Some say the narrative changed permanently after January 2016, with PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide—an absolute statement of dissent if ever there was one. It seemed nothing short of a new Dalit movement; things appeared serious enough for the Modi regime to sack a cabinet minister from Telangana, even to change the controversial HRD minister. The JNU episode followed just after, in February. The subsequent crackdown was read by young Dalits as a means to suppress the mobilisation post Vemula’s ‘institutional murder’. A few months later, Una followed, almost with a rhythmic inevitability, capped finally by the brief lapse of the Atrocities Act. The Dalit question, therefore, has grown to bear heavy upon the political mindspace as India goes into elections.
In the University of Hyderabad (UoH), where the spark was lit first, final year PhD (economics) student Dontha Prashanth (in pic), one of Vemula’s comrades, is clinical in his anger. “Elected governments are patrons of caste Hindus, and they meet a large corpus of Dalit-Bahujan masses with utter neglect,” says Dontha. He feels social organisation in India is still along caste lines, and it’s not just absence of empathy but utter misanthropy that marks relations. Inter-caste marriages often yield a corpse—Pranay Kumar’s murder last year in Telangana was one of many. “Visualising the idea of the nation is impossible without accounting for the Dalit’s status,” says Dontha, lamenting that a “dead cow” has become more important than a Dalit’s life.
It’s systemic. Take education, a vital tool for emancipation. The government, instead of enhancing policies, stands accused of scuttling those enacted after long struggle. Dontha cites the 2008 Model Schools scheme—meant to centrally sponsor schools for the poor on the Navodaya Vidyalaya model—that was scrapped immediately after Modi took over. Then the non-release of fellowships for Dalit students, and the large number of stuck fellowship applications. A total of 5,500 Dalit/adivasi research scholars have been deprived of financial assistance, says Dontha.
Facts, figures and frameworks are one thing. In times of aggravated politics, the capacity to understand discrimination itself deteriorates. Imagine, in the 21st century, five Dalit students being socially boycotted by a central university for propagating Ambedkar—Vemula was among them. The truth causes only discomfiture to those in denial; others have to live it. For millions of Indians, not only in villages but in cities to which ideas and attitudes have migrated along with people, caste is the truth.