Whataboutery is tiring, but when selective political activism is the key problem, it has to be brought to attention.

Where was Rahul Gandhi when a Dalit HCU student committed suicide in 2008
news Perspective Wednesday, January 20, 2016 - 15:26

The headline might sound simplistic, intended to be a click-bait based on commonplace Indian political whataboutery. But that fact that all major political parties, from DMK and TMC to Congress and AAP, are at the Hyderabad Central University following the death of Rohith Vemula, but did not care to raise their voice when at least 6 other lower-caste students in HCU committed suicide in the past few years, narrates a tale of political opportunism which has plagued Dalit-right movement since independence.

Whataboutery is tiring, but when selective political activism is the key problem, it has to be brought to attention.

In 2008, Senthil Kumar, a PhD student with the School of Physics in HCU, committed suicide by poisoning himself, just a year into his doctorate.  He was from the lowest strata of society, belonging to the ‘paniyaandi’ caste in a village in Salem district. His parents were pig-breeders. It was his scholarship money which was keeping the family alive. But Senthi Kumar was discriminated against by the department, and refused an academic supervisor. Without a supervisor, he failed a subject, and lost his fellowship. On February 27, he was found dead in his room. The University first said it was a heart attack, but it was after the post-mortem report showed signs of poisoning that the University came out with the truth that he had committed suicide.

As it would later be found in an official inquiry later, this was a case of institutional discrimination leading to suicide, and the University was culpable. The Congress party was in power in the centre and the state. Was there even a whimper of a protest from them, or any serious action taken? In fact, a committee lead by Professor Vinod Paravala even recommended steps to be taken in the HCU following the death of Senthil, but the UPA government blissfully ignored in the following years. The commission of enquiry was set up only because of the political pressure applied by VCK leader D Ravikumar, who was then an MLA in Tamil Nadu.

On Tuesday, when Rahul Gandhi took the stage at HCU, he made all the required rhetorical statements. He said he did not want to politicise the issue, and then blamed the BJP and Bandaru Dattatreya anyway. All of us want to see Rohith’s death not being politicised, but perhaps the problem is that not all deaths of Dalits are politicised, it is only when it serves our political purpose that it is done.

And it isn’t about Senthil Kumar alone. In the past 10 years, at least several other lower-caste students have committed suicide in the HCU campus. Pullela Raju, Madhari Venkatesh, Balaraju and Sunitha are other Dalit students who have perished in their battle against the system.

What’s stranger is that even the DMK and Trinamool Congress have shown support by landing up there or releasing statements. Incidentally, both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu go to polls in the coming months.

That the DMK has released a statement over this is laughable, especially because their political activism over cases like murder of Gokulraj in Tamil Nadu is left wanting. “When Senthil Kumar died in 2008, I went to the DMK government and asked them for help. They did not help in anyway,” says Ravikumar. He adds that the VC of HCU then was Seyed E Hasnain, a powerful scientist who was in the Scientific Advisory Committee of PM Manmohan Singh, and he did not take the necessary action to correct discriminatory issues in the campus.

“We have never had politics of justice,” says Prof Ramu Manivannan of Madras University, “all parties have only treated Dalit communities as a vote bank and never worked towards justice.”

Manivannan adds that all political parties are guilty of not holding universities accountable. “The root of the problem is this, who are the Universities answerable to? Only to the parties which appoint them. And that’s why institutional discrimination persists,” he says.

“It has become easy to blame Hindutva for such political issues, it is politics of convenience. They are framing the issue of caste as a religious issue now, but every party if guilty of not doing enough,” says Ravikumar.

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