“I felt that I was in a dungeon, and I longed for the company of some human being to talk to. But there was no one. In the absence of the company of human beings I sought the company of books, and read and read. Absorbed in reading, I forgot my lonely condition. But the chirping and flying about of the bats, which had made the hall their home, often distracted my mind and sent cold shivers through me — reminding me of what I was endeavouring to forget, that I was in a strange place under strange conditions.
Many a time I must have been angry. But I subdued my grief and my anger through the feeling that though it was a dungeon, it was a shelter, and that some shelter was better than no shelter. So heart-rending was my condition that when my sister’s son came from Bombay, bringing my remaining luggage which I had left behind, and when he saw my state, he began to cry so loudly that I had to send him back immediately. In this state I lived in the Parsi inn, impersonating a Parsi.”
– Dr B.R. Ambedkar
The above is an excerpt took from the book Waiting for a Visa, an anthology of incidents that shaped Ambedkar’s life. Ambedkar was made to come back from London after his scholarship by the king of Baroda ended. Back in India in 1918, he was appointed as a probationer in the accountant general’s office by the king. After only 11 days, he was made to leave Baroda because he was constantly being humiliated by peons and other workers there. The floors of his office, which his colleagues believed had been rendered impure in the presence of an untouchable, were cleaned every day after he left.
The files he touched were not touched by others. The office assistants never listened to him. If work was humiliating, home was a nightmare. The above excerpt was written by Ambedkar recalling the terror he felt in a Parsi inn where he was staying in Baroda. Ambedkar posed as a Parsi as he knew he would not be given a place to stay in other hotels. Eventually, he was caught in his lie and was thrown out by goons. He was never treated as a man should be but “was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility”.
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. 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. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”
– Rohit Vemula
This is an excerpt from the searing suicide note written by Vemula before he hanged himself. Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide on January 16, 2016 after his fellowship amount of Rs 25,000 was suspended following a complaint filed against him by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, a student’s body affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Vemula was accused of indulging in“casteist and anti-national” activities.
Ambedkar’s humiliation and Vemula’s suicide are separated by almost a century, but it is baffling to see how these two were made to go through the same struggles. After 72 years of Independence, India is still enslaved by the age-old cynical system of caste.
The constitution of India promises to provide justice, liberty of thought and expression, and equality of status and of opportunity to all its citizens.
The statistics offered by various institutions prove otherwise. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, crimes against Dalits have risen by 25% between 2006 to 2016. Almost 99% of cases are pending police investigation. The conviction rate has also reduced by 2%.
Police also often refuse to file complaints in a number of cases, a fact which shows that the system of justice is futile for some. The paramount example of this is the dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, by the Supreme Court.
While the number of Dalit killings increases day by day, the Supreme Court has diluted the act on the logic that the number of false cases has increased. The judiciary which is touted to be the guardian of the Constitution has failed to keep up the promise of justice given by the Constitution itself. These statistics compel us to ask a deeply disturbing question: Does the state recognise Dalits as citizens of India or are they outcastes in the eyes of the state also?
Incidents of caste discrimination in educational institutions in rural areas have been common, but institutions which are thought of as leading intellectual breeding grounds have also seen a surge in caste-based discrimination on campus. The case of Rohit Vemula is just a tip of the iceberg. Vemula’s suicide was followed by Muthukrishnan who was a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Muthukrishnan, from Tamil Nadu, was found dead in his hostel room. Before killing himself, the wrote on Facebook, “When equality is denied, everything is denied. There is no equality in MPhil/PhD admission, there is no equality in viva-voce, there is only denial of equality, denying professor Sukhadeo Thorat recommendation, denying students protest places in ad-block, denying the education of the marginals”.
He was refused equality, he was refused the constitutional promise.
Dalit students have long been subjected to harassment but in these two incidents, it was institutionalised — a fact gleaned by observing the institutions’ reactions in the aftermath. After Vemula’s suicide, instead of strengthening the protection of marginalised students, the police, court and government were keen to prove that he was not from a Dalit community.
Muthukrishnan had been clear that he was discriminated against in the viva voce. In the recent case of Payal Tadvi, who was harassed by her seniors and committed suicide, humiliation after humiliation followed. She was told that she is only good to clean toilets. But the Indian Medical Association only vaguely acknowledged caste discrimination in medical education. The appointed investigative panel also submitted that Tadvi was harassed and ragged but held that there was no evidence of caste-based harassment.
In a sudden turn of events, Tadvi’s suicide notes were recovered from her phone and those turned the case. By not acknowledging the role of caste in these crimes, the institutions have ended up indirectly authorising them.
When discrimination is institutionalised, it kills upliftment. The new India has seen a new code of discrimination. Dalits who have been refused the right to education for centuries, have now gained it through the constitutional provision. But in the process they are subjected to constant harassment and humiliation.
They are whispered, told and beaten to the agreement that they don’t belong “here”. This new code of discrimination has been in development for more than a decade. In a number of reports by Makepeace Sitlhou, a former campaigner with Amnesty International India, on The Wire gives us haunting statics of this new code. She starts with a report produced by a committee set up in 2007 by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to look into the issue of caste discrimination on campus by teachers. As many as 84% of the Dalits students who were covered in the survey said that they have been asked about their caste either directly or indirectly by teachers during evaluation.
Another report highlights that only 155 universities out of the 800 have cooperated with the UGC act on protecting oppressed students by adding a Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes redressal portal in their college website and by establishing separate committees to look into the issue. In June 2015, IIT Roorkee dismissed 73 students based on poor performance. Almost three-quarters of the students who were dismissed were SCs and STs. The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, which investigated the issue, said that the institution lacked facilities to support students from diverse backgrounds; it lacked English classes, summer classes and other remedial programmes.
In all these years, Dalits have held the Constitution as “their” political document and have seen it as the path to emancipation. But every act of arrogance or cruelty and the state’s indifference towards it breaks this constitutional promise to Dalits.
It is time that we critically analyse the Constitution. Suraj Yengde in his book Caste Matters, discusses the constitutional limitations in the process of Dalit emancipation. He says, “Owing to the limited control of this institution, the Constitution has become synonymous to a grievance cell offering no immediate solutions”.
Dalits have to create a rhetoric which transcends linguistic, economic and intellectual barriers. The linguistic limitations of the Constitution are apparent and most Dalits do not even realise that they have a written set of rights to be claimed. This elitism of the Constitution makes it an ambiguous representation of Dalit rights. The recent conclusion of elections gives a clear representation of how Dalits have very little knowledge about their rights and therefore seem to have voted for a party whose very agenda strikes at the core of Dalit issues.
Caste has always evolved to suit the change of times. It has taken on a new form now and the fight against it should also evolve. It is time that we bring forward a new theory of Dalitism which encompasses all Dalits and provides them with a common forum to fight for their rights. Until then, we must “educate, organise and agitate.”
E. Edhaya Chandran is pursuing post-graduate studies in political science at Madras Christian College.