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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Jan 22, 2016, 12:25 AM; last updated: Jan 21, 2016, 9:58 PM (IST)

A new Dalit identity

The RSS has taken upon itself to define who is a pure Dalit and who a nationalist
A new Dalit identity
An innocent life lost, for what?

RECOVERING from the initial stage of stupor, the RSS and its government launched an ‘Ambedkarite’-nationalist offensive to justify the treatment meted out to Rohith Vemula and his colleagues. They took care to offer cold, customary condolences, but after freeing themselves from this minimum obligation, the first thing they did was to question the ‘Dalitness’ of Rohith. They claimed that he was not an authentic Dalit since one of his parents is a non-Dalit. The father comes from a backward community. Since you derive your identity from the father, Rohith could not claim to be  a pure Dalit.

The cynical attempt to persuade Dalits that the death of Rohith should not concern them, by suggesting that he was an imposter, shows the real inhuman nature of the politics of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. As if, even if this were a fact, it would make the death of Rohith less tragic!

The second thing the RSS did was to question the politics of Rohith and his organisation — Ambedkar Students’Association (ASA). The argument, barely a day after the suicide, was that the politics of the ASA had nothing to do with Dalit issues. It was raising issues which were anti-national in nature and therefore, the ASA   and its members, including Rohith, do not deserve our sympathy. At least, nationalist Dalits should not come out in support of the ASA.

The ASA was dubbed anti-national for having protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and for participating in a procession to protest the attack on the screening of “Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai”, a documentary on the communal violence in western UP. 

A strange argument was advanced to prove that Rohith and his organisation were in fact insulting Ambedkar. Since Yakub Memon was punished by the Supreme Court under the relevant laws framed under the provisions of the Constitution which was written by Baba Saheb, any act of opposition to this punishment is an affront to Baba Saheb! Rohith was guilty of this sacrilege.

One of the “pracharaks” of the RSS, who has been assigned the job of looking after its students’ wing, said on camera that Rohith and the ASA never raised the question of denial of reservation to the OBCs and SC/STs in Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia; and never questioned their minority character, which again proves that they cared little for Dalits. It is again being suggested here that you will have to oppose the minority character of these institutions to prove your Dalit credentials. 

This argument tries to essentialise Dalit identity and intends to tie it finally with Hindutva. Dalit politics that in any manner questions the nationalism of the Hindutva variety automatically becomes anti-national and fit for attack. The RSS is also trying to deprive Dalits of the right to choose their issues and solidarities. If they make issues which are ‘non-Dalit’ in a narrow sense, and even worse, if they make Muslim issues their own, they are damned. 

The aggression with which the RSS is trying to devour Ambedkar is born out of the desperation to use the energy that the movements of social justice has unleashed in the last two decades. Recognising the urge of the backward and Dalit classes to participate in the democratic political process, the Sangh is devising ways to create its own brand of Dalit and backward politics. Since in its formative days the slogan was a unity of Dalit-Backwards and Muslims, the Sangh is trying to isolate Muslims and draw the rest in its fold.

Organisations like the ASA are impediment in this drive as they seek to realise the liberatory potential of the project of social justice by forging an alliance of all oppressed communities. The ASA, through its activities, expressed its solidarity with the persecuted Muslims of India. This could not be tolerated.

It is not surprising that even in this sombre moment, the RSS has not refrained from attacking Rohith and his friends for their incomplete and anti-national Dalithood.   

The reaction from the government,  defending the MHRD, is even more pathetic and unconvincing. It has now been documentarily proved that the ministry gave an extraordinary treatment to the request by Bandaru Dattatreya. All of us know that no officer would take the pain of giving four reminders in quick succession in a routine matter. It is clear that there was a concerted attempt to put pressure on the university to act in a particular manner which satisfies the complainant, in this case the minister.

The deception in the response of Smriti Irani is so palpable. She alleges that it was a clash between two groups of students and there was no caste angle to it. She hides a fact which is most important, that the students’ body, for which her ministry batted, belongs to the RSS and she is also part of the Sangh Parivar. She cannot, therefore, deny partisanship in this case. Second, it is not others who are indulging in a malicious campaign by making it a caste issue. None other than her own colleague, Bandaru Dattatreya, made this allegation that casteist and anti-national groups were active on the campus!

The minister seems to be perfecting the art of half-truth, but she gets exposed each time. When she produced the letter of a Congress leader to prove that her ministry was also pursuing matters raised by opposition leaders, she concealed this fact that the urgency in the latter case was missing and the university also took it lightly, whereas in this case, the university overturned its earlier decision of not punishing Rohith after it was relentlessly pestered by the MHRD to show compliance. 

A TV anchor raised a question many of us would find innocent, but it needs to be asked. Why did the aggrieved student body run crying to the minister? Was it sure that he, being one of them, would readily help them? Second, why did the minister believe what the student body told him? Did he investigate? For, his was not a simple forwarding note which is customarily sent by a person like him when he is approached by his constituents. He very explicitly lists the crimes of the ASA and demands intervention of the MRHD to prod the university to act against the ‘anti-national’ casteist criminals. He cannot claim that he was merely a neutral conduit.

The role of the university is shameful, even the reaction of the Vice-Chancellor after the suicide. He is shocked and fails to understand why Rohith had to take this extreme step. But when asked why he did not think of reaching out to Rohith after his earlier anguished letter, all that he has to say is that he has to act according to rules and statutes! 

It is this cold, vicious, nationalist cruelty which filled Rohith with a sense of isolation from which he could recover only by breaking free of this life. Let us face with clear eyes this duplicity, this wickedness of nationalism which criminalises my existence if I seek to express my individuality. Many more lives will be lost if we do not act in time and remove it from the position of power.

— The writer is a professor of Hindi at Delhi University

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