Rohith Vemula, a highly ambitious, politically oriented, 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hyderabad killed himself on January 17, 2016. Vemula belonged to a Dalit community and was the son of a single mother. Before killing himself, he wrote a suicide note in the international language of mobility, that is, English and not in his vernacular Telugu. He not only connected with the international community but also underscored a certain cosmopolitan characteristic. Vemula’s note is short, at times fragmented, but a powerful piece of evidence that he himself authored. It provides his deep reflection on the living of a Dalit who is transgressing societal structures and pursuing doctoral studies. Hence, we need to look inside his language, understand it, and analyse the broader context.
Vemula underscores, “man (Dalit) is never treated as a mind, but only a thing… to a vote. To a number. To a thing. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” He thus mentions how the ruling classes objectify and “thingify” Dalits by reducing them to mere “items.”
In his life and death, Rohith Vemula forces us to raise some difficult and important questions: what does education mean to Dalits? What are the costs they have to pay, in order to seek higher education? Why do Dalits feel being reduced to mere “things”? What effect does such a thingification and itemisation have on Dalits?
We need to focus on the broader context of the promise and practice of education, especially for Dalits. This is a story of triumphs and tribulations: it is about Dalits seeking education and in the process being ignored, humiliated, resented and perceived as “different”, “dull,” and even “violent.” The contradiction between the promise and practice of education illuminates the inequalities of broader Indian society: caste, class, religion, gender, sex and even the hierarchies of language. English and vernaculars are reproduced in educational institutions of the country, thus marginalising, excluding, and thingifying Dalit women and men. Segregated education in the 20th and 21st centuries brought about a modest emancipation, and at times, has led Dalits to take extreme steps such as committing suicides and ending their lives.
Both Dalits and non-Dalits have understood schools as gatekeepers of the good life: socio-economic mobility, civic inclusion, political participation and vocational opportunity. Yet much sociological and anthropological analyses treat the education problems of Dalits as emerging in the present, emerging automatically either as a failure of the post-independence state or of the neo-liberal economy. It is impossible to appreciate the expansion of educational opportunity in all its complexity without taking ideas about caste practices into consideration; we cannot fully understand the meaning of caste in modern India without examining its techniques in shaping formal educational institutions during colonial and post-colonial periods.
Many non-Dalits and various agents of the state want to respect Vemula’s wish that “nobody should be held responsible” for his suicide and close the case. The human resource development minister also called him a “child” thus infantilising this young man. (I am reminded here of Gandhi’s Harijan, a word Gandhi translated as “Children of God” and not “People of God”).
The ruling elites thus choose to be blind and even ignore the deeper structural problems that actually led to Vemula’s death. However, Vemula’s words clearly capture the experiences of living as a Dalit. Vemula writes in his note, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” He cannot celebrate his birth as a Dalit and underscores the fact that he was lonely and unappreciated as a child. Perhaps he was lonely, ignored, because not many Dalits were pursuing a Masters or PhD and he felt out of place as he was working towards his aims. He was “desperate to start his life” and “always rushing.” Perhaps to prove his merit and capabilities, and to excel and exceed his peers; however, he was not even given an opportunity to do so. He wanted to write about science like Carl Sagan, the well-known American scientist of the ’70s and ’80s. Vemula writes, “If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other (extraterrestrial) worlds (like Sagan).” He wanted to study, investigate, research astronomy and astrophysics, think critically, and gain hitherto unattainable heights especially because he was a Dalit first-generation learner from his family to attend a university. It was his dream and a big achievement especially for a poor Dalit man.
Vemula had to struggle against crushing poverty, caste discrimination, exclusion, humiliation, resentment and indifference in premier institutes of education in India, and policing by the state. Despite these multiple jeopardies, he earned a junior research fellowship to pursue his PhD. He also incurred financial debt. In his note, he constantly repeats his aim, “From shadows to the stars.” He had set his heart, soul, and aimed for the stars. He wanted to the come out of the dark shadows created by the conjunction of social, structural, economic, and politically oppressive forces, in order to aim high and excel in life as his hero B.R. Ambedkar has suggested about ninety years ago. To do so, compared to his upper-caste, upper-class peers, he had to work harder and train himself thoroughly to emerge from the obscure past, in order to outshine his peers, and make history.
The irony is that instead of encouraging Rohith’s excellence, supporting the freedom of students to research and ask new questions, the authoritarian state and its agents, inside and outside the university, aligned with local Hindutva forces and expelled Vemula and his friends. The state and the university declared them “anti-national”, locked up their hostel rooms, terminated their fellowships – which was their only means of survival – and forced them to tent out on the campus, and ignored them, thus further exacerbating their humiliation.
In my book Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination, I tracked the history of the nexus of caste, class, gender and pedagogic practices in secular formal institutes of education. Dalits fought two battles: access to education and obtaining an education on equal terms to that of the upper castes, to gain opportunities, and to use their qualifications to their best advantage. During colonial times, Dalits had to fight for the right merely to attend school. By the time of independence in 1947, this battle had been largely won – Dalits were normally permitted to sit inside classrooms. The second phase was even more challenging. Their gradual appearance within western Indian classrooms in itself constituted a challenge to the hegemony of the high-castes. In the process, the theoretically liberating space of education brought about a modest emancipation of Dalits and also became a site of their intimidation, hurt and humiliation.
What did education mean to Dalits? Education for the great leader B.R. Ambedkar had a social and political function: to provide a social continuity to Dalits’ deformed lives and to prepare them for their new role as modern citizens in the democratic Indian body politic. Thus, politics was at the heart of the Dalit pedagogical question.
Significantly, some Dalit women and men including Ambedkar emphasised in the newspaper Prabuddha Bharat dated 21 July 1956 that Dalits were to become nirbhay, that is fearless and were to inculcate svatantra vichaar aani vrutti (independent thoughts and temperaments). In this manner, Ambedkar interlinked the Dalit fight for education with their fight for equality, including equal rights to humanitarianism, human dignity, self-help, and most importantly citizenship. Thus Dalits did not fight merely to attend school or to obtain employment, their agenda went beyond that. Education was for dignity, empowerment, self-help, emancipation and community uplift.
The promise of education was hard to be fulfilled once Dalits actually entered the citadels of knowledge controlled by elite upper castes. Dalits had to fight numerous battles even in the modern urban cities. For example, urban spaces were marked by castes. The social and educational subordination of Dalits was reinforced by spatial markers. On the one hand, the flight to the city anchored a promise of emancipation; on the other hand, the reproduction of segregated living spaces in urban areas once again excluded Dalits from the commonweal and renewed their oppression. The dominant castes look upon them as resources – and, at the same time, as threats who could suddenly subvert upper caste hegemonic rule at the centre. With the dawn of modernity, Dalits fought for their rights during the colonial period. In post-colonial times they have become ‘potential equals’, yet they are looked upon as ‘different’ and even ‘cool’ or ‘hep’ in the 21st century.
Even after the right to education was won, many Dalits were not welcome in schools. The graded school structure coincided with the state’s caste and class architecture. Dalits sent their children to the schools that were available because they lacked the money, the time, the influence or the knowledge to send them anywhere better. These schools are characterised by absent teachers, bad teaching, easy progress from one class to the next, little or no facilities for students or teachers and poor teaching aids. The municipal schools have very poor physical infrastructure: dilapidated buildings, leaking roofs and mud floors, a depressing atmosphere, few basic amenities (for example, no toilets for girls) and a less-than-adequate number of teachers.
The classroom experience
A Dalit woman, Parvatibai reported the demarcation of ‘caste-rows’ – rows in the classroom along caste divisions. Students in the classroom were strictly categorised along caste lines that also decided their capabilities and their rank: the highest caste would be the first-benchers, who were the most ‘intelligent’, thus reproducing the social hierarchy. The lowest castes were the last in – or outside – the classroom. Thus schools, within and without classrooms, were arranged in order to perpetuate social divisions; there could be no infiltration on an individual or a collective scale. Moreover, when the Dalit bodies were made visible, the upper-caste pupils perhaps felt more privileged and thus able to further denigrate Dalit students. Non-Dalit students humiliated Dalit students.
First-generation Dalit learners reported that the schools they attended were the only ones available. Teachers could not be more patient with Dalit students who wanted to reach the stars or wanted more than the teacher’s patronising pats. Dalit students even had to learn a new sanskritised and sanitised language. Teachers and parents have often disciplined children to use the upper-caste ‘cultured’ speech (for example, the Marathi ho instead of the lower-class/caste ha for ‘yes’). One writer, reflecting upon his school experiences, remembers how a Brahmin teacher thrashed him hard to make him pronounce the word vyombi (‘fresh raw wheat from the fields’) correctly. He continues:
I used to follow my cousin to school. I did not have clothes to attend school. My mother asked someone for a set and I wore that. I had a feeling of inferiority when I went to school with the well-dressed students, so I used to sit in a corner. I had a Brahmin teacher. Whenever he was angry he used to call us dhedgya, maangatya [slurs for particular castes] If we did not wear caps, he used to yell, ‘you haraamkhor [bastard], are you Ambedkar’s heir? But that won’t work here.’ He used to use bad words and cane us thoroughly. He used to also derogatorily address us as ‘dhedraaje [King of Dheds], maangraaje [King of Mangs].’ All the children laughed at us. We were tortured immensely when he used such caste names for us. He used to ask us to leave the class for want of a topi [cap]. He used to beat us up thoroughly; some Dalit boys left school due to this.
(Quoted in Wagh 1986 and more details Paik, Dalit Women’s Education)
The teachers thus used all sorts of physically and psychologically corrosive language against Dalit pupils, in the process encouraging many to drop out of the educational process. They caned them frequently and disciplined them in the Brahmani ‘cultured’ speech.
Caste discrimination has continued to be a source of oppression in modern cities. Free access to education was ineffective unless Dalits are welcomed in schools. The matrix of interconnected struggles of social, cultural, economic and spatial inequality reinforced educational impediments for Dalit women.
Although many Dalits live in the city, they hardly belong to it; they are always-already on the margins, socially, spatially, educationally and culturally. They are ‘equal’ but ‘different’; hence they are continuously coerced to accept living on the periphery. Many Dalits have consistently struggled against such constraints. Yet, the monster of caste has continued to haunt Dalits. Elites have expanded, updated, institutionalised prejudice against Dalits. Only a few Dalits manage to break through and come up and out from the under.
Dalits have created unintended and unexpected results; however, they also suffer multiple ruptures, displacements and fissures of consciousness itself. Thus the effects of education are shaped by the way it interacts with ideas and practices of caste stratification, class and gender hierarchies in the wider society, structures of regular and irregular employment, and continuing caste prejudices against Dalits, as well as institutions of kinship, family and community among them.
Shailaja Paik is associate professor of History at the University of Cincinnati and the author of Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination (Routledge, 2014).