Being born in an untouchable family, my life begins with multiple layers of discrimination - the degree of imposition in terms of discrimination, humiliation, oppression and exploitation make me an outsider within. All the worth of my individuality disappears or is abjected, and I continue to remain 'undeserving' to the world - even if democracy chooses me as head of the state. Let's examine how this can happen in a democracy.
In a Republic, political democracy gives opportunity to each of its citizens to exercise their political rights in terms of 'freedom and equality'. But this very fundamental principle is being curtailed because of an ideological apparatus (Brahminism vis-a-vis Hinduism and capitalism). This ideological apparatus has been maintained very aggressively in the political democracy. In this context, Brahminism is an antagonist to equality and freedom, and it forcefully perpetuates the systemic discrimination, violence and killing of those who are opposed to it (Dalits), in order to retain its hegemony. Rohith Vemula's death is an example of this disease which has affected the functioning of political democracy.
Rohith's murder poses serious questions to Indian democratic institutions in general and higher educational institutions in particular. According to the Indian constitution, higher educational institutions are supposed to be democratic and egalitarian in nature. On the contrary, all educational institutions continue to diffuse caste discrimination and Brahminism in every sphere of academic life - starting from Mid-day meals and classrooms of primary schools, to seminar halls, classrooms, PhD research laboratories and libraries of universities. There is not a single educational institution in India, which is free from caste discrimination, exclusion and expulsion. Therefore, it is necessary to question this. Do Indian teachers practice the principles of morality according to Indian constitution? If this was the case, then we would not have witnessed the exclusion and discrimination faced by Dalit students in various educational institutions. One should no longer claim to be surprised to see the manifestations of invisible caste prejudices in these institutions, after witnessing Rohith Vemula's institutional murder. How moral are Indian educational institutions?
Therefore, I would argue by saying that India has two societies - touchable and untouchable, despite its democratic progress. In the words of Dr. Ambedkar, "I am not a part of the whole at all; I am a part apart." Let us interrogate ourselves with some questions. Who am I? Where do I come from? What identity do I possess? These are the important questions in a society and democracy like India. Do we have some answers to these questions? How can I imagine myself? Can I situate myself as a separate entity from the community, society and state which I belong to? Because, these are the institutions in which I have grown to see myself. Each experience of my life is deeply embedded in these institutions. I cannot imagine myself without these institutions. To put it more concretely, these are the institutions that tell me where exactly I belong and for what I am living today.
Though society and state are broad categories to locate myself in, I am still highly affected by these institutions. Moreover, the society which I live in is not a society in the conventional sense. It is an innumerable collection of castes. In other words, caste is the basic unit of Indian society, and Indian society can be understood through this unit. In this society, an individual's identity is attached to his/her caste group. This caste identity is forcefully imposed - decided according to one's birth and can never be changed.
Rohith says in his suicide note - "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." "My birth is my fatal accident." This denial of existence is not only Rohith's experience of being a Dalit but more empirically and philosophically, it is the experience of Dalits every day of their lives. As Ambedkar says "...untouchable remain as untouchable." Taking the question further, why is only Dalit identity stigmatized as "polluted and untouchable" and not others? Dalits have their own struggle, arts, aesthetic, songs, culture and politics. We see that, many of the caste atrocities and violence on them are faced in isolation as a community, and they struggle and agitate against the caste system and state without the support of others. More empirically, all Dalit bastis and urban ghettos are located outside the village in the dirty parts of the towns and cities. There are reports, which say that Dalit presence in universities is a challenge to the other student organizations.
The UoH administration's practice of modern untouchability through the expulsion of five Dalit research scholars, directly showed the politics of Brahminism. Therefore, now there are protests, marches and resistance rallies, with Dalit students throughout India uniting in an effort to expose the endemic of caste discrimination, exclusion and prejudice in higher education. As a part of the struggle, some left and progressive intellectual communities are also resisting at university level. The Dalits, Adivasis and OBC students are asking for their representation in democratic institutions, presenting their critical thinking and questioning the systemic oppression, humiliation and exploitation. How is it wrong to be a critical thinker, who has the potential to ridicule the notion of state, nation, caste, patriarchy, society and religion, with a moral and rational ground?
The life of a Dalit as an Ambedkarite is inherently a threat to Brahminism and Hindutva. Ambedkarism is a philosophy which negates Brahminism fundamentally. Therefore, Ambedkarites are called anti-national by the Hindutva (BJP) state and other Brahminical parties. Meanwhile, the political democracy of Brahmanism tries to appropriate the radical revolutionary forces such as Ambedkarism, and also politically gamble with Dalits and other oppressed communities. Let us be clear on this, that India maintains Brahminical forms of democracy - a danger for democracy itself. That is the reason why society has historically remained divided into thousands of castes, and caste discrimination still occurs in educational institutions.
The purpose of educational institutions is to act as instruments which can teach ethics and reason, teach right and wrong from a justice point of view, and endorse the ideas of democracy and education. But, in the case of India, educational institutions are deeply rooted in the social, cultural and religious rule of Brahminism. Hence, there is a need to understand the society and the regulation of democratic institutions by asking what truth means. To quote Ambedkar, "to give education to those who want to keep up the caste system is not to improve the prospect of democracy in India but put our democracy in India in greater jeopardy." This once again raises the questions - Where is justice? How will justice prevail? How will I be judged by who I am (ideas) and not my identity?
To be continued.
Jadumani Mahanand is a Ph.D research scholar in JNU.