Voices rising


January 27, 2016

Last week, Prime Minister Modi was, for the first time, asked to ‘go back’ from a public meeting. The two protesting Dalit research scholars sent a pertinent message to the incumbent government: Learn to accept differences before democratic voices get stronger.

It was certainly out of the ordinary for somebody to shout slogans against a powerful Prime Minister like Narendra Modi, who has had a pretty rollicking ride since he assumed office in May 2014. In fact, if his run-up to that post is also taken into account, it is a good three and a half years of a dream run when none dared even to protest at any of his meetings. Even as chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, his public addresses have been free of protests or sloganeering.

Therefore, when two students stood up at a university convocation in Lucknow in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, to shout ‘Modi, go back’, it carried a big message to the Prime Minister and, more importantly, to the ruling party and its affiliates. The significance of this protest should not be seen by the number of people protesting but the reason why they were doing so, knowing very well that security for the Prime Minister is of the highest order in a country which has lost a prime minister to assassins’ bullets and a former prime minister to a bomb attack.

The two research scholars hailed from that section of society which has been discriminated against since centuries. Over the years, governmental affirmation policies had helped bring them up to the point where they were present at the event. They were protesting against the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University in southern India. Rohith also hailed from the Dalit community, officially called Scheduled Castes. Rohith’s suicide on January 18 took place at a point of time when he along with four other PhD students had been prohibited, barring their studies, from the students’ hostel, administrative building and common areas in a classic example of social ostracism.

The reason for the restriction was because they were held guilty by a university panel, not police investigation, for getting into a fracas with representatives of a students organisation, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). Rohith and his friends belonged to an organisation called Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), named after Dr B R Ambedkar, who wrote the Indian constitution. This was because a junior federal minister had written a letter to his colleague heading the Human Resources Development Ministry, that the ASA was ‘casteist, extremist and anti-national’.

It was Rohith’s suicide note which stirred the nation’s conscience, triggering outrage, at the plight of young people belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, particularly in institutions of higher education. Rohith communicated a lot more about the feelings of young people from these sections of society than all that has been written or talked about for years. He wrote, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” His caste identity stood in the way of his wanting to become a science writer like Carl Sagan, ‘in every field, in studies, in streets, in politics and in dying and living’. To Rohith, ‘life itself [was a] curse. My birth is my fatal accident’.

As the agitation by students spread to other parts of the country, the federal government was quick to deny that it was a Dalit versus non-Dalit situation in institutions of higher learning. But, the fact was otherwise. The polarisation of Dalits was an expression of years of discrimination against them. It is an undeniable fact that most of the students from this section of society have faced taunts because they have secured admission in educational institutions under affirmation programmes. But, there are also some, like Rohith, who got into courses under the general category which is on the basis of merit and not on the basis of caste.

When a Dalit student, invariably from the rural areas, enters a university, he faces the ignominy of being discriminated against because he has little or no knowledge of English. If the teaching faculty is not understanding, the student becomes tense further because they also need to adjust to an urban milieu. Added to all this, if there is caste discrimination, the Dalit feels humiliated. This is what Rohith wrote, in his own way, in his suicide note which has led to outrage across the country. But, the saddest part of the unfolding of this socio-political crisis has been the manner in which the ruling party has dealt with the issue.

In a certain sense, it is not difficult to understand the ruling party’s dilemma. There is clarity that the Dalits are an important part of the democratic process without whose votes, it would be electorally disastrous. The BJP and its ideologue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been making great efforts to unite the Hindu community by expanding from their original base of upper castes and trading classes to include the backward classes. But, unfortunately, they are not able to attract the educated sections among the Dalits because they have grown up on Ambedkar’s writings which are, largely, a critique of the ideology of Hindutva. The conflict of ideology that is seen on the campus of the Hyderabad Central University and other campuses is based on this basic premise.

It is in this context that the emotional touch that the Prime Minister gave in his speech at the university convocation by saying that Mother India had lost her son in Rohith and he empathised with his mother was taken with a large pinch of salt. In the first place, it came five days after Rohith’s suicide and the consequent outrage. During those five days, the Prime Minister was at public events and on four of those days he tweeted on various issues. Something was wanting there from the Prime Minister who was overwhelmed talking about Rohith. The irony was that on the same day, a senior leader of the RSS went on record to say that anti-national elements had no business being on the campus.

His reference was to the genesis of the clash between the ASA and the ABVP. The ASA members had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon for the 1993 Mumbai serial bomb blasts which was objected to by the ABVP. The issue of whether he should have been hanged or spent the rest of his life in prison is, without doubt, debatable. But, the message that has come across strongly in the entire episode has been that if someone does not accept the viewpoint of the ruling dispensation, it amounts to being anti-national. The consistency of this approach is, certainly, dangerous for democracy. What stands against this viewpoint are provisions of the Constitution of India, written by Dr Ambedkar.

Tailpiece

There are all kinds of messages that go viral on social media. But there are some interesting ones like a marriage counsellor in the southern city of Chennai whose audio message, perhaps pepped up a wee bit, conveys something that is so critical in a family life. He goes by the name of T T Rangarajan.

He makes it clear that he is technology challenged and, therefore, his response to a ‘lol’ the first time was a ‘pow’ because he did not understand what ‘lol’ meant. His problem with people now-a-days is that people have forgotten how to laugh. “For most of you, laughter means you have to type ‘lol’.”

So, he says, “Once in a way get out of Facebook and look at each other… face to face. Bring back happiness in family. There has to be some naughtiness, some celebration, some fun. There have to be lighter moments, there have to be pranks. Next time you pass by your dad, just tickle him a bit. Family life cannot be so serious. At the current rate, the years are not far off when a husband and wife are together, they might be called a joint family.’’

Rangarajan narrates an anecdote from one of his clients who complained that his wife was ‘not disciplined as if she was in the army or police force’. When he sought an explanation, he was told that his wife would press the tooth paste tube in the middle. “So, I told her please buy two tubes. Let him press one wherever he wants and you press wherever you want. For R14.50, please do not go in for a divorce.”

His advise, “It is very important to understand that love is the ability to understand. It’s not a question of who has committed the mistake. Love is love only when it is independent of the imperfections in that person. Marriage or a relationship is not a corporate where perfection can lead to being appointed as vice-president. You cannot give an appointment letter on the day of the wedding and say you are on probation for six months. After two more years of training, you shall be gifted with fatherhood.”

The bottom line is that there are creative ways to correct a person. So, get creative in relationships. “Without happiness there cannot be love. Happiness guarantees love,” is what this marriage counsellor says.

[The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Muscat Daily or Apex Press & Publishing]