Rohith’s suicide: Urban Dalit activism has failed, we need a new anti-caste paradigm

Nothing short of a social breakthrough, a social transformation movement and a new paradigm of resistance to the tyranny of castes can help.
Rohith’s suicide: Urban Dalit activism has failed, we need a new anti-caste paradigm
Rohith’s suicide: Urban Dalit activism has failed, we need a new anti-caste paradigm
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The reported suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula is yet another opportunity for urban Dalit activists to fill their outrage-schedule for the year, and opponents of BJP’s Hindutva politics to slam the Modi government. But this too will pass as many in the past because at the heart of the problem is the tyranny of caste Hindus and social status-quo that are cast in stone. 

As we tease out the most convenient messages, what will also go unnoticed will be other underlying factors that could have led to Rohit’s tragedy - most obviously, probable psychological reasons that affect students from marginalised backgrounds.

Unfortunately the prominent outrage-discourse is headed in the same, predictable direction as we have seen in the past. And it will take the same course in human rights conferences, research publications and literary festivals. A new, added element is its utility against the BJP.

If we are really serious about finding a breakthrough, we have to stop skimming the surface and admit the real facts. Vemula’s death is not the first Dalit student suicide and will not be the last because nobody looks at the underlying reasons. Jumping to the conclusion that Vemula took his life because he was expelled from the hostel is preposterous because he was part of student agitation and such responses from authorities are very common. Was he so feeble-hearted as an activist? 

In 2014, the suicide of a Dalit student in Mumbai IIT exposed a deep malaise that may be found in every educational institution in India  - the boy was poor in his studies, had not cleared papers for three years and had come under taunts by “General Category” students and even a faculty member. Reportedly, the average CGPA for SC/ST students in Mumbai IIT was a poor 5.9 against the general category students’ 8.09. Last year, when Roorkee IIT expelled 73 candidates for poor performance, it was revealed that 90 per cent of them were from reserved categories.

A study by the prestigious Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram analysed the academic performance of all the engineering colleges in Kerala during 2004-08. It showed that only 17.7 percent SC/ST students passed their final exams. The corresponding figure for the OBCs was better at 40 percent. 

How does one break this cycle of poor performance and discrimination by the upper caste general category students? Not with more reservations and laws, but with transformative processes.

The failure of Dalit students was not because of poor opportunities in higher education, but because of flawed policy and poor fundamentals. Reservation helps Dalit students to gain admission, but their social disadvantage and poor schooling pull them back. Most of the SC/ST students who get into engineering colleges, for instance, cannot comprehend what is being taught there.

Part of the solution, therefore, is better primary education, liberal scholarships and additional tuitions so that Dalit students are empowered early in life; but in schools where children are segregated with caste-based colour-codes and Dalit children are asked to clean the toilets, how will it work? It won’t. And they have no future.

In societies where Dalits cannot drink from the same cups that others use and draw water from public wells, where Dalits cannot use even basic tools of modern life such as footwear and cycles, and where there the law enforcement establishments systematically oppress them despite constitutional guarantees, how do they come up? They cannot.

And there is no point blaming the BJP although the problem is intrinsic to the Hindu caste system as Ambedkar had noted. In fact, it should be the Congress, which ruled India for six decades, and regional parties that should take the blame because they are the ones who allowed the situation to worsen to such a level. The atrocities against Dalits happen in state government jurisdictions and it’s them who have done nothing. The problem had swelled during the UPA regime, but there was hardly any special effort. Some media reports said that over the last decade, crimes against Dalits rose by 245 per cent. Obviously, it was not entirely because of the BJP.

All political parties, wantonly or otherwise, have either closed their eyes or allowed the situation to worsen because disempowered Dalits are not their vote-banks and local caste satraps, who incidentally head political parties, believe in their supremacy. And ironically, like the urban activists, parties who play identity politics, tried only to trade it for a share of power, even from anti-Dalit OBC parties. Otherwise, how come no Dalit party has been able to swing the support of 16 per cent of the population to create an influential political constituency?

Nothing short of a social breakthrough, a social transformation movement and a new paradigm of resistance to the tyranny of castes can help. The tyranny of upper castes, mostly the OBCs, is the first and most formidable barrier. Unless it goes, affirmative action and laws will continue to fail Dalits.

It’s an extraordinary situation that requires extraordinary responses. And for them to succeed we need extraordinary leaders. Unfortunately, we have none. During the historic Vaikom agitation in Kerala in the 1920s, in which lower caste Hindus fought for their right of way and entry into a local temple, Gandhi had advised against the involvement of other religious because he wanted the Hindus to stop caste discrimination to find a solution to the problem. The BJP should certainly take a cue and should go beyond selfies as proposed by Praveen Togadia. Interestingly, it’s times like these that even RSS slogans such as “one temple, one well, one crematorium” make sense.

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