Distortion, Selectivism and What Cicero Really Reminds Us

Screen grab of HRD Minister Smriti Irani speaking in Parliament on Wednesday

Screen grab of HRD Minister Smriti Irani speaking in Parliament on Wednesday

I am part of the “Justice for Rohith Vemula” movement. Being from Kashmir, I only occasionally identified with the Dalit cause during my six-year stay at the University of Hyderabad. But the case of Rohith Vemula changed everything. His suicide note was enough to outrage the last bit of my conscience. It made me realise there is a discernible pattern when we see the apparently disconnected events from IIT Madras to JNU – the overall aim to stifle dissent.

Following the media closely after the Rohith incident, I was looking for at least (a bare minimum) of an apology from the BJP government, even if on the lines of “if unknowingly the intervention from some elements led to circumstances resulting in the suicide of Rohith Vemula we are sorry for that”, but instead the BJP government went on an onslaught – first calling it only a ‘plain suicide’ and then discrediting Rohith, claiming he was not a Dalit. Even more dangerous than this was the approach of ‘parallelism’; whenever asked about the Rohith issue, the BJP would demand to know about students in West Bengal or why Rahul Gandhi did not identify with the students who died during the Telangana movement and so on.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

I also hold the Congress government responsible for the killing of innocent students during the 2008 unrest in Kashmir. But surely that does not absolve the BJP government in this case – after all two wrongs don’t make a right. To add insult to injury, this parallelism was reinforced by selectivism – the slogans that are part of the protests were taken as a challenge to the nation while the institutional role in Rohith Vemula’s suicide was ignored and sidestepped.

For me, all this peaked on Wednesday; HRD minister Smriti Irani was vocal, outrageous, and very selective in her speech to parliament. She did make some strong points but she was also selective and distorted facts. She claimed that the chief warden in the Rohit Vemula’s case was a Dalit and had been co-opted in the enquiry committee. Yes he was a Dalit. But he is in an administrative position and thus he cannot be considered a representative of the Dalits in an inquiry into the case. It is like saying ‘we want to discuss the budget in the National Development Council, but since the finance minister is from Tamil Nadu, there is no need of a representative from Tamil Nadu; the state is represented by default’.

Again, Irani, was fair enough to say that she intervened on many occasions to help address issues as and when requested by parliamentarians such as Assaduddin Owaisi. But there is a difference here – to address a request, say, for a faculty position is different from taking punitive action.  There is no ‘moral equivalence’ between the two. The series of reminders from her ministry to the university signifies that the intervention itself was biased. Irani did not tell us the number of reminders the MHRD had written to the Hyderabad University administration.

She was quick to mention that Rohith Vemula did not hold anyone responsible for his suicide. But she chose to ignore his first letter written to the vice-chancellor in which he highlights the plight of Dalits. She complained that some were trying to get political benefits from the Rohith incident; but I am sorry to say her very act itself was political.

In her speech she also lambasted the UPA government for books it had introduced that unnecessarily polarise the people between ‘us’ and ‘them’; again an example of selectivism, since she forgot to mention that the BJP government in Rajasthan only recently removed western and Muslim poets from the syllabus, not to mention what has happened in Haryana and other states. If Congress ‘polarises’ students, BJP ‘blinds’ them. And she then says ‘shiksha ko ranbhoomi mat banao’ (don’t make education a battleground).

She repeated the lie that students played politics in Rohith’s case and didn’t allow the doctors to come in so that his life could could have been saved. Let me tell her that the first thing we students did was to call the doctor. But by then the brilliant scholar had died.

Smriti Irani showed her academic side by quoting Cicero. I am sure she would have read his famous Dream of Scipio where he says that “no monster can be more barbarous than the mob, which assumes the name and the mask of the people”.

Had she read this, I am sure she would have been reminded of the mob which beat Kanhaiya Kumar. She would have also come across one of the most ardent principles of Cicero that “no officeholder can be successful without a strong sense of justice.” “Justice,” he writes, “consists of doing our fellow humans no injury, and decency of giving them no offence.” (Justitiæ partes sunt non violare homines, verecundiæ non offendere, in quo maxime vis perspicitur decori. lib i, cap xxviii.)

Latief Ahmad Dar is a PhD scholar with Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.

  • Joji Cherian

    Does any one expect Smriti Irani to have read Cicero? Some body,that also without knowing the full import of the quote about traitors, might have told her about it.This maxim is heard quoted frequently in America these days,for what reason and in what context is totally different in nature than what Ms Irani alludes.

  • Jumla King

    What a PM and HRD minister….way to go India, waiting for more disaster

  • Ria Kar

    Well written and argued article by Latief. I only wish to make one point – not necessarily linked with what Smriti Irani said – on which I agree with you entirely. Rohit Vemula’s death also indicates something else which has disturbed me – the failure of the student groups and movement with which he was associated- Ambedkar manch/left groups to give him the solidarity and a sense of belonging that he was searching for. His suicide represents deep alienation from the very politics which he was trying to represent. Rohit’s suicide note suggests that he was a progressive student who wanted to be a part of the world where caste, religion does not become the sole denominator of one’s identity. And Yet, paradoxically the left as well as other groups with which he was associated with were re-inscribing caste into every single case of injustice. It is this paradox – doing politics for erasure of caste and by the very act reinforcing reinscribing, and solidifying the caste that shows the limits of caste/dalit politics in the way in which it is played out today. I believe that Rohit was deeply aware about this double bind from which he saw no escape perhaps an impossibility of escaping from the politics of identity that he was a part of. This politics was clearly not enough for him which I think left him alienated from the movement that he was part of – ultimately leading to his tragic suicide. May all youths, groups, movements take correct lessons from his death – although I dont see that happening – identity politics is all that I see around here – and feel deeply saddened by it.