One of the queries raised by a senior retired government official from the Dalit community, who continues to engage with community issues well into his retirement, asked this question in the wake of the Rohith Vemula incident:
"Should Dalit energy be wasted for causes like protesting against execution of Memon, favouring beef eating and needless confrontations with ABVP ???"
I spent a lot of time mulling over this issue. Why did this valid question arise in the mind of our elder brother? I have not heard this question from anyone else in this entire very vexed debate. Most interlocutors seem to take for granted the fact of Rohith's involvement in larger issues as well as campus politics. Why then this question? I feel this is a valid question as it raises a number of issues of agency, voice, and representation.
At a pragmatic level this seems to be the most sensible approach, the question of responsibility to one's family and one's career. At another level it may be the issue of wasting Dalit energies on battle which is not directly impacting upon Dalit lives, such as the Yakub Memon issue. The family had struggled immensely and was perhaps seeing some light at the end of an economic tunnel when this happened. Should he have done this? Why couldn't he have just focussed on his studies and got a job and thus contributed to his family's and community's betterment?
Now as a consequence of his political stances he faced many challenges and finally decided that the best option was to leave his body. All of us have been impoverished by this loss.
I suggest that it was due to his thirst for justice and freedom, something larger than life itself, was the cause for his choice to take a strong position against the forces of casteism, communalism and discrimination. In this I believe he has followed in the footsteps of our Babasaheb. An article on 27th Jan in The Hindu partially addresses the meaning of Rohith's revolt: 'Can the subaltern speak for himself?' Thus the question is whether or not we should focus on our own studies and career and families or seek to address the larger issues of our birth and their attendant structural injustices as a representative of an affected huge and silenced minority?
I believe – after reading first person accounts of those who lived and worked around him – that he had a huge vision to be part of the larger project to build solidarities of the marginalized 'minorities' in this country, including the Dalits, Muslims, and any others who have been oppressed by the brahminical superstructure and wish to work together for liberation of the oppressed. His liberal convictions were also against the death penalty, causing him to join the protest against the carrying out of the sentence against Yakub Memon. That he was spectacularly successful was the reason for the paranoid reaction against him by the ABVP and the misguided interference in the matter by Bandaru Dattatreya, and the over-the-top response by elements within the MHRD. This exemplary force against one single individual had an expected result. Many attempts to see this as a matter of mental health, that he was depressed and hence did himself to death have been made, only to be rejected wholesale by all and sundry. He had given ample notice of his intentions in his letter dated 18th December to the VC, where he asks for rope, and poison to be given to the reserved category students who enter into the institute. It shows a condign dereliction of duty on the part of the then VC, P. Appa Rao, who chose to sit on the letter without taking any action at all. At the very least, he must have informed the Campus Medical Officer – himself a Dalit and who has now gone public about systematic harassment by the University authorities. This was not done, just one of a series of errors of omission and commission which resulted in the present outcome.
This lack of institutional sensitivity is the dead give-away to the marginalized masses, of the folly of continuing to place their faith in the institutions and structures of the mainstream which are – from all indications – implacably opposed to the democratic values of equality and non-discrimination. Can we believe that by students focusing on the present and future, without challenging the status quo, given the present and deteriorating situation for these values in India's institutions will still give us salutary results?
The last and most important aspect of this question of the individual's agency was his choice to identify with his mother's people, not with the ulterior motive of gleaning benefit but to link his destiny with them. Though his father was an OBC, after finding out that his wife was actually an SC, he began to ill-treat her more, ultimately causing the marriage to fail. This truth was sought to sully Rohith's struggle and integrity.
The writer of the article 'Crossing caste lines' below addresses this.
Thus it is a question of whether we should hunker down and work on our own - this choice is made by most people. It is for only a few to become conscious of the stardust in their makeup, and to live up to the glorious destiny this enables them to aspire for.
Rohith was granted that consciousness and made his choice. The far-reaching effects of that personal choice may yet be unfolding before us.
Cynthia Stephen is an Independent Writer and Researcher.