Rohith Vemula: The rot of caste privilege and the price of a Dalit scholar’s life

Rohith Vemula

Rohith Vemula was the leader of a Dalit student organization, Ambedkar Student Association at the University of Hyderabad. He was a bright student on a scholarship in a prestigious PhD program, interested in science studies. His coursework complete, he had just received approval for his research proposal. His dream was to become a science writer like Carl Sagan.

Because of a complaint by the rival, right-wing student association ABVP’s leader N. Susheel Kumar, that he had been assaulted by Rohith and his friends, Rohith had become the target of three different investigations by local neighborhood police and the university. Starting in September 2015, the Union Minister for Human Resources Office had written three letters to the university pressuring them to take action against Rohith and four other ASA members. One faculty member asked, why these investigations about a minor student-student altercation were so drawn out: why was it not settled swiftly? After all, the doctor who examined the claim to assault by the ABVP student said he had one small bruise on his body and did not show any signs of assault.

The altercation was politicized from the start. The ABVP is allied to the RSS, an extremist Hindu nationalist organization popular with upper-caste Hindu communities, whose political arm is the BJP (the political party currently in power in India). India’s largest student union, the ABVP has in recent years been known for disrupting campus dialogue on Kashmir (Pune), secularism, and, at Rohith’s campus, the ASA’s screening of a film on Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar in north India. The scuffle involved both ABVP and ASA students when the latter had demanded an apology for the disruption. Only five ASA students were singled out and suspended in August 2015 by the university.

Subject to three institutional investigations, suspended from the university for seven months while these were ongoing, Rohith’s situation kept worsening. His scholarship was withheld for these seven months, a terrible financial hardship for him and his poor family, which earlier subsided largely on his mother’s daily wage labor of sewing and tailoring. Following three letters from the Ministry of Human Resource Development urging action against these five students, on 16 December 2015, these student-activists were expelled from their dorm, and barred from entering administrative buildings and shared spaces on campus, such as the library. This institutionalized discriminatory treatment in the very educational institution that is supposed to enshrine equal and democratic rights, was part of his long experience of discrimination, “in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” As he wrote in his suicide note, “Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust.”

Denied dignity and human rights, Rohith and the four other expelled students launched a 14-day sleep-in strike to protest their treatment. On the fourth day of this strike, Rohith died, gently asserting, in what Manash Bhattacharjee notes is the clarity of a suicide note, “Do not shed tears for me. I am happy dead than alive.”

Following the suicide and related media protests across India, the suspension of the other four Dalit students was reversed. Only proving Rohith’s suggestion, that his birth as a Dalit drove the harassment he faced; though not just that, but also the fact that he spoke up as a Dalit subject, as an activist, and he exercised his constitutional rights of free speech, because he thought he lived in a democracy. But he spoke up in a political climate that has become increasingly inhospitable to dissident voices, be they Muslim, Dalit, secularist, or feminist. His treatment violated the equality promised in our constitution, and his young life was lost needlessly, as Ananya Vajpeyi writes, “to our eternal shame.”

Rohith’s mother has rejected the state’s offered payment of INR 8,00,000 (US$ 11,838) as compensation for Rohith’s death. Given the withholding of the stipends that would have paid for food and living expenses, and driving him to suicide, this seems like a cruel joke. She demands that the politicians and officials involved be held accountable and responsible for driving him to this.

Rohit Venkatramakrishnan has written that Rohith’s death indicts us all. When death or the risk of death seems happier than life to a young student in Hyderabad, or Syria, or a young Buddhist monk in Tibet, we are looking at a deeply traumatic, and multi-layered historical experience of persistent cruelty, violence, dispossession, and dehumanization. Rohith’s death is an indictment not only of the society, but also of the state and its Delhi ministries, that failed to protect the dignity and human rights of some of India’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2016, this points to a crisis in caste relations, minority experience, and inequality in India that needs to be addressed now, by all of us.

 

(Photo Credit: The Indian Express)

India’s film students are on strike and fasting. Is the Indian government listening?

 

While the Indian Prime Minister Modi’s upcoming visit to Silicon Valley is being much discussed in the media, less visible seems to be his government’s disturbing treatment of India’s film students over the last three months. Just hours ago, The Hindu and The Indian Express both reported that in India, the FTII students’ strike has reached 100 days, with no solution in sight. The Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (est. 1960) is arguably the most prestigious film school in India. For the past 10 days, many of these striking students have been fasting to protest the political appointment of a BJP party worker Gajendra Chauhan to lead this illustrious institution; five students were hospitalized in the last two days.

India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister who controls the institute and its appointments seems to show no interest in visiting the campus, or resolving the issue. Having called the students thrice to Delhi for talks, with no results, the government seems unable to hear the legitimate perspective of India’s students and indeed, the art and film community—which has resoundingly spoken up, tweeted, and marched, in support of the students’ demands. From Bollywood celebrities like Pallavi Joshi, Anupam Kher, Rishi Kapoor, Ranbir Kapoor, Kiran Rao, and others, to social activists and writers, many have concurred that FTII’s newest Chairman Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment is politically tainted, and students have a right to an education that is free from indoctrination in the dominant political party’s ideological agenda

The Indian film industry has a history of being strikingly diverse in terms of the politics, and the religious and ethnic affiliations of its various members. Indeed, India’s film, literary, and artistic community has historically been largely secular in its orientation. FTII is an educational institution that has produced some of the greatest artists and filmmakers of Indian cinema-experimental or ‘art’ cinema as well as popular films. No wonder then that the students of FTII have been upset at what looks like a political appointment of Chauhan as Chairman. Chauhan acted as Yudhisthira in the popular television series “Mahabharata” which aired on nation-wide state television from 1988-1990. That is his claim to fame in the world of film and television production; since 2004, he has worked for the Hindu nationalist BJP party. He hardly resembles the renowned and illustrious chairpersons who preceded him like the internationally acclaimed filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan; the legendary cartoonist R. K. Laxman; the actor, filmmaker and playwright Girish Karnad; and the writer and Padma Bhushan winner U. R. Anathamurthy, among others.

In comparison, students say, Gajendra’s appointment looks more like a reward to a good BJP party worker with a powerful position, than the appointment of a leader who has a track record of a genuinely creative body of work with national and international impact. Thus, FTII students have been on strike to protest his appointment: they want his resignation. One protesting student’s placard said: “We are against saffronisation of education;” in the meantime, the right-wing Hindu organization RSS has called the protest “anti-Hindu,” lending credence to the charge that the recent influx of BJP and RSS members in the institute’s ranks is politically motivated.

Some news reports note that the government seems to be intent on both privatizing and saffronizing the premier film school. However, if it wants to project a positive image in America with its claims of being an efficient and clean organization which will usher in “better days,” the Indian government must treat India’s students and schools better than it has thus far—and heed the legitimate demands of the striking young women and men for better, more qualified, institutional leadership. In support of the FTII strike, students on campuses across India’s cities have organized protests and will continue to do so: witness Delhi, Bangalore, Patna, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Thrissur and Lucknow.

So, where are the women? What remains unremarked is also the gender bias of these government appointments: overwhelmingly, it is men who have been appointed to the position of chairperson. In the past 20 years, FTII has only had 3 women full-time faculty; all 21 of its current faculty are men.

 

(Image Credit: ink361.com) (Photo Credit: Rediff)

In the US and Europe: women, migrants, and injustice

Two news stories worthy of comment today: first, The New York Times reported yesterday that a nine-man, three-woman jury acquitted a young man from the elite prep school of St. Paul’s of rape charges, even when his 15-year-old victim reiterated over and over, that she had said “no” to her rape, several times during the ordeal.

What part of “No means No” did this jury not get?  In the twenty-first century?

The defense lawyer’s bizarre and illogical closing argument, which clearly found favor with at least some of the jurors, was this: “He’s not a saint. He’s a teenager.”  As if all male teens (and all men, it seems to imply), unless they are saints, will rape and assault young girls, and that that is a normal, acceptable thing; as if somehow, rape by teenagers should not be named or punished in the same way as rape by those who are not teenagers.  One of the six men who brutally raped and killed the bus commuter Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012 was a 17-year-old teenager.  Describing someone’s age status is not an argument. It is shameful that it became one, with a whole set of unspoken assumptions about acceptable sexual behavior, and seems to have been accepted by a majority of the members of that jury.  How this majority male jury was selected to decide a case involving a young girl’s rape, gender bias, and other serious concerns about this grave failure of the justice process also emerge.

The other story takes us to violence against a different vulnerable population: those Syrian, Iraqi, Eritrean, and Afghani refugees dying on Europe’s roads and shores, in its fields and seas– those that European countries and international media dishonestly and dehumanizingly call “migrants.”  As Hannah Arendt forcefully argued, based on the experience of Jewish refugees in the mid-twentieth century, these minorities have lost the protection of their states, and are “stateless people” – NOT “migrants.”  Even the term “refugee,” she argued, hid from view the fact that these people were in the position they were in because their states could/would no longer protect them and their basic human rights.  Instead of dehumanizing these stateless people by building more walls and pushing them out to sea, Europe needs to deliver on its promises in the 1951 Geneva Convention—made in the wake of the independence of most of the world from over 300 years of brutal British and European exploitation, dehumanization, enslavement, and colonization—to respect and protect the human rights of refugees.  Somini Sengupta nailed it when she noted, “Countries are free to deport migrants who arrive without legal papers, which they cannot do with refugees under the 1951 convention. So it is not surprising that many politicians in Europe prefer to refer to everyone fleeing to the continent as migrants.”

If European states refuse to help these human beings and turn them away from refuge, they are no better than the state governments people are fleeing. In the dissembling name “migrant” that denies people their history and human identity, Europe simply reproduces the inhumane state violence of those regimes it disparages.

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: Telesurtv.net) (Photo Credit 2: EurActiv.com)

Domestic Violence in Urban India: A Middle-Class Story


While international attention to recent incidents of rape in India has generated urgent attention to the issue of sexual violence there, another type of gender violence has received less attention in these media representations: domestic violence. Domestic violence is a global epidemic–less spectacular but equally deadly, in India and around the world. According to BBC reports, every five minutes, 1 incident of domestic violence is reported in India—a fraction of how much actually occurs. How do we counter domestic violence? Who can and should help victims of domestic violence, who often suffer quietly for years before they are so battered that they muster the courage to leave (as the Hindi film star Rati Agnihotri recently did) or they die (as my cousin and namesake Kavita did)? What NGO or state institutional resources exist, in urban and rural areas? How effective are they? How do we change so many men’s and women’s attitudes and behavior, so that they stop the abuse, and so that they speak up when they see another man or woman being abusive?

The Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell) campaign began in India in 2008, broadcasting 30 second ads on TV depicting men stopping domestic violence in their neighborhood or apartment building: they went to the home where they could hear a woman being beaten and abused, rang the doorbell and asked for some milk, or water, or to borrow a phone. The idea was to let the abuser know they were heard, and to interrupt the violence. The ads have stopped running, but the violence goes on.

Nobody rang the bell for my cousin Kavita. Six years ago, Kavita was living with emotional and verbal abuse throughout her four-year marriage in Mumbai. She was cursed and starved by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband; he even hit on several occasions. They were not poor-they hid bars of gold in bank lockers-just abusive. She kept hoping that things would change, if her sister-in-law got married, or at least when her beautiful daughter was born. It just got worse. In March 2009, emaciated at 34 years, a frail 5’4” Kavita died under suspicious circumstances, of “kidney and respiratory failure” (with no history of the same). She weighed barely 90 lbs. The doctors did not ask her husband any questions. Everyone knows that many married Indian women die of poisoning by a tasteless colorless chemical often used as a farmer’s pesticide, which causes kidney failure; detection is almost impossible.

I write this today, six years after, so that we don’t forget Kavita and millions of women like her. It is everybody’s responsibility—the parents, the siblings, the neighbors, the friends, the community, each one of us—to speak up, to intervene, to help, and stop the violence when we see it, for women’s human right to live with dignity in a violence-free world. Because when I reached out for help to an NGO serving as a resource in Mumbai for domestic violence victims, I was told “We can’t do anything if the victim is dead. If she was alive, we could have helped her, we could give her a lawyer, we could place her in a shelter. Since victim has died, we cannot do anything.” And the two year-old daughter she left behind will always miss the beautiful, loving mother she never got to know.

 

 

(Photo Credit: Youth Ki Awaaz)