India: student death exposes caste oppression

The suicide of a Dalit (formerly known as “untouchable”) PhD student Rohith Vemula has refocussed world attention on the discriminatory caste system in India, in which 180 million Dalits are the most oppressed.

Rohith was one of five Dalit students expelled by Hyderabad Central University authorities from student housing for an alleged and unproven assault on a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – the student wing of the governing Hindu nationalist BJP.

Poet, writer and socialist Meena Kandasamy, currently in India, explains the issues of caste in this tragedy.

Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister of India, photo Al Jazeera English (Creative Commons)

Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and prime minister of India, photo Al Jazeera English (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The suicide of a Dalit student is not just an individual exit strategy, it is a shaming of society that has failed him or her. Rohith Vemula’s death comes as the sad, unforeseeable climax of a struggle that he was spearheading against casteist, communal forces.

It also lays bare the true state of our educational system: a vice chancellor with a decades-old history of rusticating (suspending) Dalit students, the involvement of central government ministers to settle scores on behalf of right-wing Hindu forces.

Dalit students

There could not be a more potent image of the caste system at play than the expulsion of these five Dalit students – even though the ensuing strikes highlighted the sense of solidarity among the Dalit Bahujan student community.

Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, and discontinuation.

In a society where students have waged massive struggles to ensure their right to access higher educational institutions through the protective, enabling concept of the reservation policy, no one has dared to shed light on how many of these students are allowed to leave these institutions with degrees, how many become dropouts, become permanent victims of depression, and how many end up dead.

That Dalit students like Rohith Vemula enter universities to pursue a doctoral degree is a testament to their intelligence, perseverance, and a relentless struggle against caste discrimination.

Textbooks ridden with caste hegemony, the atmosphere that reinforces alienation within college campuses, classmates who take pride in their dominant caste status, teachers who condemn them to miserable fates and thus enact a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure – these are the impossible challenges for Dalit students to surmount.

Our institutions of higher education also specialise in things beyond caste discrimination. They are also notorious for the sexual harassment visited upon women students and faculty members alike.

Just as Rohith’s suicide has broken the silence over caste as a killer, one day we will also hear the stories of women who were driven to death by these ivory towers.

What we see in the case of the University of Hyderabad is the deadly combination of caste supremacy and political pandering. The role of the state machinery, especially the police force, to threaten and subdue students has been established as a classical method of repression on campuses. Now, we have massive deployment of armed police on the Hyderabad campus, and the imposition of a curfew.

Never again

Let every despicable casteist force wince when they encounter a Dalit, a Shudra, an Adivasi, a Bahujan (oppressed castes and ethnic groups), or a woman staking claim within academia. Let them realise that we have come here to end a system that has kept trying hard to put an end to us; that we have come here to cause nightmares to those who dared to snatch our dreams.

We have come to learn, but let the monsters of caste and their henchmen bear in mind that we have come here also to teach them an unforgettable lesson.