The Prime Minister’s comments on the tragic death of Rohith, the student who committed suicide at Hyderabad Central University this week, will fool no one, least of all dalits
The lachrymal glands have been activated once again but even if the tears remained trapped in the eyes of the leader, must they blur our vision?
That a full five days were allowed to elapse since the suicide of a dalit student in Hyderabad before these gland optics tells us that what we saw in Lucknow on Friday was not at all a spontaneous expression of grief. The Telegraph has shown frame by frame the pictures of a smiling, beaming Modi on different joyous occasions – when the mother of Rohith was grieving and the nation was trying to make sense of her loss – to prove that the prime minister’s act is a little too late and unconvincing. Rohith’s father has seen through the bluff and already spoken up about it.
While some were keen to see in those brimming eyes a humane approach, I saw a cynical, strategic mind which kept its emotions in check so as to let it flow on an appropriate occasion, against a suitable backdrop.
Modi dragged Rohith’s poor mother in to invoke the sublime image of a grieving ‘Maa Bharati’. One must not forget that ‘bharati’ is a pet suffix for all organisations run by the RSS, Vidya Bharati, Vijnana Bharati, Sanskar Bhaarti being some of them.
It is difficult not to see the deception in ‘elevating’ the status of Rohith by calling him the son of Maa Bharati. An erasure is being put on his identity which was the essential cause of his death. He died because of his dalitness and this needs to be said again and again even if it disturbs our universalist, nationalist human sensibility, just as Mohammed Akhlaq was killed because of his Muslimness. It is empty rhetoric to say that we should grieve for them because they were “Indians and human beings” and not confine them in narrow identity frames.
Akhlaq was not killed because of his Indianness but because his assassins saw him as a Muslim who was not a complete Indian in the ‘desired’ sense of the term. Rohith had to die because, being dalit, he found it impossible to attain his individuality, and because he refused to be a nationalist dalit. Because he insisted on forging solidarities with other persecuted identities of India, Muslim being the most prominent. His crime was to express his disquiet over the hanging of Yakub Memon and his anger over the ABVP’s attack on the screening of a film on the Muzzafarnagar communal violence.
Since the politics of Rohith was sought to be criminalised by calling it anti-national, it is pointless to ask people to keep politics aside. One cannot talk about this death without talking about the politics of Rohith, which was a liberatory, dalit politics that sought to build alliances of the oppressed. A politics which recognised that a section of society cannot be liberated while others remain in chains. At the same time, we cannot ignore the politics of those who sought to outlaw this politics. It is this nationalist politics that is stifling all of us, which has assigned itself the task of giving credentials to others. We need to oppose this mindless nationalism that is gradually taking over our public spaces and threatening to colonise our mindscapes.
Enough has already emerged about the squalid role of the ABVP and of senior central ministers like Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani, who batted for the student group. Even today, attempts are under way by the right-wing to question whether Rohith was a dalit and to allege his suicide note was tampered with.
Apart from this, let us repeat what the real issue is. Even if we accept that Rohith was part of the group which had a scuffle with the student leader of ABVP – an incident that the police last October said never even happened – it does not justify the intervention of a Central minister. It was a campus issue which was being resolved there. The erstwhile vice chancellor had satisfied himself before nullifying the decision to suspend Rohith and his friends. That Bandaru Dattatreya deemed it fit to write a letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development to express his concern over “anti-national and casteist activities” being allowed at the campus and that the ministry deemed it so big an issue that it kept pestering the university to act on the complaint shows that there was much bigger design behind it. That the ministry acts on behalf of a student organisation sends a clear message to all universities – to treat this particular organisation with deference.
Before everybody starts saying that Modi has now sent a firm message to the fringe, let us ask the question: Is the government itself a fringe? Are the ministers fringe elements, is the ABVP fringe or is the RSS fringe, are their spokespersons fringe? Is there only one man here who matters while everyone else is a deviant?
Modi chose the backdrop of a university named after Ambedkar to advise the nation to keep politics aside. Which politics is the dear leader referring to? Even when the news of his unspent tears was still breaking, a high-level ideologue of his mother organisation asked what ‘anti-nationals’ were doing in campuses like Hyderabad Central University.
In the end, Modi’s performance was poor theatre. The two pauses which punctuated the speech were so contrived that the audience could see through the act. Before this tear-jerker scene, the graduating students were given a lesson in the life of Babasaheb Ambedkar and were told that he endured difficulties and all the humiliation and insults he was subjected to without complaining or ever showing his bitterness. This is a familiar theme. Earlier, while admonishing Aamir Khan for his inconvenient remarks about how those in power were failing to make ordinary citizens feel secure in the face of acts of violence and intimidation,the home minister had also invoked the life of Babasaheb to advise people to learn from the non-complaining nature of a man who faced insults but never criticised his motherland.
No dalit will be deceived by these grand, patronising words. For no one died more bitter than Babasaheb, who gave up Hinduism and turned towards the Buddha. Who could be more bitter than the man who was ready to criticise the Constitution of India, his own creation, as it had proved ineffective in communicating the sense of urgency which society needed to change in order to realise its potential? If there was one man who felt deceived, it was Ambedkar. The nation failed him. Just as the nation’s leaders today – despite the tears that well up in their eyes – have failed Rohith.
Apoorvanand teaches at Delhi University