Cast aside on Campus

At the height of the FTII agitation last year, a senior minister rang up to complain at what he termed the “excessive” focus on the student protests. “These are all Naxal sympathisers, please don’t give them any publicity!”. When I asked just what led him to believe that they were closet Naxals, the response was telling: “Just see the films they seek to make, all against the state, all anti-national.”

The charge of “anti-national” is now thrown around like confetti: be it in television studios, election rallies or indeed, in college campuses. From NGOs to journalists, intellectuals to human rights activists, the “anti national” accusation is used to separate “them” from “us”, the cheerleaders from the dissenters. Its the charge which led Rohith Vemula and his fellow research scholars at the Hyderabad Central University (HCA) to be suspended, virtually thrown out from the campus and be denied access to its facilities. Whether it also led to his suicide is still open to question, but it certainly has exposed the rather troubling links between caste identity and student politics. In particular, do radicalised Dalit politics pose a challenge to existing hierarchies on the campus and should those who espouse views that do not conform to the “establishment” be seen as “anti-national” and “extremist”? Or is there reason enough to believe that there is institutionalised discrimination where Dalit student groups feel a need to 'strike back' out of anger and frustration?

A casual look at the Facebook posts of Rohith clearly reflect a belief system that was steeped in a fierce opposition to mainstream political agendas. As a member of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), Rohith and his colleagues poured scorn on Hindutva ideology, were dismissive of Vivekananda’s teachings, accused the left leaders of double standards, saw the BJP and Congress as “upper caste Brahminical oppressors”. That they also chose to protest the hanging of Mumbai blast accused Yakub Memon ties in with a worldview that appeared to see the death penalty as promoting the supremacy of the ruling elite.

They were dissenters, challenging the orthodoxy, much in the manner that an Ambedkar had questioned caste hierarchies all those years ago. One could question and fight their radical beliefs, but did their “extremist” views make them anti-national, deserving of suspension or expulsion? Were they “hooligans” ready to resort to violence against their opponents or were they simply challenging the more established students groups like the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the students wing of the sangh parivar? Is that the political context which led union minister Bandaru Dattareya to seek the urgent intervention of the human resources development ministry, which in turn kept sending repeated reminders to the university seeking a status report? And did this VIP pressure influence the University Vice Chancellor and the Executive Council to reverse an earlier decision and go ahead with their suspension?

Those questions can only be answered by a free, fair and independent inquiry. But they also expose the fault-lines in a society where there appears to be a shrinking space for dissent. It is not unusual to be subject to vile abuse on social media for example if one chooses to question the official narrative on contentious issues. Public intellectuals have been scoffed at as “adarsh liberals” if they do not conform to the ruling ideology. And street protests by civil society groups are seen as a sign of creeping “anarchy.”

That the academic arena which should ideally be a place for a democratic contestation of ideas has become particularly susceptible to this social ostracism of alternate viewpoints is deeply troubling. The Hyderabad university which has seen eight suicides by Dalit students in the last decade is perhaps a more graphic example of pronounced social cleavages on the campus. Only last year, IIT Madras had banned the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, accusing the group of spreading “hatred” against prime minister Modi and Hindus. The HRD ministry had pushed for the ban before it was eventually revoked after consultations with the stakeholders. On the flip side, an attempt to hold a conference on the Ram mandir issue on the Delhi university campus earlier this month led to protests from anti-BJP groups who saw it as “communalising” the student community.

At the heart of this confrontation seems to be a desire on part of the ruling establishment to almost “sanitise” the campus and make it more congenial to the interests of the party in power. Questions over academic and political freedom were raised when the Congress too was in power: the protests against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial streak did, after all, begin in campuses. There have also been violent manifestations of caste and political rivalries amongst students in the past too: recall the agitation over renaming Marathwada university after Babasaheb Ambedkar or the post 1989 reservation “war” over the Mandal commission report. Left-backed student groups have also been accused of fomenting violence in states like Bengal and Kerala to further their power equations.

And yet, there is a sense that the nature of the ideological battle has become even sharper with the rise of the BJP to power at the Centre, and this has intensified the tug of war for control of young minds. Hindutva politics has always co-existed uneasily with Dalit assertion and despite the attempts in recent times to co-opt Dalit leaders, the sangh parivar outfits have been branded by their critics as upper caste monopolists. Student groups like ASA reflect this viewpoint, which is why the potential for conflict is inherent in their adversarial politics. Instead of engaging them in a robust dialogue, government-run college managements have chosen to dub them “anti national” almost pushing them into retaliating in equal measure. Rohith’s tragic death should be reason enough for a truce: empathy, not accusations, reconciliation not confrontation is the only way forward.

Post-script: In his poignant and moving suicide note, Rohith says, “Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy being dead than alive.” Truth is, as netas flock to the Hyderabad University campus, Rohith’s death will echo in the political battlefield for Dalit hearts, minds, but above all else, votes.

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