This is a guest post by SAAGAR TEWARI
The call for a protest rally by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, constituted in the aftermath of Hyderabad Central University research student Rohith Vemula’s suicide galvanised large number of students and activists on 23rd February. On a bright sunny day, thousands descended on the streets of central Delhi marching from Ambedkar Bhawan to Jantar Mantar. The attendance was perhaps lower and the organization less cohesive than the JNU protest rally of 18th February. However, it trumped its predecessor in terms of attracting a far-wider political cross-section of the voices openly choosing to dissent against the current ruling establishment. The protestors proudly displayed anti-Brahmanism banners, flags, badges (featuring excerpts of Rohith’s suicide note) and even a radical inversion of Modi-style masks (featuring Rohith Vemula’s smiling face) thereby signaling that the same youth-brigade which was instrumental in BJP’s rise to political power in 2014 has started turning against it.
Songs, slogans and battle-cries were uttered in solidarity with struggles over Vemula’s death and resignations of Union Ministers Smriti Irani and Babu Dattatreya and the HCU Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao were vehemently demanded. Besides noted activists like Medha Patkar, several top leaders from various political parties including Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Sitaram Yechury, Brinda Karat, Kavita Krishnan, Yogendra Yadav, D. Raja etc. came to the dais and spoke to the students and activists. They attacked the current union government for its repeated assaults on the freedom of expression and for its penchant use of ‘sedition’ logic to intimidate and silence all political opposition. Besides extending their support for a ‘Rohith Bill’ to prevent caste-based discrimination in the university campuses across the country, most speakers also linked the Rohith issue with the ongoing crisis in JNU. Several representatives of students organizations participating in the march such as CYSS, NSUI, SFI, AISA, BAPSA, DSU etc. also voiced their opinions. The mood was made festive by singing of songs. Rohith’s mother Radhika and brother Raja were also present in solidarity with the crowds. The event was greatly facilitated by the active involvement of Prakash Ambedkar who in the recent past has been opposing, tooth and nail, attempts by the current ruling establishment to appropriate the legacy of his grandfather into the Hindutva fold.
The Delhi Police had made tight security arrangements. Fortunately, the crowd was enthusiastic but disciplined. There were no untoward incidents despite some small Hindu extremist group members strolling in their midst with banners demanding punishment for traitors. One major irritant, however, was the constant propaganda blaring of a large sound-box by a Madhesi group from Nepal. The speakers of this ‘pro-Indian Culture’ group poured their lungs out ostensibly in support of their cause (which is the dismantling of a hard-fought Nepalese Constitution). This high-decibel charge progressively irked the ‘Chalo Delhi’ protestors as the vehemence of its speakers went up a few notches every time a big political name was up at the microphone platform of the solidarity protest march. Whether or not this was an ‘innocent’ placement of a ‘democratic’ voice or some intelligent ‘sound-direction’ will perhaps never be known. The big positive news to have emerged from the protest march was the meeting of the two issues of Rohith Vemula and JNU. That this meeting ground has immense political potentialities is without doubt. What remains to be seen is whether the Indian Left and the caste/tribe based political groupings can do away with their mutual allergies in order to emerge as a viable ‘united front’ in the democratic process yet to unfold.