I am not sure if I recollect it verbatim, but the Urdu couplet that comes to mind in the wake of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s discomfiture in the Dalit student suicide case is: Kuchh to unke rukhsar kee laali hai/kuchh humne khoon-e-jigar laga rakha hai (As it is, my beloved’s visage is pinkish. On top of that, we have applied our blood to it).
It is a well-known fact that a very important and influential section of the media and intelligentsia is viscerally hostile to the ruling dispensation; ironically, these elements get a very good support from the members of the saffron brotherhood and the government. Why on earth two Union ministers take an active interest in the happenings of one of the hundreds of universities baffles judgment. And that too when the happenings had nothing to do with curriculum, pedagogy, or any other academic issue in a top-ranking varsity; they are about the scuffles between two student groups. It is as bizarre as it gets. And tragic.
Rohith Vemula surely didn’t deserve the treatment he was meted out. A young scholar who idolized science popularizer Carl Sagan, Rohith was harassed by the university authorities—at the behest of Central ministers. Perhaps, his suicide was not the result of abetment, as BJP leaders claim, citing his last letter in which he did not blame anybody for his decision. But this does not absolve them of the culpability of undue interference in university affairs.
At the heart of the issue is the BJP’s big problem: the intolerance of a large section of the ruling party to any viewpoint that is at variance with its own.
BJP general secretary P. Muralidhar Rao, who belongs to Telangana, is incensed at Rohith’s support to terrorists. “Many of his speeches, of which we have videos, show he had views that supported terrorists like Yakub Memon,” Rao told The Indian Express (January 20). He was referring to the protests by Dalit students, including Rohith, against Memon’s hanging last year.
Rao has a point: support for mass-murderers is condemnable. But any expression of such support has to be allowed in a democracy so long as it does not result in violence; and even if there is any violence or unpleasantness resulting from that expression, as BJP leaders claim, has to be dealt with in a manner in accordance with the due process of law. If Hindutva protagonists have a right to say things that are not in consonance with conventional wisdom, anti-Hindutva activists also have the right to say and do whatever they want to, given this does not harm anybody else.
Evidently, there were some minor disturbances on the campus because of Dalit students’ support for Memon. But nothing resulted in a police FIR. Therefore, punitive action against five students, including Rohith, was uncalled for; and it smacks of unwarranted political interference in university affairs.
It is not that nobody in the ruling party was aware of the damage the Rohith Vemula episode would inflict. BJP national executive committee member and former Union minister Sanjay Paswan warned of “wrath, revenge, revolt, reactions.”
In the same vein, Ashok Kumar Doharey, BJP MP from Etawah, said “what happened to Rohith was injustice” and “condemnable.” Similarly, Sunil Baliram Gaikwad, BJP MP from Latur, said: “Just because he [Rohith] had joined the protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon, you cannot brand him anti-national. This is a democratic country and it is a citizen’s fundamental right to express his views on issues.”
Echoing same sentiments, Ramesh Chandappa Jigajinagi, BJP MP from Bijapur, said: “What happened was very bad. And giving it an anti-national color is also bad. The government should ensure that action is taken against authorities who harassed him. The Prime Minister should intervene.”
The Prime Minister did intervene. “Leaving politics aside, more than anything else a mother lost her son. I share and feel her pain,” he said. But the damage was done.
A minor student fight in one of the hundreds of universities snowballed into a national issue because the BJP seems to have adopted the worst features of Leftists and liberals: calumniate the opponent. For our lal-salaam intellectuals, anybody opposing their views is communal, fascist, stooge of big industry, etc.; now saffron leaders have also started calling their rivals names.
In the process, the ruling dispensation has become a sitting duck for the attacks from its ideological and political foes.