Caste matters: Struggle for civil rights

    When the creative impulse of a young engineer is stifled and the dreams of transcending the “fatal accident” of his birth shattered, there is a disturbing aspect to his struggle for justice and equality, the grave violation of which calls for a collective anger. By raising questions about the extent to which a multicultural society can be deemed to be morally and culturally pluralistic in the context of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the possibility of envisaging a more open society might emerge.

    Can there be an all-embracing solution that may help us to think about our civilizational accomplishments (and aberrations) in a variety of diverse areas of action and discourse? While it cannot be denied that people and institutions mete out treatment to individuals according to their caste, the apologists of “caste blindness” are of the view that Dalits are victims not of racism but of economic deprivation, pushing the argument towards the imperative need to promote education and remove inequalities.

    In the wake of the heated debate on the affirmative action program, many have gone beyond the social policies of uplift of the downtrodden through an ideology that treats all equally. The argument, apparently, is based more on the rationale that equality and content of merit matters more when consciously viewing the state of the deprived. However, another section of the public refutes the equal-opportunity argument by laying emphasis on a greater conscious of racial identity for a true understanding of the lack of opportunities for the marginalized. A “caste-blind” ideology might not be the best way of moving towards a more egalitarian society. To evolve an unbiased action plan for the rights of minorities, this paradox of universalism and cultural autonomy must be taken into consideration so that the politics of recognition and difference form the basis of a critical frame to counter a patronizing cultural imperialism.

    There can be no bifurcation between universal human rights that recognize the equal dignity of all and a differentiation that recognizes the unique identity and authenticity of cultural groups and individuals. In a post-racial society, “race-bound problems require race-conscious remedies.” We see increasing disgust and despair as the nation witnesses the rise of ethnic nationalism and xenophobia at the cost of becoming deeply racist.

    To call Rohith and his friends in the University of Hyderabad “castiest, extreme and anti-national” only shows hostility to the voice of dissent. Such slurs are a sign of the moral bankruptcy of the right-wing ruling administration that goes on to award its supporters with Padma Bhushans because they lend support to its unabashedly anti-intellectual stance, almost reminiscent of the 1940s Nazi Germany. The derecognition of the Ambedkar Peryiar Study Circle at IIT, Chennai, an independent student body that debates on issues directly affecting the peasants, laborers and the common masses, at the behest of a letter from the MHRD to the Dean of Students, indicates an apartheid ideology. This smothers discussion, with the intention of enforcing a rigidity that is incongruous to the very idea of a university with its semantics of the universal and the borderless. Rohith’s suicide becomes one instance that signifies an act of resistance. Behind the death lies the hope for a meaningful change in racial attitudes through an enraged fervor seen in progressive intellectuals. It was envisaged in the Constitution that India would move beyond discrimination to a post-racial liberalism. But this was not to be.

    The promotion of a suicidal state by the emerging technological modernity and its potential for alienating human life through the neoliberal ideology manufactures passion for consumerism and privatization at the cost of concern for the community or the deprived. Add religious fundamentalism and caste politics and you have a failed social system. Any oppositional voice in such a system amounts to a subcultural “noise” that jars with the orderly bourgeois sequence of things. Any such noise is dangerous to the promotion of an extremist nationalist discourse.

    Our existential anxieties and political responsibilities are tested when psycho-social distress overwhelms the country. The social state gives way to a ruthlessly pathological police state where punishment becomes a virtue, and poverty remains merely the lip service of democracy.

    Social dependency is disregarded in such an environment of hatred and authoritarianism, of a supremacist Government that pays little heed to constitutional demands of an equitable social system. Rohith’s death along with the control over his scholarship by a bureaucratic machinery that is blatantly biased towards the political power structure runs counter to the claims of the Modi neoliberal logic and offers a rare glimpse into the life and mind of a Dalit student struggling to find a space in a society that lacks the basic civilizational values of moral sanity and social dignity. Rohith’s voice, though silenced by his death, rings true in an environment of power and rancor threatening any meaningful dialogue between diverse religious and ethnic communities.

    Through an Ambedkar-like critical position against the hypocrisy of rhetoric that professes national unity underpinned by religious bigotry and aggressive chauvinism, Rohith’s death points towards a more brutal, intolerant and repressive shape of things to come in India if thinking people do not wake up.

    Though his dream to become a writer ended with his demise, Rohith’s brief adventure into the art of writing indicates the resources of a budding writer setting out to question the intellectual and moral decadence of men and women in power who nonchalantly reduce common people like him “to his immediate identity,” to a “number,” “a vote,” “a thing”. He is, in his own last words, “happier dead than being alive,” leaving behind a testament of the ongoing struggle for freedom and individuality, as well as a social temperament that gears up to fight the very hierarchies that blemish our world.

    The author is a Professor, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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