Why Hyderabad continues to simmer over Rohith Vemula
Despite episodic interventions by BJP’s top leadership on Rohith Vemula’s suicide, political agitation at Hyderabad University has refused to subside. What the Centre dismissed as a local episode turned out to be a national outcry. Rohith’s suicide and caste politics in universities across India is an issue in itself, but the episode links itself to the larger politics at play in India and that being any dissent on issues ranging from culture to politics can be branded as anti-national.
It is correct that in most Western democracies, nationalism and a sense of nationhood was forged under the guidance of an educated middle class leadership. In a country like India it was led by the middle class but an equal number of political constituents participated in it. This constituency comprised women, dalits, tribals and minorities who after independence articulated themselves through elections and protests. Some even went on to form separate identity-specific groups and some legitimised joining naxalites. Despite harsh positions by some of the constituents, both state and civil society could absorb rough edges of dalit, minority and tribal politics.
Post 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the spirit to accommodate the other within us has waned. The narrative of a new nation emerges from the new networked middle class and the international expatriate community in the language of one nation, one language, one law, one culture and one idea of meritocracy. This language excludes the displaced, tribals, dalits, women and minorities, and plays into the fantasy of revisionism and myth-making by evoking the word ‘if’ in context of Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose.
It is from this context that the Hyderabad episode should also be viewed. The principal charge against Rohith was that he indulged in an anti-national activity. It is obvious that anti-death penalty activism and ideologically challenging the Supreme Court’s verdict cannot qualify as sedition. That is why it is imperative that the Centre engages with disgruntled categories as dissent and natural flow of democratic activity and not as an attempt to destabilise the government. The perception towards different interest groups must change and it must be visible.
For example, all NGOs cannot be seen to be in bed with foreign donors just as the naxal problem cannot be viewed outside the dark belly of crony capitalism which continues to ravage tribal areas for rich minerals. Similar is the case of protest by tribals for forest rights as it cannot be dubbed as anti-development.
NDA is all set to complete 2 years in power in May. Apart from electoral jolts, its first brush with political setbacks was in 2015 itself when they had to junk the amended land ordinance bill and second when crisis went out of hand at Hyderabad University. It is a lesson for all those who want to stay in power as long as it permits, peacefully. The lesson is that slogans and numbers in Parliament don’t make a difference in the long run. If this was true then Indira Gandhi wouldn’t have ended up declaring emergency and Rajiv Gandhi would have escaped massive drubbing from VP Singh. In a democracy, conversation is the key and so is reaching out to people on the margins and not one-way messaging.
And perhaps this is the reason why despite expansion of the agitation across universities, BJP is being seen to be failing to come up with a convincing explanation which could counter the Opposition’s narrative on Rohith’s suicide.