By Frances Bulathsinghala/www.southasianmonitor.com
Despite the legacy of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, father of independent India’s Constitution and first Law and Justice Minister who initiated his relentless campaign against social discrimination of the Dalits, the specter of the barbaric caste-based discrimination is alive and hounding Dalits in India.
To date, oppressed persons from the Dalit community follow Ambedkar‘s Dalit Buddhist Movement, converting to Buddhism to free themselves from untouchability imposed by Hindu society where oppression and discrimination are rampant in every social sphere.
From cases ranging from high caste communities in India beating up Dalit women for using water from the same well, to more overt and subvert acts that encompasses the overall structure of society, caste discrimination is a menace that remains uncurtailed.
Significantly, it is overwhelmingly present in educational institutions that supposedly provide relief from such oppression. As recent cases show, youth with promising futures with potential to make a change for India, are taking their lives in the face of unbearable discrimination in institutes of higher education.
In mid March this year J. Muthukrishanan, a twenty seven year old student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, was found hanging from a ceiling fan at an apartment close to the university. His death came a little over a year after Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student, took his life in a similar fashion.
Both Vemula and Muthukrishanan were members of the Ambedkar Students Association and both youth had resorted to suicide as a last resort following a history of facing discrimination.
For Rohith Vemula, caste based discrimination began with immediate family and ended with education institutions in which the youth had placed all his hopes of freeing himself from caste bondage. How closely caste based issues are linked with student politics that are in turn linked with the wider dominant politics of the nation was seen in the death of the two students.
Muthukrishanan, who had joined JNU for an M.Phil degree in Modern History last year and had studied history at Hyderabad University, where Dalit research scholar Rohith was a student, was part of agitation against research seat cuts.
As Indian media reports state, Muthukrishnan left no suicide note, but his very last words were expressed at the end of a long Facebook post, written two days before he met his end:
He wrote: “When equality is denied everything is denied. There is no Equality in M.phil/phd Admission, there is no equality in Viva – voce, there is only denial of equality, denying prof. Sukhadeo Thorat recommendation, denying Students protest places in Ad – block, denying the education of the Marginals.”
The FIRSTPOST Indian website in a story mid this month titled: JNU student’s death: “What J Muthukrishnan’s last words tell us about the state of the nation, point out that his facebook post was referring to a set of recommendations to ensure non-discriminatory treatment of Dalit students on campuses that were tabled by a committee headed by Professor Sukhadeo Thorat in 2011.
The recommendations had duly recognized, among other factors, the need for bridge courses, development of English and communication skills, personality development, capacity building and social development of students belonging to marginalised sections. The recommendations had also emphasized on the need for having an equal opportunity provision. There had been no government initiatives or policy making to follow up on these recommendations as media reports assert.”
In January last year, Rohith Vemula a student at the University of Hyderabad was found hanging from a ceiling fan after being suspended for a clash with the Sangh-backed Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. In July 2015, the University reportedly stopped paying Rohith a fellowship of Rs.25,000 (around US$370) per month after he began raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA).
Muthukrishnan had documented his encounters with caste based discrimination in a blog titled Daliterature, where he chronicled the movement of seeking justice for Rohith Vemula and one of his blog posts was dedicated to Radhika Vemula, mother of Rohith titled, ‘A universal moter without a nation’ .
Muthukrishnan wrote the following: “They said: Bharat Mata has lost her son. But they hurt the mother by questioning her caste and identity. Can she really support their nationalism after this injustice?”
Rohith’s death not only brought to light the sharp injustices that exist on college and university campuses throughout India but an entire societal and family saga starting with the ‘adoption’ of his mother Radhika as a baby, by a high caste woman and an ‘educator’ no less, who in reality treated her as a virtual servant as reports reveal and married Radhika off at 14 to an upper class man which resulted in subsequent assault and abandonment.
Prof.T.Marx of Pondicherry University
The Hindustan Times in a January 2017 follow up report on Rohith’s death said that the police had not taken action against the BJP leaders accused under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for harassing Rohith till he killed himself. Instead, an inquiry was launched to find out whether Rohith was from the Mala Scheduled Caste (Dalit) like his mother Radhika or Other Backward Classes (OBC) like his father Mani Kumar. The purported logic behind the inquiry was that if it could be proved that Rohith was not a Dalit or SC, the case under the Schedules Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act against the politicians would fall.
Meanwhile Muthukrishnan heralded the near death cry of a nation when he wrote in his blog post: “Dear anti-nationals, let me tell you, one day this nation’s leader is going to sell all. Just for a selfie and for a standing ovation from the outsiders. Hundreds and hundreds of Dappa Rao’s are going to kill thousands of Rohiths and they are going to say, “He/She was a gifted student”. All the intellectuals from the marginalized communities will get arrested just for mocking fictional characters. At the same time, all the leading national institutes will be headed by people who cannot even clear the 10th standard exam. These people claim dissenters as anti-nationals and seditious. They are going to kill many Rohiths, like us, just for eating beef, for being rational, for being intellectually productive for the country. But we are the real sons of this land and after we are all killed, there will be no nation.”
An Associate Professor of English at Pondicherry University, Dr. T. Marx emphasizes that almost six decades after untouchability was constitutionally abolished, it continues to be a social disgrace.
Dr. Marx pointed out in his comments shared with the South Asian Monitor that though Dr. Ambedkar felt that education and unity among Dalits would enable them to reverse caste prejudices, education has only led to the emergence of a Dalit elite that has gradually distanced itself from active Dalit politics.
“Discrimination is entrenched in the government machinery. The need of the hour is to undertake a comprehensive review of the existing laws, policies, and practices. The caste issue underscores the pathetic situation of Dalits and the hiatus that exists between the constitutional provision abolishing untouchability and the ground reality.”
Speaking of the overall evasion of justice pertaining to Dalits in India, Dr. Marx also stated that there have been several cases of Dalit murders and honour killings like the ones of Ilavarasan, Gokulraj and Sankar but that the state continues to turn a blind eye to them.
“The Government of India which brought out a special act by name Nirbhaya Act immediately after the infamous Delhi Gang rape incident never bothered to stop the rapes of innocent tribal and Dalit women in the rural areas and to prevent the rural women from being paraded naked as per the verdict of the Khap Panchayats (Kangaroo Courts). The Union Government which voices its concern for a south Indian actress Baavna who was sexually assaulted recently remains silent on the issue of brutal rape, mutilation and murder of a 16 year old Dalit girl Nandini. It also shows reluctance in bringing out a special act to prevent caste based discrimination against Dalit students in higher education institutions after the suicide of Rohith Vemula. With untouchability persisting unashamedly in all spheres of life, Dalits live on waiting hopelessly, sometimes in anger, for the long-betrayed dawn of equality. All sections should express their anger against this terrible atrocity and show solidarity with the Dalits,” he noted.
Meanwhile the family of Rohith Vemula last year converted to Buddhism to break the shackles of the Hindu caste system following the example of B.R Ambedkar, whose 125th birth anniversary was observed in 2016, which was for the first time celebrated by the UN also.
Significantly Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the celebration by the United Nations, terming as a “matter of great pride” for India. Meanwhile reports last week revealed that even as Narendra Modi announced plans for a fresh round of ‘Dalit outreach’, his government cut funding for research centres at several universities across the country that study social discrimination.
According to a report by Phroze L.Vincent and VBasant Mohanty in the Telegraph, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has cut funding to several research centres that were set up under the 11th five-year plan (2007-2012) and then renewed in the 12th plan. While a similar renewal was expected under the 13th plan, the UGC has sent circulars to some of the universities that house such centres saying that their plan funding end on March 31.
“I am directed to inform you that UGC will not provide financial support to the centre after the end of XIIth Plan as per the order received from MHRD (ministry of human resource development) … Further, the UGC will not be liable to the scheme of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy after the completion of XIIth Plan in any matter of functioning of the Centre; No communication whatsoever will be entertained or solicited by the UGC,” says the order quoted by the Telegraph, issued by UGC undersecretary Sushma Rathore.
In this backdrop the progress of society based on justice, equality and humane values as envisaged by the great men of India such as B. R. Ambedkar may well be a pipe dream.
(The featured image at the top is that students protesting over the death of Dalit Ph.D.student Rohith Vemula who was driven to suicide by caste discrimination)