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  • Milind Shekhar Singh

और कितने शंबूक ? : Rohith Vemula and the Unending Scourge of Casteism


“The young Mahar boy [Ambedkar] was very clever

Indeed, very clever

This wouldn’t happen in the whole world

He showed us the way out of the darkness

He awakened the innocent”

                                                                     -Atmaram Salve


In certain renditions of the Hindu epic Ramayana, such as the Uttara Kanda Book of the Ramayana, there is a character named Shambuka. In this account, the shudra ascetic Shambuka was killed for trying to carry out tapas (austerities) against the dharma, which resulted in the negative karma that killed a Brahmin's child.


In the Bhagavata Purana, it is said that the vast majority of humanity, particularly in this Kali era, are born shudras, or lowborn, untrained, unfortunate, and poorly associated which points to the corruption of the ‘chaturvarna system’ as no class in the ‘kaliyuga’ is high born or low born. Despite this, the proponents of the chaturvarna system still profess rigid adherence to the fourfold varna order and it effectively contributes to the persistence of caste based discrimination in every sphere. 


17th January marks the death anniversary of Rohith Vemula, a dalit student at the University of Hyderabad  who committed suicide. His suicide note serves as a poignant reminder for all of us to think and keep rethinking about the rigid social rules and attitudes that dominate our ‘liberal and open-minded society’. It certainly acts as a rebuttal to the naive liberal claims that ‘casteism is a thing of past’ or that ‘caste based discrimination has vanished from urban areas’, instead it entails a realisation that unless we accept the existence of caste based discrimination and work towards its eradication, many more might meet the same fate as Vemula did. "We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer” - (Carl Jung in ‘Modern Man in Search of a Soul’), this remark by Carl Jung perhaps serves as a perfect reminder that

Condemning those who claim to have undergone caste based discrimination, instead of accepting their testimonies, is an act of oppressing them. Despite satisfying caste-blind individuals, it does not lead to the elimination of casteism and merely boosts casteist individuals to act with greater impunity. Let us understand this with an example. - if a person A expresses his experience of caste based discrimination and another person B refutes it by saying that it is an archaic claim, caste discrimination does not exist anymore, then a psychological analysis of caste according to the proposition of Jung would mean that the person B is only acting as the oppressor of the person A , who is a victim of caste discrimination and by denying and condemning the existence of the phenomena in question i.e. - Caste discrimination , person A is acting not as a liberator but as an oppressor.





CONTEXT AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO THE SUICIDE


In July 2015, Rohith Vemula, who was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, was allegedly discovered "raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA)," leading to the University ceasing to provide him with the Fellowship of Rs. 25,000 each month.

Officials from the university vigorously refuted any accusations of prejudice with the nonpayment of scholarships. They retorted that Rohith's suspension from the university in January 2016 was the reason for the delay in "paperwork" and the non-payment.  In September 2015, the University punished five students for participating in a group that raised awareness of their caste-based rights to use government facilities. The decision to suspend the students was affirmed on December 17, 2015. Among the pupils suspended was Rohith. The government stipend, which was briefly suspended owing to suspension, was used to fund his doctoral studies; the exact date of the conversation was unclear. Rohith's family found it difficult to provide for him when his stipend was stopped and he was unable to maintain his financial stability. 


Rohith was compelled to even borrow money from a friend due to the brief stoppage of finances and the unclear length of the suspension. Vemula and his five pals moved from dorm rooms to a tent they put up inside the campus on January 3, 2016, following the confirmation of the suspension. Feeling depressed and outraged at the suppression of their rights, they started a "relay hunger protest." On January 17, 2016, a defeated and resolute Venuma chose to end his life since he had no other choice in a highly politicized situation that did not appear to have a happy ending. Anger over his suicide extended throughout India and the rest of the world. The government and the institution have made an effort to shift the conversation away from the tragedy's root causes and toward Vemula's caste, arguing that he was never a Dalit in the first place.


The death caused widespread political and social discontent not just in India but also around the world. During the 31st session of the Human Rights Council at the UN, a request for justice for Rohith was made. Following the incident, a wave of solidarity that swept through the University of Hyderabad quickly expanded to other parts of India, especially to university campuses, from Delhi in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, and eventually to universities around the globe. The university administration reportedly lifted the suspension of the students in an effort to calm tensions and put an end to the ongoing unrest that had

included picketing, hunger strikes, and protests, according to the national media. Ashok Vajpeyi, a renowned poet, expressed his disapproval by returning his Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Hyderabad (UoH), blaming the university for the student's suicide.




MY BIRTH IS MY FATAL ACCIDENT …..


The suicide note that Rohith penned with an eerie openness and acceptance of his final thoughts is still a potent symbol of how profoundly "individual" the experience of death can be. 


“I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself.” “I am not bothered about what I am called”.


Although the note displays a strong sense of individualism, the occurrence should not be regarded in isolation; rather, it should be understood in the context of society as a whole and the socialization process. The media's use of the term "institutional murder" may be one way to describe this feeling.


The word "institutional" and the concept of caste in India are essential to comprehending the circumstances behind Rohitha's demise. As the non-release of the scholarship was brought to the attention of the media, the administration attempted to explain itself by saying that it was only a delay in "paper work" and had nothing to do with Rohitha's politics. Ironically, even in a climate of tension and irritation, "paperwork" can be used as a defense for a lot of things in India, which is surprising.. Higher education establishments, particularly Central Universities in India, draw students from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, forcing them to occupy a constrained physical area. This young activist had committed the horrible act of suicide because he lacked the resources to live a life of dignity.


Additionally, student organizations and elections are two venues where organized politics are expressed in universities. In India, central universities like the University of Hyderabad provide students with the chance to receive an education that may be described as "critical." Among other things, Paulo Freire, the educator and philosopher from Brazil, is one of the strongest advocates for "critical education." According to Freire, education has an impact on social transformation, making it difficult to avoid politics. The suicide letter unmistakably conveys the importance of a man's life as well as the overall sense of frustration that any young person may feel in such a situation. This young man was frustrated with the political scene because it exploited him, ruining both his life and career in the name of political and media speculation. Few people paid attention to the fact that his career appeared to be in danger due to this fight, which was being waged by political bullies in order to obtain political mileage. 


The deluge of accusations and counter-allegations between political parties failed to recognize Rohith's predicament, as he was merely striving to secure the facilities required by the Ministry

of HRD to pursue his PhD and serve as a model for young people in similar circumstances, encouraging them to never give up and to fight for their fundamental rights, especially the "Right to Equality." In their rush to get attention and establish themselves as leaders in the race to protect minority rights, political parties overlooked the urgency of acting swiftly to lift the suspension of this promising youth, Rohith, and his four companions. Since Rohith lacked resources, it was the moral obligation of all political parties to unite and determine the earliest date for a decision regarding his suspension, keeping him out of small-scale political conflicts. None of the political parties saw that the prolonged delay in providing a resolution for Rohith's suspension would ultimately produce extreme frustration in this disobedient young person whose rebellion was only motivated by the right to equality. In actuality, Rohith's battle is a fundamental human right, and there was nothing wrong with the young person's demand that called for his suspension. The act of detaining Rohith and withholding his stipend, which provided him with financial assistance, was interpreted as politically motivated. As a result, Rohith was forced to take extreme measures to end his life.


In his suicide note, Rohith expressly indicates that he had a worldview aligned with a philosopher's ideas at the time of his attempt to end his life. The suicide note shows the sensitive, objective side of him as well as the philosopher that lives inside of him. He was a young man who rebelled, but for a good cause. From his suicide letter, it is possible to decipher Rohith's persona, which is that of a philosopher with a genuine humanitarian touch. Rohith anticipated the system to be biased, unjust, and unfair. Another aspect of Rohith's suicide note is that it's possible that he was dreaming of himself as someone who stood up for and advanced the rights of the underprivileged class. He envisioned a more equitable and impartial world where he would make a name for himself and inspire marginalized groups to look up to him as a champion against prejudice. However, nothing of the kind occurred—instead, he was used as a pawn by both the media and politicians. In addition to the media using Rohith's name to garner headlines and draw in more viewers, politicians exploited him as a scapegoat. As stated in his suicide letter, Rohith found himself reduced to a material rather than a real creature. a document that politicians have chosen in order to stand before crowds and, while acting as a showman, save the day. Similarly, the media used him as a story point only to make headlines, not supporting him in his struggle for a cause. In the middle of this situation, Rohith became frustrated because he thought he was being used by people for their benefit rather than for his own complaints.


The image that Rohit saw of himself was that of a visionary, in line with the cause he deliberately intensified, perished at the hands of this nation's self-serving, exploitative mercenaries. In the background of his agitation, Rohith harbored a humanistic ideology that did not appear likely to come to pass. This philosopher's dream, which he aimed to express and translate into action, ultimately culminated in his suicide note, which revealed his noble nature and distanced him from the political argument and biased media hypes. In his suicide note, Rohith mentioned humanitarian themes that none of the supporters could understand. It does not represent anything other than the pitiful condition of youth and the hypocritical nature of a society that presents itself as a rescuer but really has self-serving goals of exploitation and personal gain. Thus, the letter mentioned the "Lost Dream of a Philosopher,"  which nobody was able to sense in his agitation.




THE SAGA GOES ON


The instances of suicides due to caste based discrimination in educational institutions did not stop with the case of Vemula, it is still going on. Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud brought up significant issues regarding Dalit students' suicides at esteemed colleges and universities. He remarked that "Incidents of suicides of students from marginalised communities are becoming common. These numbers are not just statistics. They are stories of centuries of struggle." 


  • On September 4, 2014, Aniket Ambhore, an electrical engineering student at IIT Bombay, fell to his death from Hostel's sixth floor. He was a student belonging to the SC community and was alleged to have committed suicide due to caste based discrimination


  • Darshan Solanki, a BTech student at IIT Bombay, is said to have committed suicide  suicide h ug on February 12, 2023, by plunging from his hostel building's seventh story. 


  • Payal Tadvi, a postgraduate student, committed suicide in 2019 at the Topiwala National Medical College hostel as a result of being harassed by three seniors.


  • In 2021, Assistant Professor Vipin P Veetil resigned from his position at IIT-Madras citing "caste-based discrimination."


Members of the Lok Sabha were informed by Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan that 122 students at IIT, IIM, NIT, and other central universities committed suicide between 2014 and 2021. Sixty-eight of these 122 pupils belonged to reserved groups. "It is often seen that these (SC/ST) students have performed very well in theory but were marked as failed in practical exams," according to the report that was given in the Rajya Sabha.


According to a study by the SC/ST Welfare Committee, candidates seeking faculty positions encounter caste prejudice. More than 11,000 professor positions are open at IITs, IIMs, and central universities across the nation, according to the Ministry of Education. Only 33 of the 45 central institutions had 1,097 openings for SC/ST students. However, just 212 positions were filled.




WHAT DO THESE INSTANCES AND STATISTICS CONVEY?


These statistics are not baseless claims , they painfully represent the social situation and serve as a testimony to the fact that ‘caste-based discrimination still exists’ and needs to be dealt with seriously, rather than superfluously rejecting the existence of the inhumane discrimination that thousands are subjected to in their daily lives in educational institutions, offices, colleges, schools and other spheres. The marginal presence of faculty belonging to the underprivileged sections of the society in Indian educational institutions is one factor which contributes to the feeling of alienation and non-belongingness among the Dalit students. The perception that students from the SC ST community are ‘undeserving’ and ‘lack merit’ is a major reason why the brunt of caste based discrimination has hardened over the years. This points towards the necessity and viability of affirmative action in order to help the underprivileged and marginalized sections move up in the caste hierarchy, casteism can certainly not be refuted as a phenomena of past and needs to be looked at with a critical lens rather than suppressing the claims of those who suffer the brunt of caste- based discrimination.




CONCLUSION


Rohith Vemula’s suicide was an eye opener as it awakened the caste-blind individuals to the harsh reality of caste-based discrimination. “My Birth is My Fatal Accident” conveys the sort of discrimination that Vemula had to go through just because he was raising the interests of the community he belonged to. His dream of becoming a science writer like his hero Carl Sagan was crushed as he couldn’t bear the hate and discrimination he was subjected to and took his own life. Vemula became a symbol of resistance for thousands of Dalit students who dream to break the shackles of caste and aspire to liberate the community. The saga of suicides due to caste based discrimination continues to rise- Aniket Ambhore, Darshan Solanki, Payal Tadvi all of them convey the stark reality that the complex problem of caste cannot be solved merely by ‘eating with dalits’ or ‘washing their feet’. It is a cumbersome issue, the existence of which needs to be accepted and dealt with adequately. On the death anniversary of Rohith Vemula, it is pertinent to ponder over his death and those of the others who succumbed to caste discrimination and pose a question to ourselves- “और कितने शंबूक” ?




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By- Milind Shekhar Singh







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