Tuesday August 14, 2018
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Indian Diaspora’s outcry over Rohith Vemula death

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Varnika Mahajan

New Delhi: Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula was a Dalit PhD scholar and an ASA (Ambedkar Students’ Association) member who was suspended from Hyderabad Central University over a political dispute with the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad) last year. On January 17, Rohith committed suicide in a hostel room. The tragic death of Rohith Vemula triggered protests across the country and around the world.

Expressing shock and outrage at 26-year old’s death, widespread protests often termed as an “epochal” moment for India’s students by analysts started erupting at major universities and cities across the US and other regions. The movement is said to bear similarities with the #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements.

Rohith Vemula was an anti-caste activist, student leader and PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH). On January 25, the UoH campus witnessed a huge number of activists storming the premises and organizing large demonstrations.

On January 22, US-based Indian civil society groups gathered in Cambridge’s Harvard Square for the second time in two weeks. The group demanded punishment for those responsible for Rohith’s death.

Globally, along with large protests witnessed in London, demonstrations outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the University of Michigan were performed, demanding punishment. Two more are planned on January 30 in Washington DC by the International Commission for Dalit Rights and in New York City by Ambedkar International Mission. Moreover, a letter is signed by more than 150 academics criticising caste discrimination on Indian campuses.

A condolence meeting will also be conducted on January 27 outside the Indian Embassy in Rome, Italy. Also, Harvard University is organising a unified meeting and discussion to highlight Vemula’s death.

Back in India, the scholar’s death resulted in a dilemma for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government with mass demonstrations across the country demanding the criminal prosecution of the two ministers and the VC linked to this incident. Last week, Dalit students rattled a major speech by PM Modi. They chanted slogans demanding justice for Rohith.

The Politics behind it all

The incident turned intense when a chain of emails by two Central Ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sent to the university Vice Chancellor (VC) Appa Rao, directing pressure. Vemula’s death is directly linked to it.

The caste and class discrimination that the marginalized students have been facing in elite educational institutions along with their anti-Brahminism and anti-Hindu nationalism ideologies paved the way to building tensions between the Ambedkarites and minority student groups against the ABVP and RSS.

The top universities comprise mostly of “upper castes” and Hindus in their administrative staff. This creates a hostile environment for Dalit and minority students. This can be seen in Dalit students’ increasing suicides since past ten years in such exclusive universities when a complaint is made by them against professors, administrators for their biased behaviour.

The death of this aspiring science writer became national news due to various factors- direct involvement of Central Ministers, public criticism and intimidation faced by Rohith and his fellow students and the two influential letters written before his death. The letters which went viral on social media were directed to the VC Appa Rao. The first letter to the VC consists of Vemula providing a solution to the “Dalit problem” on campus, by euthanizing them and distributing them poison and a rope as soon as they secure admission.

Upon receiving no response from the administration even when a month passed by, Vemula committed suicide, leaving behind a suicide note intensely lamenting society’s’ biased eyes which are unable to look beyond people’s most immediate identities – a reference to casteism.

Hue and cry in Cambridge

Dr. Vidya Karunakaran, a PhD from Dartmouth College working with #DalitWomenFight said, “80% of suicides in the elite institutions in India are Dalits and Adivasis. Clearly we have a problem of casteism in our State”.

Dalit student Suraj Yengde, Associate at the Harvard African-American Department and a PhD scholar from South Africa compared casteist India to apartheid situations of South Africa and the Palestinians. He noted the “genocidal tendency” in the systems of oppressions which build tough situations for the oppressed to even live.

Tanoj Meshram, a PhD student in Social Policy at Brandeis University and Central Executive Committee Member and International Coordinator of Mulnivasi Sangh (an offshoot of the All India Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation) accused the Indian institutes which promise of political and civil rights but ultimately deny them. He said “educational institutes are supposed to be instruments of social change…but in India, it is shameful to see that they are citadels of the status quo and Brahmanism.”

Organisers including Boston Study Group; Ambedkar International Center; Ambedkar International Mission; Ambedkar Association of North India; Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia; Association for India’s Development, are planning to present a memorandum to the United Nations calling for a Special Rapporteur on Caste Atrocities and constituting an independent working group to assess the conditions affecting the victims of the caste system SCs/STs/OBCs.

Their joint statement reads: “We mourn the loss of a talented, sensitive, and powerful young Ambedkarite and scientist and extend our deep condolences to his family, loved ones, and to the Ambedkarite student community at UoH. We condemn the open support by UoH administration of extreme right wing groups like the RSS affiliated ABVP who have been carrying out a campaign of terror to intimidate progressive forces in society by using BJP’s political networks to protect their cadre and persecute democratic opposition. Rohith’s death is a direct consequence of this right wing persecution in partnership with the casteist and corrupt university administration.”

The organisers, desiring to include other South Asian and human rights groups to join the protest in order to garner speedy action said: “We express our solidarity with the Bahujan and Religious Minorities student resistance movements across all other casteist university spaces in India.” (Inputs from twocircles.net) (picture courtesy: huffingtonpost.in)

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Why JDU & BJP Coalition Will Remain Intact

JDU knows that this 15-16% votes is not enough to help the party and for the BJP too, only the 17% votes of upper castes are not sufficient

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Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi.
Nitish Kumar with Narendra Modi.

By Sagarneel Sinha

There have been lots of discussions among the political circles that JDU led by Bihar Chief
Minister Nitish Kumar is upset with the BJP and trying to send signals to erst allies — RJD and the Congress. This led to speculations that Nitish may once again join the Grand Alliance (GA) leaving the NDA camp. Already, RJD’s new commander Tejasvi Yadav has clearly stated that Nitish led JDU will not be welcomed in the GA. Despite all the odds, if (suppose) GA partners accommodate Nitish, he wouldn’t be the driving force of the alliance as in 2015. Also, Nitish cannot afford to go alone like in 2014 when his party fetched only 2 seats!

Then which is the correct way for JDU? It is to go with the BJP in the upcoming 2019 polls.
JDU’s advantage in this case is the present situation of the BJP. Currently, the saffron party is not in a strong position as the party would be facing anti-incumbency from a strong RJD led alliance in the state. BJP’s traditional voters are the upper castes who account for 17% of the electorate. This votebank is not enough for the party to help to win elections. The main opposition party — RJD still commands over a larger votebank than BJP. RJD is still a dominant force among the Yadavs and the Muslims who account for 31% of the population. It means BJP has to minus the 31% votes and rely on the rest — 69%. Out of these, 16% are the Mahadalits — a large portion of whom generally hail Nitish Kumar as their leader. Also, there are Kurmis, an OBC group consisting of 4% votes — considered as the supporters of JDU. Nitish Kumar himself is also a Kurmi.

Nitish Kumar Invited to Join NDA by Amit Shah After JDU-BJP Tie-up in Bihar
Nitish Kumar Invited to Join NDA by Amit Shah After JDU-BJP Tie-up in Bihar.

JDU knows that this 15-16% votes is not enough to help the party and for the BJP too, only the 17% votes of upper castes are not sufficient. However, if these votebanks are joined together they form around 31-32%. Plus, to gain the extra votes, both the parties have the option to rely on the personal charisma of Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, there is a power tussle between the two allies to get a respectable share of seats.

This power tussle is because of a strong BJP which earlier used to be a junior ally. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections changed the political scenario of the state where BJP emerged as the largest party in terms of vote share and seats. JDU knows the reality of a new emerging BJP, though it is pushing hard to gain a respectable share of seats for the Lok Sabha elections. Instead, Nitish Kumar has another option — giving the bigger chunk to the BJP for the Lok Sabha elections and the latter playing the junior partner for the 2020 assembly elections if held timely. Given the current situation in the country, in a crucial state like Bihar, BJP can hardly reject JDU as the later still commands over 15-16% votes — a very crucial votebank for winning maximum seats in the 2019 polls. Importance of JDU can also be explained by BJP president Amit Shah’s visit to Patna to have breakfast and dinner with Nitish Kumar. Though in politics there are no permanent friends or foes, so any perfect prediction is impossible. But given the current situation, JDU and BJP parting their ways seems unlikely as both the parties are in need of each other as already highlighted by Amit Shah that the two allies would fight the Lok Sabha elections together. Smiling face of Nitish Kumar was also an indication that the meetings with Amit Shah were fine.