Missing the Forest for Trees – Caste System’s Shadow on Rohith’s Suicide : Sanjay Kumar

Guest Post by Sanjay Kumar

(Photo Courtesy : Prokerala.com)

Mainstream politics over Rohith Vemula’s suicide is becoming hot and ugly. Although whisper campaigns against Rothith’s dalit identity were on since his suicide, the BJP’s central leadership had been relatively quiet after HRD minister’s rather shrieky ‘appeal’ to not play caste politics over his suicide. However, now it seems daggers are out. The party in power, whose two ministers are accused of creating conditions leading to Rohith’s suicide, has decided that Rohith’s non-dalit status is the dog it is going to beat to counter its anti-dalit image. Rohith’s mother is a Mala, a Scheduled Caste, who lives seperately from his father, a backward caste Vaddera. He got an SC certificate on the basis of showing that he grew up in his mother’s Mala household. BJP’s strategy may look petty, but it is based on the age-old great Hindu tradition which can not contenance any violation of the privileges of the patrilineal system. After all, marital rape does enjoy legal sanction in India to this day. Rohith’s father’s non-dalit status is the favorite stick of Hindutva forces to create a wedge in the movemend demanding justice for him. Whether the BJP’s startegists succeed or not only time will tell, the tactic however fits like a glove with the social engineering machinations of the Sangh Parivar. The latter focuses on bracketing different caste segments of dalits within the self identity of their specific castes through imagined caste histories. The most common tactic is to elevate folk heroes of caste groups to a divine status, and integrate them into Hindu pantheon. The Hindu society accoding to the RSS plan thus becomes a heap of communities, under the guiding wisdom of the socalled swarna upper castes; all in the service of a putative Hindu rashtra. It is a classic brahminical trick adatped to the electoral democracy of twenty first century.

While Hindutva plan is to de-dalitise and depoliticise Rohith’s suicide, its opponents can ill afford to ignore broader patterns and underlying causes. Barring its tragic end, the sequence of events leading the Rohith’s suicide has an uncanny similarity to events at Madras IIT in April last year. There too a Dalit based organisation, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle was derecognised by the administration after an anonymous letter to the central government, accusing APSC of anti-national activities on campus had become the tool for hyper activism of the HRD ministry. It seems enlightened Dalit students organisations are on a special hit-list of Hindutva organisations. Hence, even while a number of Dalit students in institutions of higher learning have committed suicide in the recent past, Rohith’s suicide is the first one in which Central government is accused as directly involved. Why are Hindutva forces so scared of, and hence are attacking enlightened Dalit organisations with such vicious ferocity?

In many ways radical Dalit politics espoused by groups like Rohith Vemula’s Ambedkar Students Association, is the direct opposite of Hindutva. The former in its Ambdekarite form stands for rational humanism and universal liberation, the latter’s motivating force is communal hatred, and its organising principle is religion based, patriarchal and violent nationalism. Nothing else punctures the pompous claims about Hindu civilisation, culture and nation, as effectively as this politics. Ever since Phule, the radical dalit discourse has pointedly questioned the very existence of a Hindu society, culture and civilisation. Against tall claims of Brahminical spirituality this discourse has laid bare the inhumanity of Vedas and Smritis in justifying and establishing the system of caste brutality. It does not accept the existence of a unified Hindu world existing through millennia,  and has highlighted continuing opposition to Brahmanism in Buddhism, Sramanic traditions and radical sections of the Bhakti movement. Ambedkar’s announcement that ‘it was his  misfortune to be born a Hindu, but he will not die a Hindu’, encapsulates the relationship of radical Dalit consciousness to Hindu religion. Unlike in the case of its liberal and left adversaries, Hindutva forces can not accuse radical dalit politics of being the conspiracy of a Westernised elite, or de-classed intellectuals. No doubt it is guided by very modern notions of equality and a person’s dignity, but it is as organically Indian, as Ram rajya or Hindu rashtra.

Rohith’s suicide note speaks deep truth because it entertains no illusions, neither of hope, nor of malice. It is essential to have the clarity of his thought to understand current challenges. The radical Dalit discourse has consistently rejected patronising overtures of reformist caste Hindus, like Gandhi rechristening erstwhile untouchables as Harijans, or the more recent claim of  Mr Modi in a 2007 book Karmayogi that cleaning garbage is a spiritual experience for scavenger castes. The hegemony of upper caste Hindus over Indian society in modern times grew out of the failure of Ambedekarite radical separatism in the face of Gandhian blackmail that led to the 1932 Poona Pact. That pact did give reservations to dalits in the bargain, but there are gaping holes in its legacy eighty years later. The secular Indian constitution has limited itself to internal reform of Hinduism. It outlawed untouchability. Eradication of caste system was not mentioned even in Directive Principles. In the meanwhile, if caste has become de-ritualised in modern India, so has its dalit oppression. The half way measures of post independence state have failed to stop caste brutality. Killers of Shankar Bigha, Batahni Tola and many other massacres remain free precisely through workings of institutions of a modern state whose constitution guarantees security of life to all. There does exist a generalised Hindu common sense, which is hostile to everything Dalit. If backward caste Vanniars in small town Tamil Nadu do not allow Dalit funeral processions to pass through main public streets, in other avenues like market, bureaucracy, schools and universities where discrimination by force is not tenable, caste aggression has acquired newer ideological forms. ‘What more do these quota wallas demand!’ is the sub-text of swarna caste response to the presence of Dalits in these institutions. The political successes of Hindutva is premised upon this new Hindu common sense. It thrives on the castiesm, patriarchy, insecurities and superstitions of this common sense. It is high time social forces fighting Hindutva realise its base in the caste ridden Hindu society, and understand the specific nature of its assault on radical Dalit politics.

Also, the specific form of Dalit oppression in modern India needs to be confronted head on. For instance, why do so many brilliant young men like Rohith who undergo the acute experience, and have an intimate understanding of dalit oppression commit suicide? It is not personal defeat, frustration, loss of face, or the meaninglessness of continuing with life. Rohith’s last note is as good a key to predicaments of enlightened Dalit youth in India as any other. The core conflict lies between some deeply and dearly held values and ideals, the freedom of mind to explore stars in his case, and a social colossus. All sensitive and honest women and men experience this conflict some time in their life, Dalit youth have an extra burden to carry. The existential helplessness with which a Dalit student or a poet sits down to take his life, has its roots in the nature of injuries caste system inflicts on sensitive spirits. The big ideological challenge for any liberatory movement today is to shatter this vice like grip of caste on society.

(Sanjay Kumar teaches Physics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi)




2 thoughts on “Missing the Forest for Trees – Caste System’s Shadow on Rohith’s Suicide : Sanjay Kumar”

  1. By diverting attention from Rohit as a dalit to Rohit as the non-dalit, the ruling classes want to achieve two things — dilution of the fact of caste discrimination and protecting archaic principles of ‘Manu brahminic order’. The upper castes have visible shaken by the response to Rohit sacrifice and contriving to systematically mystify the incident sighting various other reasons to protect the system -educational and caste-dominated hierarchical.
    Dalits and oppressed castes/religions should counter these dangerous trends by ideological education, mobilisation of forces and thwarting attempts of division within themselves. The brahminism has thrived on segregation of castes within castes and would continue to do so for its survival since means of production is still in their hands including strong economic and political base.


  2. ‘Punish the culprits !! Institutional murder of Dalit Research Scholar” It sounds simply a cry in the wilderness.Whom do you ask this to do?Rest assured ,nothing is going to happen of this sort.A judicial panel has been set up .This has been routine with every government since we hear of a responsive government.This is entirely another dimension of the issue that Rohith is being called a non-Dalit..Even if he was one how was his being abetted to commit suicide was justified?If anything else was untrue the fact could not be denied that conditions were created by the authorities which compelled him to take his own life.Life is the most precious treasure for every one regardless of one’s caste.It seems the people who are seeking an alibi for the crime committed by them are indulging in self-deception.I do not think they do not value their own lives and that of their kith and kin.Secondly three months for the inquiry to be completed is too long to be remembered.People proverbially have a short memory. How many culprits have been punished till date for committing such murders one may ask?There is a rather endless list.So I am sure no one will be held guilty and there will be no culprit.Thge question of punishment will be buried once for all.


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