Rohith Vemula: Before he became an icon, an enemy, or a corpse. Photograph: (Facebook)
It's important to ask why and how the enquiry focused on Vemula's caste identity, away from issues of institutionalised discrimination
Early this year, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) of India had put together an official enquiry commission to look into the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar who committed suicide on January 17, 2016. The Commission was to investigate the facts and circumstances leading to the tragic event, review the grievance redressal mechanism of the Indian university where Rohith studied and arguably faced institutional discrimination.
In a report submitted to the government recently, the commission has come to reject Rohith's Dalit status and gave a clean chit to almost all who were initially suspected of wrongdoing. Thus, the Hyderabad Central University, Rohith's alma mater, as well as some senior leaders and ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party now stand clean of any charges of discriminatory action against Rohith. These conclusions square up with the version adopted by the ruling party from the very beginning.
However, the findings of the official reports revelations are to be greeted with skepticism as subsequent charges have indicated that Dalit students in institutions of higher education in India, indeed, embody the vulnerability of their social group.
Rohith Vemula had been an active member of a Dalit student organisation that has been locked in a fierce ideological contest with the student wing of the ruling BJP party. It was reported that Vemula had been part of a scuffle involving members of the two organisations; it allegedly led to some injury of an activist from the rival group. The injured student lodged a complaint with the university authorities, seeking action against Vemula and some of his fellow students.
Counter allegations run that senior local and national leaders of the ruling party then exerted pressure on the university authorities, following which the latter had rusticated Vemula and his friends from the university hostels. The students were denied access to a number of facilities, including scholarship and library membership. The allegation is that the swift action of the university authorities was a direct consequence of the pressure from the leaders of the ruling party, which has been known to resent the politics of the Dalit student organisation of which Vemula was a very active member.
It is important to note that until this point, there was no official statement questioning Rohith's Dalit identity.
However, soon after the incident, questions were raised about Vemula’s caste status by the authorities, presumably to nullify his claim to the Dalit status. His father had claimed that he belonged to a caste that falls under the category Other Backward Class (OBC). Incidentally, both Dalits (or Scheduled Castes) and Other Backward Classes suffer from material deprivation, but the Scheduled Castes (SC) additionally suffer from the acutely debilitating practice of untouchability. The intensity of untouchability has decreased over time but continues to be practiced in several parts of the country.
Citing a 2012 ruling by the Supreme Court of India, various people protested that it is a presumption to state that a son invariably inherits the caste status of his father. It was argued that in cases where the individual in question has not received the advantages conventionally associated with the ‘higher’ caste of the father, the child can't be accorded the caste identity of the former. Incidentally, Rohith Vemula’s father had left his mother soon after his birth and Vemula had grown up with his mother. He subsequently claimed her caste as his own.
Still later, it emerged that Rohith's mother had been adopted by a non-Dalit woman at a young age and was reportedly raised as a non-Dalit, although her biological parents may have belonged to a Dalit community. However, Rohith’s mother herself chose to emphasise her own Dalit identity. Since her separation from her husband, she has purportedly lived as a Dalit. It is to be noted, however, that Rohith himself had not availed of the benefits of positive discrimination during his admission in the university. It is clear from these details that the real issue at stake was not whether Rohith was born to a Scheduled Caste but whether he was perceived by the parties involved as a Dalit.
It is important, therefore, to ask why and how the focus of the enquiry subsequently shifted to pinpointing Rohith Vemula's caste identity, and away from whether he was a victim of institutionalised discrimination by the university authorities.
The question assumes additional significance because the regular mechanism of authentication of an individual’s Scheduled Caste identity had already certified that Rohith belonged to the said social group. Typically, the Collector of a district issues a certificate to the effect that an individual belongs to a Scheduled Caste. The District Collector of Guntur, from where Rohith hails, had submitted an unambiguous report that he indeed belonged to a Scheduled Caste. According to the head of National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), a statutory body entrusted with the monitoring the implementation of rights and safeguards for the SC, the opinion of the District Collector is final in these matters.
There is really no need to enter into a dissection here of whether such processes are error-free. It suffices to say that, the direction of the public enquiry towards ascertaining the caste identity of Vemula was motivated by a strategy to deflect attention from the charges of institutionalised discrimination. The discrimination issue was picked up by students from both Vemula's university and outside. The campaigners started demanding punishment against the vice chancellor and several leaders of the ruling party, including the then Union minister for education.
Other than the commission constituted by the HRD ministry, the NCSC had taken cognizance of the matter and carried out its own enquiry. In a publicly available document, the NCSC has made clear that in Vemula's 'perception and the perception of society at large, he lived as SC and experienced the life and age-old discriminations faced by SCs and also raised his voice against such discrimination especially in his university student life.’ The report also stated that while he lived, he was accepted as an SC by his friends, neighbours, university authorities and treated as such. On a close reading of Vemula's letter to the vice-chancellor of his university, written a month before his death, the report suggests that there was sufficient ground for Vemula and his fellow students to perceive the treatment meted out to them as institutionalised discrimination. It wished the ministry and the university to look into the circumstances leading to his death and take steps to prevent discrimination against SC students at academic campuses across the country.
Thus, the position taken by NCSC appears to contradict the recent report of the one-man enquiry commission of the HRD ministry.
Several questions could be raised against this context. First, it is hard to see why the government had to rush into a separate enquiry when the designated statutory body for such tasks had already taken up the matter. Second, it is even harder to see why there was a fresh need to contest the caste identity of Vemula when there was no challenge from any quarters and, especially, since he had not claimed any special benefit from the university on the basis of his caste identity. Therefore, it is possible to make a case that the posthumous enquiry of Rohith’s Scheduled Caste identity was, at least partly, motivated by a conscious design by the ruling party.
At the same time, if the Government chooses to give precedence to the finding of the enquiry commission over the report of the National Commission of the Scheduled Castes, it significantly reduces the institutional legitimacy of the Commission. The recent developments make us all the more curious to see how the government acts on the case from now on.
Finally, the case foregrounds a somewhat unaddressed aspect of the Dalit question in the public discourse. The public discourse revolves overwhelmingly around the official policy of positive discrimination which stipulates for Scheduled Castes and other marginal communities reservations in public employment and admission in institutions of higher education. Debates often rage on whether the Dalit candidates carry sufficient ‘merit’ to uphold the expected standard of the positions to which they are appointed. What goes unacknowledged in such debates is the forms in which actual discrimination is carried out against Dalits, including to those who receive the benefit of positive discrimination.
Such discriminations need not be limited to physical untouchability or public lynching, which also happen often enough if media reports are any indication. Such discriminations often take subtle forms, such as negative perception or prejudices that may lead to less than fair standards of assessment. Although there has been some work along these directions, they are yet to enter into the public domain with sufficient clarity or regularity. Vemula’s death will not go in vein if questions about institutional discrimination against Dalits, especially in terms of perception and prejudices now comes to inform the public discourse in India.