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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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What Would Be The Outcome Of The Judgement On Homosexuality With BJP At The Centre?

If parties like the BJP and "cultural" organisations like the RSS realise the value and motivation of such mindsets, they will desist from their present attempts to impose a straitjacket of their pseudo-religious identity on the nation.

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Flag Of BJP, homosexuality
Ruling on gays: Is the BJP out of sync with modern realities? Flickr

More than the social impact of the Supreme Court’s judgment on homosexuality, what will be of concern to the ruling party at the Centre is its political fallout. Hence, the eloquent silence of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the subject.

For the BJP and its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), any expansion of the concept of civil liberties is fraught with danger to their restrictive worldviews since a widening of human rights carries the prospect of greater individualism.

If the rights of the homosexuals to live without legal constraints are conceded, it can only encourage the people to free themselves of other restrictions as well such as on choosing live-in partners (of whatever sex) and eating, dressing and speaking as they please.

Homosexuality, India
SC decriminalises homosexuality, victory for gay rights. Pixabay

It is noteworthy that the verdict on gays has come close on the heels of the judgment which described the right to dissent as a “safety valve” which the government can only shut off at its peril lest there is an explosion.

Moreover, the court had also upheld not long ago the right to privacy which the government described as an “elitist” concept.

For the Hindu Right, as also for other religious fundamentalists, this dalliance with civil rights — the freedom to criticise the government, the exaltation of privacy and now the decriminalisation of homosexuality — entails a push towards liberalism and modernism which are anathema to any group which wants the society to be bound by shackles of orthodoxy and obscurantism.

It is ironic that although the Hindutva brotherhood speaks of decolonising the Indian mind, the two colonial laws which have long been its favourites are the section on homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code and on sedition.

Now that one of them is gone, there is little doubt that these closet followers of Britain’s 19th century politician Lord Macaulay — even as they decry the secular groups as “Macaulay’s children” — will hold on resolutely to the law on sedition as their only safeguard against the “anti-nationals” who, they believe, stalk the land.

Homosexuality
It is ironic that although the Hindutva brotherhood speaks of decolonising the Indian mind, the two colonial laws which have long been its favourites are the section on homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code and on sedition.
Wikimedia Commons

It is also possible that the saffronites will keep a hawk’s eye on any social problems that may arise because of the assertion of gay rights. As the BJP MP Subramanian Swamy has said, with eager anticipation, if a five-judge bench can overturn an earlier judgment in favour of criminalising homosexuality, a larger bench can undo the present verdict if gay bars begin to flourish and there is a rise in the cases of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections.

Interestingly, what these judgments underline is how the judiciary is more attuned to the changing world than the elected representatives of the hoi polloi who often argue in favour of giving greater primacy to the legislature than the judiciary since they claim to represent the people while the judges are unelected denizens of an ivory tower.

However, one possible reason why MPs and MLAs, especially of the BJP, seem to be out of sync with the present-day world is the presence in their midst of a large number of criminal elements who can hardly be regarded as the most progressive sections of society.

For instance, of the 543 elected members of the Lok Sabha, of whom 186 have a criminal record, 63 belong to the BJP, followed by eight of the Shiv Sena, four of the Trinamool Congress and three each of the Congress and the AIADMK.

Homosexuality
Gay Pride Procession. Pixabay

What the Supreme Court judgment appears to have done is to persuade parties like the Congress, which usually hedges its bets lest it should fall on the wrong side of public opinion, to come out in the verdict’s favour, presumably because it senses that this judgment, more than any other, has become a touchstone in the matter of breaking out from the stranglehold of the past.

To distance a party from it, as the BJP is doing, will amount to virtually alienating the entire youth community. Even if a majority among them do not have homosexual instincts — according to official figures, there are 2.5 million gay people in India, but this may be an underestimate since, till now, it was unsafe for them to reveal their sexual orientation — the youths nevertheless see the ruling as an assertion of living life on one’s own terms and not be held hostage by the dictates of a society steeped in conservatism and of political parties which believe that their agenda can only advanced if the country is made forcibly to conform to khap panchayat-style social and cultural norms.

Also Read: Why JDU & BJP Coalition Will Remain Instant

To these youths, being or not being aware of homosexuality is of little consequence. What matters to them is to be able to make up their own minds and not be told by elders to abide by certain rules which are regarded as outdated by the younger generation.

If parties like the BJP and “cultural” organisations like the RSS realise the value and motivation of such mindsets, they will desist from their present attempts to impose a straitjacket of their pseudo-religious identity on the nation. (IANS)