he did not know that he would be targeted, persecuted and ultimately reduced to his immediate identity. The inherent casteism of our society was once again laid bare when an inquiry committee set up by the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) barred Rohith and four Dalit students from entering their hostels and engaging with students in the canteen and other university spaces. It was a proper segregation directive issued by the university.
When this blatant casteism went unacknowledged in the mainstream, Rohith had to pay with his life. His suicide was what came to be known as an act of institutional murder. Instead of taking cognisance and taking to task those who created conditions for Rohith’s death, the government defended them. It was in this context that a ‘Chalo Delhi’ movement took shape and on 23 February. In a march from Ambedkar Bhawan to Jantar Mantar, students and supporters joined hands to protest against the BJP -led government’s casteist politics. This was supposed to be a mega event with support being garnered for it since a month back. But, the participation in this protest was lesser than on the 18 February protest, which was organised for JNU Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar’s release.
Clearly, attention was diverted from Rohith Vemula’s issue, which was fast gaining momentum with support coming from universities across the country. The JNU students, who are now being targeted by the State, were themselves in solidarity with the Rohith issue and were looking forward to this march.
“JNU to bahana hai, Rohith ka mudda dabana hai” (JNU is an excuse to suppress Rohith Vemula’s issue), was an apt slogan being raised on 23 February.
In the context of the Chalo Delhi and the support it was gathering, it was a convenient time for the BJP to launch an all-out offensive on the JNU students. None among the students already in police custody have any proof against them that they were giving ‘anti-India’ slogans. In fact, this ‘anti-India’ itself is being exposed as a mythic category which can be, and has been, used for aggressive mobilisation by the government for its own ends.
Avinash, who came from Mumbai to be a part of the ‘Chalo Delhi’ movement states, “There is an overall threat to our scholarships, our democratic spaces and political discussions. The bias against Dalits and minorities has now come to the forefront and such issues are being diverted by the State.” Smriti Irani, Minister for Human Resource Development, had first stated that Rohith was not a Dalit and had taken admission under a fake certificate.
On the other hand, during the ongoing budget session in the Rajya Sabha she stated that a Dalit member was made a part of the inquiry committee set up to probe Rohith’s death. She also alleged that no proper medical attention was given to Rohith. However, students within the university called her bluff by clarifying that a doctor was brought in immediately after Rohith was found hanging in a room.
Susan Visvanathan, Professor of Sociology in JNU , says, “Rohith’s suicide was a result of the establishment’s neglect. I think it is very clear that the State is against universities and particularly against the education of Dalits and OBCs. I think that it is a protracted movement by this government to halve the education funds. They want only those people benefitting who have always been privileged.” What is ironic is that it is this very State that appeals to the minorities for vote. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself played the ‘chaiwallah’ and OBC card during his election campaign in 2014.
Apart from the government itself discriminating on the basis of caste, HCU also needs to be held responsible. According to guidelines issued by the University Grants Commission in the year 2013, caste based discrimination was deemed unacceptable and a special anti-discriminatory officer was to be appointed in every university. “This rule by the UGC has not been followed even by a single university,” says Yogendra Yadav, founder of Swaraj Abhiyan. “I have just one demand to make — No more Rohiths.”
The State’s agenda could also be seen in police action as they kept the attention rivetted on JNU with crackdowns on students and raids being conducted on the houses of faculty. However, just as Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya surrendered, the police took action against the candle light march organised for Rohith at India Gate on 24 February.
This selective ousting of students can be viewed as the government’s infringement of citizens’ rights. “Ideally, education must be free and equal and should support the rights of citizenship,” says Visvanathan. “The right to protest is a right for all citizens.” The government, however, has taken the opposite stand for education.
Today, anti-national seems to have become a blanket term for any individual or group that questions the State’s activities. However, Avinash defines anti-national as: “One who subjugates the poor and the marginalised of his/her own nation.” He says that regional issues and perceptions of people must be understood and that asking for rights under the Constitution cannot be called anti-national.