Written by BAPSA
“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.”
With these haunting last words in his last letter, Rohith Vemula was institutionally murdered on 17th January 2016 in Hyderabad Central University by Brahmanical forces that included the University VC Apparao Podille, then Union Labour Minister Banddaru Dattatreya and MHRD Minister Smriti Irani. Rohith Vemula and 4 others — activists of Ambedkar Students Association in HCU — faced expulsion from their hostels and stoppage of fellowship following a targeting by the ABVP-Administration-Government nexus. In protest, they set up Velivada (meaning a Dalit ghetto in Telugu) and started living in a makeshift tent on university premises. On 17th January, when the discrimination and hostility faced by him and his brothers became too much to bear, Rohith committed suicide in protest leaving an emotional, thought provoking letter that bears testimony to how discrimination in Universities strangles the dreams of marginalised people. Rohith did not die; he became an immortal icon for the Bahujan students who live to register their lives in the University itself as a protest.
We see at JNU another such systematic discrimination by the RSS-appointed Brahman high priest of JNU — Mr. Mamidala Jagdish Kumar. The sole agenda of the high priest Mamidala seems to be to recreate grounds for the institutional murders of students coming from the marginalised communities. The exorbitant fee hike that his administration has imposed, is a step in that direction. It is an attempt at creating a Velivada in JNU where hostels will become impossible to afford for the marginalised students who will be either pushed out of the University completely or be physically cornered into a ghetto. For Jagdish Kumar, as a true adherent of the Brahmanical ideology of the RSS, Bahujan masses are entitled only to the servitude of the caste-Hindus and hence have no place in the University. The idea of the University, for Jagdish Kumar and his entourage, which includes some stooges pointed out as Chamchas by Manyavar Kanshiram Saheb, is simply an Agrahara where the Bahujans can toil to make buildings, clean washrooms and hostel/school/administrative buildings, pick up waste, stitch shoes, do laundry, do gardening and so on but where their children cannot study in the same place which exploits their labour. The rampant contractualisation has already put the University workers in a precarious economic situation condemning them to the drudgery of hard labour; now the fee hike will ensure that students from communities historically deprived and associated with enforced labour will be kept out of the University as well. The sheer arrogance with which Mamidala Jagdish Kumar has acted throughout his tenure as a VC smacks of his hatred towards the marginalised Bahujan masses entering the hallowed portals of higher education. In October 2016, Najeeb was forcibly made to disappear under his watch. In 2017, during the ad block movement against UGC Gazette, 11 social justice activists were targeted and gravely penalised for daring to assert their rights. Even during the wake of the institutional murder of Muthukrishnan, the VC, rather than consoling students and ensuring justice to Muthu, instead moved to slap proctorial notices on students demanding justice for Muthu. The VC’s administration dismantled GSCASH in 2017 instating a puppet ICC in its stead to ensure protection to sexual harassers who enjoy the VC’s patronage. Not just students but faculty members have also been targeted by this VC where during selection for various administrative positions, faculty members from marginalised sections have been declared ‘Not Found Suitable’. Further, under the garb of the current movement, the VC has effected a massive faculty recruitment drive to instate his cronies in faculty positions. All these steps are towards creating a microcosm of the Hindu rashtra — a dream long cherished by Mamidala and his fellow RSS lumpens — where the marginalised will again be enslaved and condemned to the servitude of caste-Hindus. However, the resistance of the students, especially the ones from the marginalised background is a testament to the fact that we will not go out without a fight. BAPSA salutes the students who have kept on fighting against the diktats of the high priest of JNU and his cronies. We must remember and cherish the struggle waged by Rohith and his fellow ASA activists as well as the struggle of countless Bahujan students as a flame of hope and resistance in times of despair.
While we remember Rohith on his death anniversary, we must also remember the lives that have been claimed by the Brahmanical academic spaces. In 2017, Dr. Anitha, a 17-year-old student and daughter of a daily wage earner, who fought against all odds to become a bright student was institutionally murdered because of the imposition of NEET. Securing 1176 marks out of 1200 in 12th Standard only to have her dreams of becoming a doctor dashed by the imposition of a coaching based NEET examination, Anitha was forced to take her own life. The same year, Muthukrishnan was institutionally murdered following discrimination faced during his experience with the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU. In 2019, Payal Tadvi an Adivasi Muslim was driven to suicide by 3 of her seniors after persistent harassment because of her identity. Despite repeated calls to attention, the institution treated her with indifference. All three of them, despite incriminating evidence against them, are out on bail. Fathima Lateef, an IIT Madras student, was forced to commit suicide with her family alleging discrimination based on religion. Rohith, Anitha, Payal Tadvi, Fathima Lateef, Muthukrishnan, Delta Meghwal, Jisha, Madari Venkatesh, Aniket Ambhore, Senthil Kumar, Anil Kumar Meena, Balmukund Bharati, Manish Kumar, Ajay Sri Chandra, Jaspreet Singh and many others whose cases were not documented have been institutionally murdered over the years. The list is long. We remember these names not merely as a recollection of collective grief that students from marginalised communities suffer through but as a bellowing reminder that we do not forget. And we will not forgive. We remember them as torch bearers of the resistance that Bahujan students have been registering in the deeply Brahmanical and discriminatory spaces that academic institutions have historically been for the marginalised.
Academic spaces have often been a veritable chamber of horrors for the marginalised masses. These spaces, which have historically been jagirs of privileged communities, do not offer any respite to students who hail from families who have historically never set foot in educational spaces. On the contrary, faculty, fellow students, staff and other members of the University unconsciously or consciously connive to harass and discriminate students coming from marginalised communities. Students coming from marginalised backgrounds, especially the first generation learners are constantly made to feel unequal whether it be the enforced stigma of reservations, constant reminders of ‘lack of merit’ that reflects in how peers and faculty members interact with you, being belittled for fluency in language which reflects on grade sheets and entrance vivas, or a systematic erasure of their history from the so-called ‘progressive’ academia. Never is a human treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust.
When Bahujan students call these ‘suicides’ as institutional murders, it is not an act of rhetoric. The phrase institutional murder encapsulates the deliberate failure of these institutions in providing a conducive environment for those coming from marginalised communities for attaining education. Insofar as the University doesn’t strengthen its inclusive character; insofar as faculty members do not realise that their pedagogy has to suit the marginalised student; insofar as ‘upper caste’ peers do not drop their pretension of understanding caste from books and rather recognise the marginalised social context and sensitise themselves; insofar as institutional mechanisms aren’t strengthened for marginalised people to seek redressal, there remains little to distinguish a University from an Agrahara. Bahujan students, however, will not let universities become modern Agraharas.
The very assertion of our identity is a means for us to challenge the making of the Agrahara. This is a war cry that despite numerous attempts of pushing us out of the University, we shall not bow out. We assert our identities on university campuses despite the hostility faced, even from the so-called progressive elements, because we believe in equality, liberty and fraternity. The assertion of our identities is an assertion of equality. We remember Rohith’s death anniversary not as a day of mourning for the bright lives that were lost but as a clarion call against the Brahmanical forces that despite the hostility of discrimination, we Bahujan students refuse to cower down and would continue to mark our resistance in the University spaces.
Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association is a student organization formed on 15 November 2014 at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It claims to work for student rights and the issues affecting Dalits, Adivasis and other minority groups.