Like Ambedkar, Rohith had no nation

Anshul Trivedi

The suicide of Rohith
Vemula is being met with two kinds of responses – while the Dalit and
Progressive sections are calling it an ‘institutionalized murder’, where a
Dalit boy was driven to suicide by the administration; the other response
paints it as an individual act where caste had no role to play nor could
anyone be blamed for it. One must not politicize a tragedy goes the refrain.
The Union Minister for Human Resource Development seems to be of the
view, as she repeated again and again that we should not make this
an issue of caste discrimination, not now that we are in 2016.

So was it an act of a
distressed individual who happened to be a Dalit or an act caused because of
caste discrimination? In other words, was it a political act? To answer these
questions one needs to examine Hindutva’s approach to identities and caste
within its larger project of Hindu Nationalism.
Why such keen
The question we must
ask is: If this was just a regular skirmish between students; why was the MHRD,
which has the herculean responsibility of educating millions of Indians, so
interested in disciplining these five boys in the entire country? What explains
this special attention to these students?
In the course of this
hearing two Union Ministries got involved. Bandaru Dattatreya, MoS Labour and
MP from Telangana personally wrote to Smriti Irani, MHRD, Government
of India, to take cognizance of the matter and ever since the MHRD followed
this case keenly with the administration with a series of letters being sent
from the highest authority urging the administration to act in this case.
anti-national Dalits: The Political Context of Rohith’s punishment
Bandaru Dattatreya in
his letter to the HRD Minister calls Rohith and his friends
anti-national because they protested against the death penalty awarded to Yakub
Memon. Dattatreya wrote:
“Hyderabad University
… has become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics. This
could be visualized from the fact that when Yakub Memon was hanged, a dominant
student’s union, that is, the Ambedkar Students’ Association has held protests
against the execution”
Abolition of capital
punishment is a legitimate debate which has been going on across the world.
Even if we overlook the difficult moral question of giving the State the
legitimate power to take the life of a citizen; the glaring
inconsistencies in the awarding of death penalties in the recent past in India;
the proven fact that it is not a deterrent in stopping violent crime and that
majority of the civilized world has done away with the penalty; should have
been reasons enough to question capital punishment. But according to Mr.
Dattatreya, organizing and protesting for the abolition of death penalty, which
it must be noted, Babasaheb Ambedkar was himself against, was an
anti-national act for which these students needed to be punished.
Don’t talk
about caste before we gain independence if you are a nationalist –
This is not the first
time that Dalits are being labeled as anti-national. Even during our
anti-colonial struggle, Dr. Ambedkar and many non-brahmin, anti-casteleaders were accused of being anti-national. At the time the mainstream
nationalist discourse asked the Dalits to overlook the violence, discrimination
and humiliation inherent in the caste system; and unite to overthrow the
British. However, the British legal system of equality before the law was
liberating for the Dalits as opposed to the codes governing the Hindu society;
where the Dalits were treated as inferior and impure by accident of their
birth – something which Rohith also refers to in his suicide note –
and there was no scope for equality or justice. So the non-brahmin and Dalit
movement kept on petitioning with the British Raj, until untouchability
eradication and the violence of the caste system was acknowledged as an evil by
the mainstream nationalist movement led by Congress.
Even after this
acknowledgement, while the non-brahmin movement and the nationalist movement
could build a strategic consensus on the goal of attaining independence, it was
not without disagreements and debates. So while they were together in the fight
against the British Raj, they maintained separate positions on many issues.
This stark difference has been well documented in the debates that Ambedkar had
with Gandhi and the Congress.
Don’t talk
about caste at all: Now we are independent and we are Hindus:
We seem to have come
a full circle. Today’s dominant nationalist discourse is based on Hindutva;
which aims at culling out claims of difference of particular communities from
the social and the political discourse. In the Hindutva imagination, we are all
Hindus, which in turn is synonymous with being Indians, as this is our
“punyabhoomi” or holy land. The fact that the Hindu social order itself is
based on graded inequality and ritually sanctioned violence, discrimination and
humiliation is supposed to be ignored.
The major challenges
from the point of view of the Hindutva project in the unification of the Hindu
fold and therefore, the challenge to Hindu power, is the challenge to the Hindu
social order from the Dalits from the inside and from the Muslims and
Christians from the outside. This political – cultural project to forge a
semitised Hindu identity entails twin maneuvers of internal assimilation of
hitherto oppressed castes into the Hindu fold and the domination and
stigmatization of non-hindu minorities outside of it.
Unlike the Left or
the Congress, the politics of the Hindutva brigade aims at reinvention of the
self, the creation of the “new hindu man”, and therefore, takes an
everyday form. This politics includes rewriting histories of Dalit
groups and reinvention of their traditions to integrate them into the
Hindu fold. In the past Eklavya who was wronged by Dronacharya for not being a
savarna has been co-opted in to the pantheon of Hindu gods; similarly Shabri,
the tribal woman in the Ramayana has been elevated to the status of a Goddess
by the Hindutva forces.
Be a Harijan,
not an Ambedkarite:
In India, defining
oneself is itself a political act. The Dalit identity has sought to be
defined predominantly through two approaches. Gandhi sought to define the
Dalit identity from the prism of Hinduism. He coined the term “Harijan” and
said that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, and that the Dalits were
children of God as well. He also initiated campaigns to end untouchability and
took measures like encouraging inter dining, asking upper caste Hindus to clean
toilets, which in those times was a challenge to upper caste orthodoxy.
However, this was an approach at accommodation within the Hindu fold.
The Dalit movement,
however, contested this coinage as insufficient and patronizing. In their view,
it was insufficient to be equal in the eyes of God; it is the equality in the
here and now that one needs to achieve. It is for this reason, that Ambedkar
opted for converting out of Hinduism. It was a means of de-anchoring the Dalits
from the intellectual, moral and spiritual codes of orthodox Hinduism. His
conversion to Buddhism was an act of defining the self outside the moral gaze
of Hinduism. In other words, it was a rejection of Hinduism.
It is in this
context, that the self definition of Rohith and his friends, in opposition to
Sanskritised Hinduism, becomes a political act. It was this rebellion which
was irksome. According to the Hindutva project, the Harijan is
not a challenge, unlike a Muslim or a Christian and has to be co-opted;
however, a Harijan cannot define herself but must let herself be
defined by the Hindutva forces. In other words, a docile Harijan is
a nationalist, but an Ambedkarite is an anti-national.
It must be borne in
mind that the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) had organised beefeating programmes in the past, which is a direct political cultural
challenge to the Hindutva forces’ claim that the cow is revered by all Hindus.
However, what is an even bigger challenge to the Hindutva dispensation is the
advocacy for the human rights of Muslims by a Dalit organisation. It should be
noted that Dattatreya had called the MHRD’s attention to the anti-national
activities of ASA. The ASA had screened ‘Muzzaffarnagar Baaki Hai’ and protested against the death penalty of Memon. A similar kind
of response awaited the Dalits of Bhagana, Haryana. When they lost hope of
attaining justice from the State, they did a strange (?) thing.
They converted to Islam. In response, they were beaten up by the
Hindutva organizations.
The alignment
of Dalit – Muslim interests: A Nightmare for the Hindutva Project:
In a competitive
electoral system, the electoral strength of these two communities makes for a
formidable coalition. This solidarity of interests amongst those internally
oppressed by Hinduism and those dominated outside by Hindutva is
an unprecedented political and cultural challenge.
The political
approach of Hindutva at dealing with caste therefore, is: firstly, not to speak
about it or make it subservient to an abstract nationalism; and secondly, to
pit Dalit interests against Muslims to prevent a cultural and political
coalition. It is in this context that one needs to see the Union Minister for
Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot’s letter to MHRD
congratulating them for questioning Jamia Milia Islamia University’s minority
status; for he argues that it is undermining the interests and
representation of the Dalits, Tribes and the OBC’s in higher educational
institutions. Similar attempts at pitting Dalit – Bahujans against Muslims were
made by none other than PM Modi in his election rallies in the run up to the
Bihar elections when he warned the electorate that if the
Mahagathbandhan came to power it will give your reservation to a
“particular community”.
In its strategy with
regard to caste, the saffron forces have coined the slogan of “Samrasta”
(harmony) in opposition to “Samata” (equality). This has guided their
strategies of co-option of castes within the Hindu fold. The 2014 general
election which propelled Modi – led BJP to power was noted for smashing the
Congress off the electoral map. However, two important events must be
mentioned. One was the comprehensive rout of Mandal parties. Since the Babri
Demolition, after an initial opposition to reservations, the RSS-BJP has
strategically been co-opting OBC’s within its fold. This is reflected by
the volte – face of the RSS on reservations; of course it continues
to speak in a forked tongue as it has to consolidate its essentially
upper constituency. So for the first time BJP’s PM candidate
was showcasing his non-brahmin credentials in an electoral campaign.
A stagnation in Mandal politics forced by the erosion of employment
opportunities within the ambit of the State with increasing privatization and
advance of the Market along with anti-incumbency paid rich dividends in the
But secondly and more
significantly victories registered by the BJP in the states of UP and Bihar
meant that these States were unable to return even a single Muslim MP this time
around despite a huge Muslim population. Interestingly the BSP retained its
vote share but was also unable to return even a single MP this time around.
This was seen as a defeat of so-called vote bank politics.
It was this raw nerve
that Rohith and his friends touched when one excluded identity spoke for the
other. It was this potentially politically subversive act which invited
such intense scrutiny from the highest echelons of power in Delhi.
In 1931, when Gandhi
questioned Ambedkar about his criticism of the Congress which he construed as
criticism of the Indian national struggle, Ambedkar replied by saying, “I have
no homeland. No untouchable worth the name would be proud of this land.”
The consolidation of
the power of Hindutva has successfully “denationalized” the “suspect” Muslim
community in 2014. It is quite logical then, that if Dalits spoke out for
Muslims in Muzzaffarnagar and against the death penalty, it was only a matter
of time before they shall be labeled anti-national as well. The attempts at
building a coalition of those excluded from the Hindutva public are in
their nascent stages, and it is difficult to predict whether it will
materialise in the future or not. However, the charge of anti-nationalism
levelled against Rohith and his friends tells us how easily a marginalised
community can be “denationalised” and in turn what ideological
function the category of nationalism performs in the Hindutva project.
Make no mistake;
Rohith’s suspension and suicide, both were profoundly political acts. And like
Ambedkar, even after six and a half decades of independence he had no nation.

Author is a PhD scholar in CPS/JNU

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