Rohit Vemula Suicide: An awakening over Dalits
The extent of the protests over Rohith Vemula’s suicide show that, at last, civil society is waking up to the untold oppression of Dalits in India
Ashok Das Delhi
To be born a Dalit in Indian society is a curse; before birth, their fate is already decided. They are to live a life burdened with discrimination and violence. According to government statistics, every day, somewhere in the country, a member of the Dalit community is grievously injured, beaten or killed. Thousands from this community die like this; they remain faceless, nameless. Stories of Dalit women being raped or harassed do not elicit any reactions, they die down even before they leave the walls of the city. But this did not happen in the case of the death of Rohith Vemula. His death has caused a global furore over the plight of this downtrodden community in India. The smell of blood now clings to both Indian society and the country’s education system and has laid bare the dissonance in their structure and design before all.
After Vemula’s suicide, a section of society (a certain class) feels that these massive protests are an exaggeration. But the uproar is not just over the death of the scholar. This unrest has been a long time coming, a manifestation of the anger against the deep-seated hatred that is imbued in the system. It is a reaction to the thousands who have died earlier owing to the oppression, to bring out their lost voices. It is against the rape of Dalit women, against the chuachooth, against the chopping of the hands of the child who dared touch the jug of water reserved for those who call themselves the ‘upper’ caste. It is against all those who ask, “Which caste are you from?” when renting out rooms in their houses. It is against every atrocity that is inflicted against the Dalits every hour, every day in different parts of the country.
This protest is the voice of the thousands who want to scream every day at their oppressors, who grab them by their collars and drag them to the ground, and they cannot protest or raise their voices for fear of a majoritarian backlash. Vemula’s martyrdom has loudly spoken, giving strength to those who earlier thought that no one would listen. Through them now, he screams at this system in which this violence is entrenched.
Vemula did not hang himself alone. It wasn’t just him who was forced to have his lifeless body dangle; with him were the voices, and experiences, of those thousands who were frightened of, or even terrorized by, the dream of obtaining higher education in order to live life with dignity, like others. This fear is a product of the policies and worldview of people like University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya, and Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani.
The hatred and venom of a particular section of society have been on full display in social media. These people are out to prove that Vemula’s death was not a result of the system. They label his allegations inaccurate and, in turn, they see the protesters out to destabilise a system that is working. The dominant narrative has sought to intertwine the death of each Dalit with politics and reduce it to political muscling or vote bank politics of the opposition.
Here is my question: Why is it that only Dalits are killed? Or, what are the pressures that lead to Dalit deaths? Have we ever heard of a svarn jaati member’s hands being cut off when they attempted to drink water from the jug? Has someone from the same ‘upper’ caste ever been beaten for sitting on a horse during their wedding? Has a village of the upper castes ever been burnt to the ground because of an argument between the male villagers and the Ranvir Sena? Why do genocidal incidents such as Khairlanji and Mirchipur happen only to Dalits?
The current awakening and the protests have to be seen as part of a longer series of events. Vemula’s death was just a catalyst, a spark that ignited this tinderbox that was waiting to catch fire. This anger is not just located in the anger of the Dalit, but also expressed through those members of civil society who dare to differentiate between wrong and right. This will continue as long as a Vemula is forced to hang himself, a Dalit girl is raped, and there is discrimination on the basis of caste and religion in society, economic activity, and education. If these forms of discrimination do not stop then these protests will only grow.
The author is the editor of the monthly magazine, Dalit Dastak (www.dalitdastak.com)