Harish S. Wankhede
"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." ~ Rohith Vemula
Rohith Vemula is murdered. The Hindu caste psyche naturalizes the degraded social inequalities with such insensitivity that even the death of a young bright mind due to criminal institutional bias, does not force us to raise our voice against injustice. We do not operate as unified community but all are mechanically alienated from each other on separate caste ethics. For the majority of non-Dalits, the killing of Rohith is therefore not a grave concern. Dalits are normally absent in their collective conscience. For them, Rohith is an alien, not a part of their blood and clan and therefore nonexistent or a non-issue. The experiences of systemic societal exclusion of Rohith and others like him must have made him write in his last letter that he was 'just empty'.
Hindu religious bigotry will never be ashamed of its crimes against humanity. Our social history is an open book of the perpetual exploitation against the lower castes, Dalits and women. However, we negate the dark patch of this history to celebrate the spiritual, mystic theology of the Hindu tradition. The Brahmin supremacy over all social and economic affairs is often valorized, including the defence of the worst form of social order named 'Manusmriti Dharma'. The untouchables were the worst victims of this tradition and their exploitation and exclusion is continued even in the post-modern era.
The brahmanical casteist arrogance and hatred against the Dalits will be celebrated on this land for many more centuries to come. Dalits will be butchered like lame sheep without any guilt. We are below the rung of animals and therefore, our women will be paraded naked, raped and killed in the public glare. Humiliating Dalits is an institutional value and will not be seen as unjustified inhuman practice. A casteist slur or a cold blooded murder of a Dalit, the social elites value each element of caste injustice as normal or an insignificant incident of our daily life.
Every other moment of our public engagement as a Dalit person is a horrible tale. Dalit individual's reflective capacities on caste and religious issues are treated as contempt against the Hindu social morality. We are treated as emotive, political radicals or troublemakers, against the traditional values of Sanatani religion. Even our sincere appeals for camaraderie, association and solidarity with other marginalized and oppressed sections are understood as our attack on the nationalist ethos. Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) of Hyderabad Central University is therefore an "anti-national" platform that produces 'extremists' like Rohith, a dangerous radical who can destroy the whole edifice of Hindu spiritual order and its cultural fascism! Rohith knew that against ASA's 'audacious' Self-Respect Movement there will be no mercy and his earlier letter to the Vice-Chancellor anticipated the dire consequences.
Dalits' aspiration to become a part of the academic community is a challenge to the traditional occupation of Pandits as the producers, interpreters and executers of knowledge. Till yesterday, we were the wretched beggars and slaves at the Brahmin house, but today modernity has guaranteed as a right to become intellectuals and knowledge producers. How will this be appreciated by the conservative social elites? Modernity has made the ex-untouchable challengers to the Brahmin hegemony over knowledge. Therefore, our intellectuals, scholars and students will be discriminated, ostracized and some will be forced to commit suicide as they are here to commit the crime of challenging the criminal regressive psychosis of the Brahmanical mind.
All our efforts and promises to showcase our capacity, talent and maturity are treated with contempt and prejudices. The bramhanical social elites condemn our personalities as non-humans and undeserving wretched entities- that we must remain invisible, voiceless or insignificant when the upper caste master enters into the scene. Agitators and leaders like Rohith will come and go but the site of caste oppression will not go. A lot more victimization, violence and exploitation of our blood and sweat will continue henceforth. The brahmanical mindset will never deal with us with humanitarian concerns but will keep inflicting the religiously sanctioned violence and prejudices against us.
Rohith wrote that he feels a growing gap between his soul and his body as he had witnessed that nobody treats the individual as a 'mind' but only as a caste body. The Dalits are the worst victim of such social attitude. We are disrespected as intellectuals, scientists, thinkers and leaders. Not only that, we are not even free to express the anger, traumas and frustrations that we have historically experienced under the clutch of Brahmanical elites. We are the prisoners of given identity that subjugates us not only as insignificant lesser bodies but also creates a 'monster' of depression within us that eventually kills our mind and body. Rohith was victim of the same caste 'monster' that he was engaged with.
Caste restricts our freedoms to become an unencumbered self. Rohith said we are just numbers and bodies, not minds and souls. We hope for a liberal, free secular space for the nurturing of our human creativity, artistic and scientific passion, but caste value simply destroys any possibility of such a liberated milieu. All ethical principles of envisaging an egalitarian world of human solidarities crumbles once the 'monster' of caste enters into the discourse. Caste is the most criminal attitude which kills every possibility of giving birth to a free liberated self.
Our simple wishes to love art, science, stars and nature are unfulfilled. Rohith's dream, his artistic quest had no takers. He wanted to showcase his beautiful creative mind, but what everyone was seeing was the scar of caste identity on his face. His birth as a Dalit was a 'fatal accident', a 'curse' that handicapped him and restricted his run towards his dreams. Rohith realized that his dreams were never valued but his personality was treated as a mere caste 'identity, a vote or a number'.
There is a critical lens through which the Dalits are judged. All our constitutional claims for justice, fairness and equality are dissected by the rest as if we are asking for the reins of the nation in our hand. Our petty claims for sincere humanitarian aid from the state are cynically devalued as free riders. Our slogans to democratize the public space with newer political ideas and social justice agendas are criticized for its caste narrowness and close communitarian appeal. Our solidarity with other struggling groups (Adivasis and Muslims) is condemned as 'anti-national'. We are unfree, can't make independent political choices!
Caste operates in public institutions as a force to discriminate, humiliate and ostracise Dalits as invaluable surplus entities. Dalits are observed as the unwanted guests in any civilized forum. In secular gatherings our presence disturbs the hosts as if we have barged into their spaces to contaminate it with our Untouchable filth. Caste rules the mind of each and everyone. The feeling of caste pride justifies that s/he is superior over the others and therefore have a right to belittle others. Such dangerous caste psychosis has murdered our humanitarian values.
There is no individual person or liberated soul but everyone will live and die as a caste body - Brahmin, Bania, Yadav, Dalit, etc. The caste system simply closes all the boundaries of human freedom and treats our personalities in closed compartments. No one is a free person here. Everyone is enslaved in their own caste prison; however the social elites live in privileged compartments of pride, capital, power and dignity whereas the Dalits are at the nadir- bulldozed by perpetual humiliation, hatred and violence. Dalit life in any institution is hellish, surrounded by dire contempt against their personalities as walking filthy carcasses. Rohith was traumatic as he witnessed that his 'fatal accident' to be born as Dalit is the biggest hurdle to achieve his dreams. Caste killed his dreams. With dead dreams he was a body without a soul.
This nation is not for the Dalits. This is a Brahmanic-Vedic India. The Dalits are unwanted citizens of the Hindu world. Our presence in the institutions, public places, social gatherings and political meetings not only disturbs the psyche of the social elites but makes them angry, agitated and aggressive. We are uninvited guests in their private world and therefore we must face the hatred that they cultivate in their minds due to our presence.
Caste identities produce and reproduce such heinous, exploitative and violent social organizations which must end now. It is devoid of any spiritual, philosophical and democratic content but based on strict rules that justify division of people into unequal brutal hierarchies. Till the steel frame of the caste system exists, there is no hope for equality, liberty and fraternity in this country. There will be no artist, free thinker or creative mind but everyone will be packaged as an exclusive bard of communitarian rhetoric. Rohith's murder exposes the filthy caste society in which we are condemned to live.
Harish S. Wankhede is assistant professor of political science at Delhi University.
Illustration by Nidhin Shobhana.