"I came here through reservations and I sustain myself through the political solidarity of my dalit community!" is my firm answer to questions such as "Are you a dalit?" "Do you belong to category?" "Do you have any reservation?" These are the questions any dalit invariably faces one time or the other at the universities. These questions are not simple questions to find the caste position of the dalits but they come with a baggage of complexities when they are posed by people in the academia. The caste position of the dalits has a direct connection to their "lack of merit". Upper-castes often perceive reservations for dalits is an injustice done to them and to the nation. This argument has been well articulated during the anti-Mandal protests.
The dalit students who enter the prestigious or premier educational institutes today have to be ready to face two major problems: exclusion and the question of merit. Be it a mere exclusion that a dalit faces while the upper-caste students are planning a dinner outside campus to the social boycott that the students of UOH have been facing, exclusion is unavoidable for dalits. The question of merit is another problem. Merit is a legitimate device to discriminate against dalits. It is not a scale to measure one's ability but merely an indicator of the caste position of the student.
In our society, knowledge is not power but what constitutes knowledge and becomes acceptable to the upper-castes determines power. Hence the current education system could successfully prove dalits to be unmeritorious. Yesterday, when I entered my class room I was struck by the moral question whether I should appreciate the students who attended my class or those who chose to join the protests against Vemula's death. If I appreciate the former I am merely a teacher who believes that there is no connection between the society we live in and what I teach as part of humanities or social sciences.
When assessments strictly fall under mere examinations conducted in a classroom with a couple of invigilators walking between the rows hoping to catch "the thief", it would be much easier to appreciate the former group: students who remained indifferent to the injustice in order to be "good" students whose learning is confined to the four walls of the class room. Those students who could not remain indifferent to discrimination and injustice, responded to the death of a dalit student would merely lose attendance and a class which discussed the "Feminist Interpretation of Foucault". Yet, if I appreciate the latter for their application of learning who went to join the protests might make me a bad teacher; someone who promotes politics on the campus or class room.
When the group of dalits alone could respond to the capital punishment given to Yakub Memom in a prestigious university that consists of large number of social sciences and humanities departments, is it the failure of the education system or the lack of merit of the dalit students? Or is it a failure of the institute because it could not produce the students who practice what they learn? It is the Ambedkarite ideology which makes the dalit students respond to what happens in society. This is not considered as merit rather casteism and anti-nationalist ideology as mentioned in the letter of Bandaru Dattatreya. The meritorious groups of the country choose to be indifferent to everything that happens in society. Yet the merit of the meritorious groups is not questioned because it is the caste position that brings legitimacy to their acts. The application of knowledge of social sciences is almost absent in many universities and it remains only at the level of theory.
Rohith committed suicide in spite of being a dalit student leader/activist. The reason behind that decision could partly be due to the complexity of discrimination. Though identifying discrimination is subjective, speechifying discrimination is political. Exclusion, humiliation and discrimination are such complex phenomena that often dalits fail to address them because there is no language readily available to them.
In the context where the upper-castes resort to the "casteless" status and silence about caste becomes the civilized behavior, getting organized to take on caste discrimination is the need of dalits alone. Dalits fight caste and ironically get branded as casteist groups. The students who organized themselves on the platform of Ambedkarite ideology are branded as extremist and anti-nationalists in the letter written by Bandaru Dattatreya.
The death of a rape victim attracts nationwide protests. Why does not the rape survivor attract the same sympathy? Because the victimhood of a woman can be diluted very easily through character assassination. Any insinuation about sexual immorality of the rape victim can bring justification to the act of rape and its perpetrator. Similarly, the victimhood of a dalit can be diluted by invoking merit - or lack of it - or bad conduct. There are numerous examples of rustication of students in various universities across the country where the on-road protests failed to bring justice to the dalit students.
The violent side of the dalit students or bad conduct has been recurrently mentioned by the administration by referring to instances of breaking the glass door of the library or kicking a flower pot in the Vice Chancellor's chamber. Therefore the category dalit cannot produce "pure victims". There are "inherent flaws" in the character of the dalit victim in relation to his/her merit or conduct, hence the injustice and discrimination is only perceived to be the punishment given by the administration. In such cases, how much ever strong the dalit solidarity is, dalits fail to restore justice. In many cases, unfortunately, the death of a dalit became the only way to prove the discrimination and injustice done by the upper-castes.
The education system has developed its own way of assessing the "merit" of students. This has its own structural loopholes which prove the dalit students to be unmeritorious. The letter written by Rohith shows his unquestionable skills in writing and unfortunately it became his last writing. However the institutes keep on blaming dalits for their inability to "cope up with the standards" and justify the suicides of dalits. Is it then also a statement that the "unmeritorious" have no right to life in academia?
One Rohith who committed suicide today is the centre of debates. Yet, every academic year pushes out thousands of Rohiths out of the universities. Many Rohiths die silent deaths. They are pushed back into their dalit hamlets. The premier educational institutes systematically push out the dalit students and justification invariably comes from the concept of "death of merit". When the dalit student is politically aware and asserts his caste identity, s/he is subverting the power of the upper-castes in the universities. Therefore there is more oppression for the dalits like Rohith.
Sowjanya teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.