Ananya Vajpeyi


If Ekalavya’s dismembered digit has haunted the Hindu schoolyard from time immemorial, Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide lays bare the deep inequality undergirding the modern state and its institutions of higher learning.


On Sunday, January 17, Rohith Vemula (25), a doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad, reportedly committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in a friend’s hostel room. His death has brought to a head a long-simmering conflict between progressive student groups, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), present on campuses across the country and increasingly belligerent in the prevailing climate of Hindu right-wing dominance.


Rohith, a Dalit, had been involved in campus activism on diverse issues: Ambedkarite politics, protests against beef bans, the persistence of the death penalty in the Indian criminal justice system, and communal violence in Muzaffarnagar in August-September 2013, which left many dead and thousands displaced, mostly Muslims.


Along with four other Dalit students, Rohith had been evicted from his hostel accommodation about a month ago, his monthly research stipend suspended, allegedly for subversive activities. The university administration as well as the State and Central governments all appear to have been strong-armed by the reactionary ABVP into expelling these five individuals on dubious charges, characterising the victimised students as “casteist”, “extremist” and “anti-national”. All of them belonged to the Ambedkar Students Association, a body similar to the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M), a group that had also faced harassment and intimidation from campus authorities in the summer of 2015.


Caste and the Hindu Right


The conflicts in both the University of Hyderabad and the IIT-M illustrate a deep fracture between the Hindu Right and Dalit-Bahujan ideologies, particularly those of the Ambedkarite strain, a fault line that cannot be papered over by electoral alliances of convenience and occasional instances of power-sharing between the two sides. The Sangh Parivar at every level, from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party down to the ABVP, stands against equality, whether between castes, religious communities, or the sexes.


Instead of egalitarianism, the Hindu Right believes in an archaic arithmetic of adhikaar and bahishkaar, entitlement and exclusion, based on caste, religion and gender. If the Indian Republic is built on a plinth of equal citizenship, the Hindu Rashtra would be founded on ritual hierarchy and patriarchy as laid out for centuries in the caste system. Onto this unequal social order of considerable vintage would be layered a deadly neo-Fascist majoritarian politics that arises out of the Hindutva imagination of the modern nation.


This is why, when the Ambedkar Students Association supported the screening of Nakul Singh Sawhney’s film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai on the University of Hyderabad campus, the ABVP attacked the Dalit activist-students, driving them out of their classrooms and hostels, eventually to the limit where Rohith took the irreversible decision to end his life. Photographs he posted on his Facebook page in 2014 of his parents’ home in the small town of Guntur — a prized red refrigerator in which all the neighbours kept their water bottles, a gas burner, a fan he wryly described as “solar powered” — suggest the great distance from poverty and hardship travelled by this young man to become a doctoral student at one of the most prestigious universities in India. His journey ended violently and abruptly.


But the ostracising of the Sudra and Dalit student from the institutions of education and employment, knowledge and power, is a very old theme in Indian thought on social structure and moral order. The figure of the outcaste student appears in some of our oldest texts that reflect on the relationship between self, society and sovereignty.


In the Mahabharata, Ekalavya, a talented archer prince of the forest tribe of the Nishadas, goes to Dronacharya, the master who teaches young men of the Pandava and Kaurava clans how to wield their weapons. Drona will not admit Ekalavya on account of the tribal status that makes him an outsider to the caste system. Ekalavya goes away, makes an image of Drona, secretly watches him give lessons to Arjuna and the other royals, and teaches himself archery, treating the mud-and-clay Drona as a stand-in for the recalcitrant guru.


When Ekalavya turns out to be a better bowman than the Kshatriya prince Arjuna, Drona asks for his right thumb as tuition fee. Ekalavya agrees, but not without understanding that he is being discriminated against yet again. Ekalavya’s initial disobedience (which makes him a secret apprentice) as well as his later compliance (which costs him his thumb) shame both Drona and his favourite pupil, the supposed beneficiary of this blatant act of prejudice, Arjuna. The story of the Nishada prince shows Drona up as a caste bigot whose classroom reeks of nepotism, even if he knows how to teach his students well, at least the high-born ones he favours.


Ekalavya’s dismembered digit, a bloody and visceral embodiment of caste consciousness, has haunted the Hindu schoolyard from time immemorial. It can be read as quite literally a thumb in Drona’s eye, a jab at our conscience that is as painful for us to experience as it must have been for Ekalavya to lose the very source of his hard-earned skill. He is denied access at every stage: he cannot become Drona’s pupil, but neither is he allowed to become a great archer through his own efforts.


The story of Satyakama Jabali from the Chandogya Upanishad is more complex. Satyakama has no father, and takes his mother Jabala’s name. He goes to the hermitage of the sage Gautama, and wants to be admitted. When asked about his parentage, he acknowledges honestly that he does not know his father’s name or caste. Gautama admits him nevertheless, and performs the initiation ritual to pronounce him a twice-born Brahmin, after which his education begins in earnest.


In the ancient text of the Upanishad, Gautama is willing to entertain Satyakama as a potential pupil because of his honesty: he takes the boy’s love of truth (which is the literal meaning of his name, satya-kama) as proof of his essentially Brahmin nature. Once the teacher has assessed the applicant’s innate worth, he then translates his positive assessment into an upanayana (bestowal of the sacred thread on the boy’s body), naming Satyakama a proper Brahmin and proceeding to educate him accordingly.


Satyakama’s Brahmin identity is clearly attributed to him; it cannot be proven to be intrinsic, since his mother Jabala cannot identify his father. Gautama seems to suggest that ‘Brahmin is as Brahmin does’, i.e., Satyakama has the lakshana (characterising feature) of a Brahmin (because he speaks the truth), even though he does not have the gotra (lineage) of a Brahmin (because his mother was unmarried).


For a modern reader, this is a confusing account. Does Gautama make an exception and admit a non-Brahmin pupil into his hermitage, or does Gautama accept Satyakama because he thinks he recognises him, despite appearances, to be a genuine Brahmin? The exchange between Satyakama and Gautama at the threshold of the ashram, as it were, raising fundamental questions about identity (Who are you? Who am I?), about rights to entry into the portals of the academy, about rule and exception in the caste system, and about the entailments of caste in the strongholds of knowledge and seats of power, is again a moment that has not left our collective conscience for two millennia. Dr. Ambedkar himself reminds us of both these characters, Ekalavya and Satyakama, who for him are damning evidence of the stubborn longevity of caste in Indian history.


The more things change…


Ekalavya did not die and neither did Satyakama, but Rohith did. This sad fact could lead to various conclusions. It is a reflection on the unexpected cruelty and the adamantine ideologies undergirding the modern state and its institutions of higher learning. Drona and Ekalavya, Gautama and Satyakama could to some extent negotiate the terms of their relationship. Rohith ostensibly had the might of the Indian Constitution behind him — his fundamental rights as a citizen, reservations policy for students of his socioeconomic background, and the empowering discourses of the Ambedkarite student group which gave him a certain political awareness and the radical energy to fight for the equality he fully expected and deserved, but never got. And yet, when he was rusticated and ousted from his hostel, when he and his companions felt pushed to stage a “sleep-in” outside the university gates; when his stipend was withheld and he had to borrow money, and when he finally felt like he had hit a wall and had no options, Rohith was far worse off than his metaphorical brothers in the ancient literature.


His heartbreaking suicide note states the piercing truth, the skewer that caste ideology drives into every heart filled with hope: “My birth is my fatal accident.” Yes, this is the human condition: our birth, all birth, is an accident. We do not choose our father or mother, our group or community. But only in India, only in caste society, and only for Dalits does this accident of coming into an unequal life become the fatality of either living with relentless inequality and enduring its cruelties, or dying a terrible, unfair, premature and unredeemed death.


Anil Kumar Meena, a first-year Dalit student at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), India’s premier medical college, had hung himself from the fan of his hostel room in March 2012. In Rohith’s poignant Facebook photos, his family’s meagre possessions now stand witness to a life whose promise was extinguished. He had posted that before he got a Junior Research Fellowship, his mother’s humble sewing machine had supported the family.


Like December 16, 2012, the day marked by the horrendous rape and murder of a young woman Nirbhaya, let January 17, 2016 too go down in this country’s history as the dark day of the death of a student, Rohith Vemula, who was promised a chance at dignity and prosperity by our founders, and whom we abandoned, to our eternal shame.


(Ananya Vajpeyi, author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (2012), is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)

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