The recent suicide by a Dalit scholar has all the makings of turning into a powder keg if not handled with seriousness by the government
The suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula on at the University of Hyderabad may well turn out to be the Rajeev Goswami moment of present Modi government. To understand the issue, there is a need to go back to an event under the National Front government of VP Singh in May of 1990. Rajeev Goswami was a student of Delhi University when he attempted self immolation as a protest against implementation of Mandal commission recommendations by the government. Though his attempt failed, it succeeded in galvanising a large part of the student community and other sections of the society to protest against affirmative action of the government. The reservation debate in India has been centred around this. The subsequent fall of VP Singh government can be said to have begun with the Goswami incident. To his credit, Rohith has not blamed anyone in his suicide note, but the signs are very obvious as to what led him to take this extreme step.
Modi, who was elected with a thumping majority in 2014 may finally have to do some reality check now. To dismiss this incident as something trivial and not attributable to the administration will be total naiveté. Rohith, along with four other students of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), had been expelled by the university for ‘anti-national’ actions. His fellowship grant had been stopped for the last six months. The trigger for action against him was a scuffle in the campus that he got into with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists on 3rd August, 2015. The reason for the scuffle was a protest by ABVP in Delhi against screening of the documentary film titled Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai. The documentary, which is critical of all the political parties, shows that the riots were engineered by the BJP. This incurred the wrath of ABVP which tried to stop the screenings in other cities by violent protests.
The time has come now even when most diehard optimists and supporters of the present central government will say that enough is enough. Dadri lynching, virulent comments on the social media against activists and civil society members, majoritarian discourse and now this. Unfortunately, each such incident is brushed off as a law and order problem. Reportedly, Bandaru Dattatreya,union minister for labour had asked the university to take action against the students. However, what merited such harsh disciplinary action of expulsion is not yet clear. If universities are autonomous bodies which run on central grants, the fact that a central minister should be so involved does need to be questioned. It is also not clear whether the inquiry that preceded the suspension of Rohith was an impartial one or not. The role of the Vice Chancellor is under a cloud.
By allowing a larger than life role for ABVP and not stopping it, the government is allowing the fringe elements become mainstream—an unintended consequence. Mere cosmetic action of filing of FIR against ministers and the vice-chancellor won’t do. The development narrative of the government is getting derailed by recent happenings. Will this become the trigger for a strong backlash by the Dalits? Will it become the rallying point for the opposition? It has all the makings of becoming one if not handled with seriousness and sensitivity that is required.
Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar
Picture credit:Blake Emrys No more hate, licensed from creativecommons.org