India’s state apparatus is getting personal—and dissidents are bearing the brunt
The suicide of Dalit research scholar and student leader, Rohith Vemula, on January 17 marked a watershed moment in the anti-caste struggle in India. The factors that led to his suicide make it increasingly clear that what came to pass was an institutional murder; a student pushed into the desperate act of taking his own life when threatened by casteist, right-wing Hindutva forces. These powerful factions now enjoy political immunity, and have been able to manipulate the entire administrative machinery of the University of Hyderabad. When the protests shifted gear—and loci—to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), it became a reflection of a nation in crisis.
In August 2015, the Ambedkar Students Association, led by Vemula, had protested the hanging of Yakub Memon, a convict in the 1993 Bombay bombings. This expression of dissent immediately proved fodder for nationalists; the institutional blowback was swift. Those who targeted Vemula, and four other Dalit scholar-activists, were not merely his adversaries on campus, but members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student organization. They were also politicians at the highest echelons of power.
The ABVP had been quick to brand these students “anti-national” and the leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) happily participated in this blood-letting by exerting political pressure to victimize and penalize them. India’s Labor Minister, Bandaru Dattareya, personally wrote to the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry, under whose purview central universities come, seeking action against the Ambedkar Students Association. The HRD Ministry, under Smriti Irani, in turn showed undue involvement, sending repeated reminders to the university, finally leading to the expulsion of five Dalit students on January 2, including Vemula, under the trumped up charges of carrying out “anti-national activities” on campus.
There was no mistaking the watermark of untouchability in that letter; these five students were prevented from accessing common areas of the campus, they were barred from moving in groups, and their entry to places like their hostel was forbidden. In the aftermath of his death, Vemula’s mother responded to Irani: “Your ministry had written that my Vemula and other Dalit students were anti-national extremists. You said that he is not a Dalit. You accused him of getting a false certificate. Should I say it is because you got false certificates for your educational qualifications that you think others do so too? You stopped my son’s stipend, you got him suspended from the university. You are the minister for HRD, but you have no value for education. You can never understand how difficult it is for a Dalit to reach the stage of doing his PhD. You can never imagine the hardship, the struggle, the tears and sacrifice to reach that position. In three months, you destroyed what it had taken me 26 years to build.”
Vemula’s suicide—the tenth suicide by a Dalit student in less than a decade in Hyderabad alone—was a final act of exorcism of the demons of caste haunting Indian universities. Striking students managed to shut down the University of Hyderabad for 11 days. The touch paper had been lit; the protests swiftly spread nationwide in solidarity with Vemula, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was publicly booed by students. College campuses erupted with sit-ins, indefinite fasts, agitational marches, and candlelight vigils followed suit. The protests brought to fore the vexed questions of everyday caste practices and discrimination. Critically, however, these acts of protests broke the wall of silence on the academic terrorism that had been left unchallenged.
In a brazen display of its commitment to Hindutva and its espousal of the established caste order, Modi’s government refused to capitulate to any of the students’ demands—maintaining a studied silence for a week. He refused to countenance calls to remove Vice Chancellor P Appa Rao; later, appointing in his place Vipin Srivastava, chairman of the panel that falsely indicted Vemula and a professor who is linked to the suicide of another Dalit student, Senthil Kumar—every act calculated to outrage and provoke the students movement.
Even as its trouble-shooting mechanism was doomed to utter failure, the Modi government faced its second major student crisis. This time the theater of dissent had shifted to the national capital, to the JNU campus. An issue that had, for so long, been centered on questions of caste, hegemony and rampant discrimination now took on the colors of sedition and destabilizing the nation.
On February 9, several JNU students organized a cultural evening condemning the judicial killing of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Bhat and expressing solidarity with the struggle of the Kashmiri people for self-determination, drawing upon Agha Shahid Ali’s famous poetry collection, “A Country Without A Post Office.” The ABVP was opposed to the event, so Vice Chancellor Jagadish Kumar allowed police on campus. The JNU Students Union leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, tried to intervene and was arrested and subsequently thrashed in public while the police remained passive onlookers. The organizers of the event, including students Umar Khalid and Anirban, had look-out notices slapped on them.
Their families were terrorized and had rape threats made to them. Finally, they had to surrender. The escalation of the student protests in JNU coincided with the Chalo Delhi, or March to Delhi, call of the students of the University of Hyderabad, and on February 23 the capital witnessed one of the largest-ever demonstration of students and others in solidarity.
For the anti-caste student protests to grip the imagination of the country, the protest stage had to be shifted to Delhi, which is telling in itself. In the days that have followed, the Indian Parliament witnessed fiery debates on the issue of Vemula’s death. With every passing day, the oppressive and caste-supremacist nature of the ruling BJP government stands exposed.
A thread that runs through both these incidents are the student-organized events—one for Yakub Memon, the other for Guru, both victims of capital punishment—that have sparked furious reactions from the right-wing and the state. In a country where 94 percent of death-row convicts are Dalits or Muslims, the death penalty is fraught with divisive politics. Memon was sent to death with a Supreme Court judge invoking the Manusmriti, a Brahminic text that enshrines a different kind of justice for each caste. Likewise, the Kashmiri Guru, was hanged in haste, his family denied the opportunity to even meet him before his death, whilst his corpse was not returned to his wife.
As the men were executed, it appeared as though the Indian state machinery was getting personal. In seeking to condemn the death penalty awarded to Memon and Guru, the students were in fact making a critique of the judicial system, looking upon the state as an oppressive structure and engaging with the question of justice.
It is for this crime, of speaking truth to power, that both Vermul and the students at JNU are being labeled anti-national. Lest we forget, the most oppressed are the most advanced when it comes to revolutionary consciousness and struggle because they have complete awareness of the state and its failings and of the system and its web of exploitation. The rejection of the idea of India then, comes from below.
The foremost critic of the idea of India was none other than revolutionary Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. The same genius and fighter who wrote the Indian Constitution also had the guts to write, “I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation?” For him, the nation was not a given; it was something that had to be forged.
Like caste, Kashmir is the second question that breaks down the myths and claims of nationhood. Sadly, the mention of Kashmir not only haunts and hunts down those who are chanting for azaadi (“freedom”) on the streets of Srinagar. Kashmir is the impossible yardstick that is applied as a silencing mechanism. “What is India’s position on the right to self-determination of Tamils in Sri Lanka?” No answer. Only the rhetorical reply: What about Kashmir then? “What is India’s position on the right to self-determination of anyone anywhere?” The only reply: “What about Kashmir? What about Kashmir? What about Kashmir?” The prisoner in India’s backyard, the millstone around India’s neck, Kashmir and the question of human rights abuses there, make India (and sometimes, Indians) maintain a complacent and complicit silence about atrocities and genocides around the world. Littered with mass graves, marked by mass rapes, the most densely militarized zone in the world and a soldier civilian ratio of 1:20, with 700,000 Indian troops on the ground, Kashmir becomes the gag-order, the word uttered to silence conversations about Manipur and Nagaland, questions about India’s foreign policy, questions about the right of self-determination.
As this question of “anti-national” takes center-stage, the BJP and its sister organizations, as well as the parliamentary left in India are bending over backwards to assert their own patriotism. The task of critiquing and challenging this idea of a nation—through the lens of caste and the lens of Kashmir (also known as the national question)—becomes a task that can only be taken up by those at the margins.
In the villages of Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India where I come from, and about which I know enough to speak, castes function as autonomous nations, with their undrawn and yet clearly demarcated borders of the caste streets and the outcast(e) Dalit settlements, with their own systems of unwritten rules and diktats for every sphere of life, with their own kangaroo courts that give verdicts that overrun the Indian judiciary and with their own summary executions of those who transgress.
No concept of nationhood has managed to super-impose itself on this caste structure, or succeeded in dismantling it from within. As long as caste remains intact and overrides the constitution, or successfully ingratiates itself within the democratic apparatus, India will remain a nation only in theory. Caste is sustained by a group-think that will never allow a dissolution into a larger identity where its own superiority is not recognized and where its privileges cease to exist. No nation is possible without the annihilation of caste.
Caste in all its manifestations is untouchability and violence, misogyny and sanctioned rape, regimentation and oppression, exploitation and impunity. Caste is the dynamite that crumbles the idea of India into dust, but it is the same caste that prevents any other nationalism, Tamil or Kannada, from becoming a formidable force that can challenge Indian nationalism. Even if one were to channel Vladimir Lenin’s remark on Tsarist Russia into the Indian context and say that India is a prison-house of nationalities, one will have to come face-to-face with how the fault-lines of caste do not allow these ethnic or linguistic nations from consolidating themselves.
Dr. Ambedkar labeled castes as anti-national. The obvious corollary is that the idea of a nation can exist only if it is anti-caste. Until that can happen, India will remain fragmented, and a hundred thousand sedition laws cannot unite us.