A very dismal Republic Day
by Sandhya Jain on 25 Jan 2016 13 Comments
As we take stock of our annual journey, the dominant mood this Republic Day is of shock at the suicide of University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula and the harsh attitude of the Union Human Resources Development Minister who has since retreated from the public domain. Far more disturbing is an insidious attempt by some to uphold inequality and disrespect for the less fortunate by questioning the caste credentials of the deceased, as if that explains or endorses the tragedy.


Mr Narendra Modi’s agenda of good governance, with its moral appeal that merit could catapult a tea-seller’s son to Prime Minister, can be derailed by such painful incidents. The Lok Sabha Speaker’s raking up the issue of reservations even before Rohith Vemula’s last rites have concluded and so soon after the belligerence with which the RSS chief raised the issue amidst the Bihar elections, causing the rout of the Bharatiya Janata Party, suggests that much of the current socio-political contest is internal to the ruling party.


As a judicial enquiry has been ordered into the suicide, it would be in order to await its findings. But some points deserve mention. The speed with which anti-BJP activists, media, and political parties from Congress to Left to Aam Aadmi Party grasped the potential of Vemula’s death to embarrass the centre should serve as a lesson to the BJP and associated organisations about the eternal vigilance of their rivals. Despite a crushing defeat in May 2014, delivered single-handedly by Mr Modi through a punishing eight-month campaign, it is the opposition that is agile and on the offensive, and the ruling party that is defensive, obtuse and slow.


The Prime Minister’s expression of anguish at the mother’s loss reflects the need to shift gears to more humanitarian grounds. Party leaders like Sanjay Paswan, and MPs Sunil Baliram Gaikwad (Latur), Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi (Bijapur) and Ashok Kumar Dohrey (Etawah) quickly distanced themselves from charges that Rohith was indulging in anti-national activities and fundamentalism on the campus. With elections scheduled to be held in four states later this year, and Uttar Pradesh in 2017, an anti-Dalit image could hurt the party. Mr Modi nurtured this constituency in 2014, with the result that the BJP has 39 of the 84 Scheduled Caste MPs. Observers are now watching the impact of the controversy on the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections in February.


The university was deeply conflicted before the suicide brought social divisions to the fore, which the authorities failed to mend. Scheduled Castes who feel respected will regard “beef festivals” as an affront to their own dignity. Having failed to dialogue, upper caste activists are resorting to cheap internet polemics such as challenging SC activists to organise “pork festivals”, little realising that they only demean the sacred cow by equating her with the despised pig.


Anyone with the slightest religious and cultural sensitivity would know that you cannot redress a religious slight by insulting another faith, that too, one which has not caused the original offence. These protectors of the faith are not aware that Muslims have no problem with pork festivals; the injunction against eating pork applies only to Muslims.


Rohith Vemula was a brilliant student. When he and others were suspended after an altercation with another student, the matter should have ended with revocation of the suspensions after one week. Instead, the vice-chancellor (now on leave) refused to entertain appeals from the students, including claims of special problems of SC students, particularly denial of access to the hostel. The university management seems to have ignored the protests of all student bodies (barring Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), and accepted one-sided intervention by the Union HRD Ministry into the alleged conflict between students. Reports of parallel pressure by the Courts suggest an urgent need to clarify the Constitutional division of powers; excessive encroachment by courts in the executive realm is undermining the Republic.

Matters escalated and the students were expelled. The suicide followed this extreme, punitive measure, though there are differing views about the reasons that propelled it. Perhaps the realisation that sterile politics had wasted his talents was a factor. If so, there is need to end the misuse of students by political parties in Government-funded institutions. The Left is especially adept at such recruitment, though none lag behind. Private institutions with hefty fees are free of this menace.


Educational institutions must redefine the parameters of campus activism, and limit it to student-related issues. Controversial subjects such as the hanging of a rapist or terrorist are best discussed in debating societies; organised protests must be staged at designated spots like Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. This will go a long way to improve standards in our institutions of higher learning, and save students from being misdirected into hollow revolutions guided by unseen forces within and outside the country.


That the university authorities were content to let the situation simmer is evident from their knew-jerk response to the tragedy, promptly revoking the suspensions of the other students! This raises legitimate questions about their original obduracy and harshness in dealing with students who families have made herculean efforts to educate them.


Rohith’s mother, Radhika Vemula, who shunned the Rs eight lakh ex-gratia offered by the varsity, is understandably bitter at questions about their caste status. The fact that a grieving mother had to clarify that she hailed from the SC Mala community while her husband was an OBC, speaks volumes about the vitiated atmosphere. Prima facie, Rohith was entitled to the caste certificate issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, which gave him the coveted scholarship.


The nation must grieve at the loss of a promising young man who won two scholarships for separate courses (which conflict led to an irresponsibly long suspension of dues). Rohith’s brother, Raja, is equally meritorious and has won a Project Fellowship at the National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad. Both used to work odd jobs for seven hours a day to help their mother make ends meet.


There is some justified anger that the Ambedkar Student Association, of which Rohith and other SC students were members, had protested the hanging of terrorist Yakub Menon, ostensibly because Dr BR Ambedkar opposed capital punishment. This is provocative, but the authorities did not suspend/rusticate them on this ground. It seems to have been tolerated under the garb of freedom of speech. Perhaps it is time to redefine this liberty to conform to public morality.  

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