Rohith Vemula and the Dalit question are separated.
New Delhi: The Rohith Vemula issue should be distinguished from the Dalit question if that is at all possible in this surcharged atmosphere. Both matters are important. But to reduce them to mere victimhood does poorly to the memory of Rohith and comes nowhere close to grappling with the Dalit issue. These need nuanced and dispassionate analyses if the country is to be better placed to understand sensitive souls like Rohith Vemula and to be able to transform Dalit lives.
Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit. This is a fact neither to be crowed about (like some Bharatiya Janata Party upstarts are doing) nor mourned (witness the anti-BJP opposition shedding crocodile tears). Rohith Vemula was in search of his own identity. This is probably sentient man’s greatest search, the ability and means to discover his own voice. Some spend a lifetime doing it and fail. To have your own voice is to have what may broadly be called poetic consciousness. It comes rarely. Rohith’s last letter confirms his search for the same. The letter is poignant. It is clear he didn’t find answers in Dalit identity, a path perhaps decided by his mother’s Dalit background. It is evident that victimhood politics did not finally appeal to his sophistication.
A sophisticated thinker like Rohith Vemula should have eventually come into his own. He might have encountered blind turns and run into cul-de-sacs. The search for the real self is never easy. But his letter showed he had enumerated the problems of exile rather well. Carl Sagan is small beer for where Rohith was headed. All lasting poetry and prose comes from exile. Creative writing is not about fitting in, winning state awards, being on the right side of past and present regimes, and living happily ever after. The more you don’t fit in, the better it serves creativity. Creativity is a jealous lover. Rohith Vemula didn’t fit in.
But souls that don’t fit in are also highly sensitive and emotionally unstable. The smallest strife can destabilize them. This is the terrible prize of creativity. This is also why poets and writers often take their lives. In the hothouse of Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula did not find a mentor who could appreciate his special needs. Badly for him, he got trapped in adult politics. Still worse, some cretins in the Centre took the matter entirely out of his hands. From all this, it is easy to draw a cause and effect relationship to his suicide. It may be easy and serves low political ends. But it misses the point. Rohith Vemula took his life because he could no longer figure the world around. It has happened to the best before. To reduce it all to the Dalit question would be to minimize Rohith’s uniqueness. Can’t this country let creative genius be without giving it political colour? Why should everything be perverted and dwarfed to politics?
Quite separate from Rohith Vemula’s death, the Dalit question is enormously important for the country, and not least because Dalits constitute the largest single group after Other Backward Classes. Anti-Dalit bias is engrained in the country’s psyche. It is not that no progress has come. Dalit entry to temples is no longer barred and is a well-deserved victory. Where exclusion is still practised, perhaps in the interiors, it must vigorously be stamped out. Then, reservations are the norm. No government can reverse it till Dalits choose to do so at a later period when confident of holding their own. The law against atrocities on Dalits, again, is one of the strongest constitutional provisions. It may have been misused here and there but that is the price to pay to secure Dalit lives. Securing Dalits is non-negotiable.
With all this, the anti-Dalit psyche persists. It has structurally changed from old times. In the past, it was Brahmins versus Dalits. This writer has heard cringeworthy stories from his own family. Aunts who strayed to Dalit colonies to play with Dalit children were scolded and washed prior to regaining the house. This writer went through one experience himself which is sad to recount. The new oppressors of Dalits, however, are not Brahmins who have moved to towns and cities to white collar jobs and own little land. It is the OBCs who rule the roost in the countryside and practise abhorrent untouchability. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh used to top in anti-Dalit crimes and Dalit votes were stolen before T. N. Seshan succeeded in making elections free and fair. Tamil Nadu and probably Andhra Pradesh are still reflexively anti-Dalit because landed power has passed to OBCs from Brahmins and other forward castes. This is stranger to behold in Tamil Nadu with a powerful history of anti-Brahmin movements.
In big cities, the anti-Dalit profile is subdued by fiercely competitive economic activity. There are occasional regressions like the 1984 riots when Dalit Sikhs were killed in numbers in Trilokpuri in East Delhi in the immediate aftermath of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Some years ago, this writer was shocked and appalled when an activist and former journalist from one of Delhi’s best colleges used “bhangi” in reference to Dalits. He didn’t realize his mistake. He had internalized the sentiment. That this happened in the leafy environs of India International Centre, Lutyens’ Delhi’s prized watering place for the politically correct set, made it cruelly ironic.
Dalit rise cannot be sustained by victimhood politics and reservation though reservations have to continue. As governments grow smaller and state-backed educational institutions cede to private ones, the returns from reservations will diminish. Also, victimhood politics serves non-Dalit politicians who make votebanks of Dalits. They have done so in the past and will go on doing so in the future. Dalits have to take control of their own lives and spurn doles and concessions. This writer has undiminished admiration for Mayawati for one chief reason. She has refused to serve under anyone. She will not join the Union cabinet subordinating to any prime minister and won’t accept anything less than the chief ministry of Uttar Pradesh. If Jagjivan Ram had started this trend, India by now would have had a Dalit prime minister. India needs more proud and unbowed Mayawatis who display splendid powers of governance.
There is a second way Dalits can take control of their lives. This is by gaining a measure of control on the political economy. Money matters. Money talks. India is at a critical takeoff point. India needs job creators and not merely employees. The country needs entrepreneurs who can control their own destinies and those of others. Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a wonderful scheme for Dalit entrepreneurs some weeks ago. Forget its potential to attract Dalit votes. That is entirely and absolutely irrelevant and immaterial. Imagine the transformation to Dalit lives with more and more Dalit entrepreneurs. Taking charge of chunks of the economy will automatically erase centuries of hurt and discrimination. Sensible Dalit leaders should fetch their community out of the rut of victimhood politics and teach self-empowerment. That is the future. And for all purposes, let us celebrate the singularity of Rohith Vemula unstained by politics.