Rohith Vemula’s living legacy seen through debates on RAIOT
The story of Nangeli is a disputed one. Academic historians have yet to find sufficient external evidence of the events the story describes. For me, the veracity of the facts is less important than the singular fact that the story exists, and continues to be told. It narrates the protest, anguish and anger of those who are excluded from the reach of our collective conscience because they have no text, and therefore no ‘history’. This comics story first appeared in Art Review Asia and is dedicated to Rohith Vemula (1989-2016), who, like Nangeli, chose death over a life of indignity.
Caste is not an internal problem, otherwise we wouldn’t be having this debate. It has to be acknowledged and exposed. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recommended that the UK invoke Section 9(5)(a) of the Equality Act ‘without further delay to ensure that caste-based discrimination is explicitly prohibited under law’ and for victims to have access to effective remedies”. In other words, the game is up. The government knows it, caste supremacists know it and human rights activists know it.
In the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan campaign, cleaning starts with a photo shoot and people involved in it are worried about trying to get the best picture clicked while they are cleaning the already sanitized road with sanitized broom.
Ghosh babu said dryly, “Cut it into five or six bits. You’re used to cutting meat. After that wrap the pieces in a banana leaf and get to the road, go and tie it to stones and throw it into the river. That’s all the work there is. Dharmaraj remembered the time Ghosh babu’s elder daughter got married. He had been called to cut the goats. Ten or twelve goats were tied to a post. He had instructed him likewise, “Cut it nicely into medium-size pieces. Not too small, not too large, you can take the skin, heads and everything else.” Today it occurred to him that for these people there was no difference at all between men and goats. But Dharmaraj was just an ordinary butcher. His hands and legs turned icy. Sensing Dharmaraj’s plight, Ghosh babu said, “Liquor has been brought, gulp a bottle, once you’re intoxicated you won’t have a clue about what you’re cutting. Get to work at once. The work has to be completed in two hours.
The idea of this sociological article is to understand how the group life and social relations of the Young Indian Fellowship (YIF) Cohort 2016 have developed over the past nine months. YIF is a year long Post Graduate Diploma Programme in Liberal Studies at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana. Ashoka University is a private university whose founders include big shot businessmen and industrialists who have easy access to the corridors of power in Delhi. YIF is a flagship programme of the university to attract students for its UG courses in the name of providing Ivy League education in India.
Vivekananda’s views on caste are instructive in that they sum up the views of today’s defenders of the caste system. Even among people who don’t defend the caste system, you will find rich echoes of thoughts that Vivekananda puts forth.
In the latest survey conducted by India Human Development Surveys (IHDS) II in 2011 to 2012 which is a continuation of their last survey IHDS I held in 2004 to 2005 tells a staggering claim on inter-caste marriages. The survey is a collaboration between National Council of Applied Economic Research and University of Maryland funded by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Ford Foundation, and it is headed by sociologists and economist[i]. The analysis of the survey as reported by IndiaSpend[ii] presents data on inter-caste marriages in India. The findings tell that 95 per cent of marriages took place among same caste, and the remaining 5 per cent practiced inter-caste marriages. Break-up of this data places Mizoram as the state with highest incidence of inter-caste marriages at 55 per cent of its population, and Madhya Pradesh at the opposite end with same caste marriages at 99 per cent of its population. The data portrays the whole population of India under Hindu society by overlooking various communities who fall outside ‘caste system’ especially tribal communities.
Indeed, if men or Whites or Brahmins or heterosexuals have long used whatever power and knowledge was tied to their identity in order to define, judge, and subjugate others (is this not identity politics?), can the latter fight back without politicizing those definitions, judgments, and subjugations? As long as socially constructed race remains a vector of discrimination, wouldn’t it also remain a source of social identity, around which people organize to reclaim their dignity and rights? If racism didn’t exist, would we still have our modern idea of race—or the identitarians’ preoccupation with it?
I would contend that it is because of the legitimization of hierarchy by various canonical Islamic texts that the Muslims who arrived in India (Arabs, Afghans, Mongols, Turks, Persians, etc.) were not in the least bit surprised by caste: they were only too familiar with the hierarchies they found here. Rather, it could be argued, that they skilfully adapted to the caste order and even Islamized it.
The fear of criticism breaking solidarity is an enveloped fear; well cushioned in caste hierarchies and privileges. It is an arm chair fear, resulting from the fear of doing the boring but radical work of patiently explaining, convincing and converging.
Before HIV funding oiled and co-opted “queer”, before it re-created and held in place caste hierarchies – Indian collective queer spaces were found in hamams, and bastis, and parks. It was found in villages where the only visible queer was the local (Dalitbahujan) transfemme community. She was the one that poor, Dalitbahujan queer femmes and trans men sought out and befriended and asked for help. Before the globalized repeal IPC-377 campaign cemented the meaning of what queer caste neutrality looks like – it was queer Dalitbahujans who were being beaten, tortured, raped and killed by the police, by the public and the state. While the sexuality rights consultancies and speaking engagements went to Savarna queers, it was Dalitbahujans who arrived in masses and protested police stations and courtrooms, and were lathi-charged, beaten and arrested.
Maranatha Wahlang’s revealing experiences of Hyderabad Central University and how Rohith Vemula’s experience was not an anomaly
Rohith Vemula’s ‘suicide’ is not the desperate reaction of a despairing victim to casteist atrocities. For the same reason, and contrary to what many might imagine, Vemula’s ‘suicide’ has nothing to do with anomie-bred existential nihilism. Rather, it is an act of revolutionary affirmation
“Please serve 10mg Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission. With direction to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar.”
ROHITH VEMULA’s letter of 18/12/2015 to the Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad Central University
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
In most societies the acts of religious conversion do ruffle the feathers of those who take the task of policing group boundaries zealously. In India too the issue of proselytization has been a matter of immense anxiety for the majoritarian groups belonging to Hindu religion