The HRD minister’s speech in parliament has darker, objectionable implications
The critics may call it melodrama and sensationalism, but Smriti Irani’s speech in parliament has won her many admirers. The performance has to be rated one of the most popular in recent Indian parliamentary history. There can be no appeal to emotions beyond this. To think rational argumentation is the supreme virtue is a fallacy out of which the intellectual class of India needs to be shaken.
Irani vs. Rohith’s supporters
Though the explosive speech of the human resource development minister helped the Bharatiya Janata Party gain huge advantage over the opposition on the first day of the debate, it is now mired in political controversies. Congress, the party with the greatest zamindari legacy, the hitherto caste blind Left, and the party launched with the cause of social justice for dalits, the Bahujan Samaj Party, are all championing the cause of Rohith Vemula. They are out to get Irani for misrepresentation of facts and concoction of events. Their major argument has been that Irani lied on the floor of parliament. They are even planning to move a privilege motion against the minister for lying.
There are many arguments put forth by the Congress, Left and BSP. But there is one point that merits particular scrutiny.
Irani said the following, as per the available text of her speech:
“According to a report submitted to the Telangana high court, the police had reached Rohith’s hospital at 7:20 pm when they found the body. The police said that when they reached the hostel, they found the room open and the dead body was on the table. A hand-written suicide note was found. The suicide note that was left behind does not blame anyone. This is not my submission. This is what the police said. No one allowed a doctor near this child, to revive this child. Instead, his body was used as a political tool. No police was allowed till 6:30 am the following morning. Who tried to help this child?”
The Congress, Left, and BSP are united in saying that Rohith’s mother has disputed this claim, and so have his friends. The BJP has meanwhile been alleging that other political parties have been trying to gain political mileage out of Rohith’s suicide. These are oppositional views that can have no middle ground. Either Irani is right, or Rohith’s mother is right. But the problem with this position is that you can choose to believe either one of them. The matter is quite arbitrary. Rohith’s mother, and Rohith, whom she raised with such hardships, have emotional value. But we should make no mistake about this: the value is only emotional.
Irani’s is an “error” that could cost lives
The Congress-Left-BSP parties have also brought up the statement by Dr. Rajashree of the health centre at the University of Hyderabad, in which she says that she reached the spot of suicide within four minutes of getting the call from Rohith’s hostel, examined Rohith’s body and declared him dead immediately. The doctor – the competent authority – has been captured saying that she certified that death had occurred hours before the body was brought down from the fan.
The Irani supporters respond by pointing out that the minister was merely quoting from the Telangana police report: so if there is any discrepancy in what she said, the Telangana police should be held responsible, not her.
But is such a response factually correct? The police report doesn’t mention anything about the doctor. It does say friends and student agitators prevented the police from smoothly conducting their legal duty. But it doesn’t mention the possibility of reviving Rohith’s life or the doctor not being allowed near the “child”. The police were not talking about providing medical help to a dying person but about completing the legal procedure, which includes medical inspection of an already dead person. That is clear from the document.
Now, is this seeming discrepancy even a big deal? The minister might have been misled by reading the police report, that’s all. Isn’t that just human error?
But this discrepancy cannot be seen as simple human error.
For if Irani is right, Rohith’s friends could be accomplices in his death. That would require them to be prosecuted. There is nothing in the police report that should have motivated her to make such an allegation. Irani’s claim that she is quoting from the police report, when she clearly isn’t, puts the lives of scores of students at risk. This is an ‘error’ for which some people will have to pay with their careers and lives.
Irani also accused certain people and parties of ‘playing’ politically with Rohith’s body instead of “helping the child”. If taken seriously, this accusation means that Rohith’s friends and fellow activists were okay with even his death so long that they could gain politically. Irani’s accusation and its implications dismiss, in one stroke, everything that Rohith’s friends and fellow activists did for him.
The real fight
This “error” of Irani’s made her a heroine – Prime Minister Modi tweeted a link to her speech with the words ‘Satyameva Jayate’ – and helped her champion the cause of the vice chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, the BJP minister Bandaru Dattatreya who had put pressure on the university for action against Rohith and his friends, and of the BJP itself. Irani was also criticised for the five letters her ministry sent, asking for strict punishment of the students. This allows her to further exonerate herself.
Irani’s intentions are unclear. But her gains are quite clear. Given the gains, she would find it impossible to defend the argument made that “the HRD minister lied on the floor of parliament”. Whether the Indian parliament, judiciary and media want to live with such a skeleton in their cupboard is up to them.
One can only hope that this fight will be recognised as not one between the government and the opposition, or between one coalition and another – but as one between the unattended truth and emotionalised, effective falsehoods. Such falsehoods have the power of making a political party victorious while rendering individuals criminally responsible for a death that they have been mourning and about which they are deeply agitated.
There is no other way of understanding this.
N.P. Ashley and Benston John are assistant professors at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi.