Tamil Nadu’s Dalit blind spot: Why Rohith’s death blew up, but Senthil and Gokulraj were ignored

What plagues Tamil Nadu - politics without ideology, infighting within the Dalit movement and dead student politics.
Tamil Nadu’s Dalit blind spot: Why Rohith’s death blew up, but Senthil and Gokulraj were ignored
Tamil Nadu’s Dalit blind spot: Why Rohith’s death blew up, but Senthil and Gokulraj were ignored
Written by:

This is the third part of a three-part series on stories of deaths of two Dalit youngsters from Tamil Nadu, and how the political establishment chose to look away. Read part one here, and part two here.

The stories of Senthil, Rohith and Gokulraj have one common undercurrent — they were all challenging the boundaries set for them by the society. If Rohith took to politics and fought the University power structure, then Gokulraj was spirited enough to be a student entrepreneur and aspire for a better social life. Senthil dared to dream to be a scientist like Abdul Kalam. He told his parents that when he achieves his dreams, he would make sure no one in his community has to rear pigs anymore – his ultimate goal was erasing the Paniyandi caste off this earth. All three are stories of ambition, with a heady mix of politics and impunity of educators.

Following Rohith’s death, a national movement has emerged seeking better protection for Dalit students across the country. The Joint Action Committee at the University of Hyderabad has asked for a “Rohith Act” to protect students’ rights. In Tamil Nadu, a Rohith Vemula Memorial Lecture has been instituted by students at the University of Madras.

But the political and civil society’s reaction to the deaths of Gokulraj and Senthil Kumar from Tamil Nadu present a sharp contrast. There are inherent reasons as to why our reaction to Senthil and Rohith were different in spite of both being students of University of Hyderabad.

Senthil did not belong to a political movement like Rohith did. Rohith had comrades in student politics, and was himself one, because of which mobilisation of support happened organically. “For Senthil Kumar, there was no such support, especially since he was a Tamilian and not from Andhra,” says D Ravikumar, member of the Dalit party VCK, who had helped Senthil’s parents in 2008.

Another reason is that there was no “communal” angle to Senthil’s story. Because the controversy preceding Rohith’s suicide had its roots in Yakub Memon’s hanging and screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, the entire ‘secular’ establishment came together to support Rohith. “There was no ideology in Senthil’s death,” says Ravikumar, also pointing out that Senthil’s case was far more serious in comparison, because he was a victim of systemic, everyday casteism in Universities which goes unchallenged. C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies who participated in the protests in Hyderabad recently, agrees, “Senthil’s case was one of personal agony, not to do with a public movement.”

Further, Rohith’s suicide letter, written evocatively in English, was an important instrument of mobilisation. “The letter was able to knock the consciousness of even the common person,” says Lakshmanan.

BJP’s political intervention in University’s student politics and the ease with which the secular establishment came together against the BJP also helped create a movement for Rohith.

But the state of Tamil Nadu has its own set of problems, some of which clearly emerge in Gokulraj’s murder case.

First, it is the absence of independent student politics in Tamil Nadu. “After the Annamalai University protests against Karunanidhi in 1972, the entire student political movement has been annihilated in the state. Now student groups are just fan clubs, there is no independent student movement which could take up social issues without the support of mainstream politics,” says Lakshmanan.

Two, even within the Dalit movement, there is no unity, says Kathir of anti-caste NGO Evidence, based in Madurai. “Political parties take up cases based on which sub-caste the victims belong to. If it is Arundhatiyars, one party does not get involved, and if it is Parayars, then another party does not get involved,” says Kathir. “There is no collective thinking, everyone wants credit for themselves.” Gokulraj's brother too mentions that. "There were two Dalit parties here which came to help us, and both of them were indulging in politics over my brother."

Three, Dalits in Tamil Nadu lack real political voice, and yet there is a belief that Dalits have gained it over the years. A Madurai-based politician with a mainstream political party told me recently, “Look at how popular Thirumavalavan (popular Dalit leader in Tamil Nadu) has become, and the confidence with which he speaks. That cannot happen in northern states.” But that’s misleading, say activists. “Dalits have no real political voice here, and the vote-bank politics works against them,” says Kathir, “which is why politicians only talk about cases of Dalit atrocities outside Tamil Nadu, because they could lose votes from influential castes if they side with Dalits in Tamil Nadu.”

Four, Lakshmanan says that this points to the larger corruption of Tamil Nadu politics. “Politics here has become depoliticised. There is no ideology, and it’s just one hegemony replacing another in each elections,” he says, adding that TN politics has become too centred around Tamil identity and is increasingly antagonistic in nature.

Kathir also says that the Tamil media has had a huge role in playing down cases of Dalit atrocities. “Media here is biased. They will write about Dalit issues in the north, but not in their own backyard. Why did no Tamil media take up the case of Senthil Kumar? And compared to the social media, Tamil media did not follow up enough on Gokulraj case. It is a systemic issue,” he says.

Beyond this, Ravikumar says that there isn’t enough cultural capital in the Dalit movement. “Dalit students must work towards creating an atmosphere where people realise that it is important to talk about Dalit rights as a society,” he says, “There is cultural capital in speaking about secularism, but not caste issues.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute