In his celebrated work, A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens describes a scene when a marquis drives out of a party in a bad mood because nobody paid attention to him. He boards his chariot, and his valet, as is the norm for all nobility, drives through the narrow streets with utter disdain for the poor people on the streets. It is their headache to get out of harm’s way, not the marquis’. A little boy, however, is unlucky and is crushed. His body, a tiny bundle, is placed near a fountain in the clearing nearby and his father (Gaspard) is seen wailing. The marquis becomes irritated at the fuss the father is making. He is more worried about the injuries his horses might have sustained while trampling upon the boy. He gets off the chariot and throws down a gold coin at his valet to be given to the father as gracious compensation. Into this scene steps another privileged person, a wine-shop owner, to console the father in the most cavalier manner.
Here’s the passage from the novel:
The marquis took out his purse.
“It is extraordinary to me,” said he, “that your people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is for ever in the way. How do I know what injury you have done my horses? See! Give him that.”
He threw out a gold coin for the valet to pick up, and all the heads craned forward that all the eyes might look down at it as it fell. The tall man called out again with a most unearthly cry, “Dead!”.
He was arrested by the quick arrival of another man, for whom the rest made way. On seeing him, the miserable creature fell upon his shoulder, sobbing and crying, and pointing to the fountain, where some women were stooping over the motionless bundle, and moving gently about it. They were as silent, however, as the men.
“I know all, I know all,” said the last comer. “Be a brave man, my Gaspard! It is better for the little plaything to die so, than to live. It has died in a moment without pain. Could it have lived an hour as happily?”
“You are a philosopher, you there,” said the Marquis, smiling. “How do they call you?"
More or less, this is the charade that’s being played out on the Hyderabad University campus following the suicide of Dalit research scholar V Rohith Vemula. Look, for instance, at the abstraction in which Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi indulged, while addressing the students on Tuesday.
"There are certain people who are responsible for this boy's death. Whoever is responsible for this outcome has to be punished in the strictest manner possible," said Gandhi. "I have come here for Rohith. But Rohith is not alone. In every university in India, this is happening. It is very important that we carry this flag forward and create legislation that gives certain rights to every single student."
Are these utterances not similar to the passage in Dicken’s novel? How will you fix the culpability of “certain people” in a suicide? What will you do with thousands of farmers’ suicides, mostly Dalits, that have largely gone unnoticed and unmourned in the past 15 years? What will you do with the wanton killing of Dalits across the country in pursuit of their different objectives by security forces on the one hand and left-wing extremists on the other?
Fresh from his latest vacation in Europe, Gandhi seems to be blissfully oblivious of the fact that there is a near-famine situation in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. And most of those facing starvation in the region belong overwhelmingly to the Dalit community. Gandhi surely knows Bundelkhand because not long ago, he began his political apprenticeship by making forays into Bundelkhand and staying overnight in Dalit hutments. But right now Bundelkhand does not seem to be as politically attractive a destination for him as Hyderabad.
Every suicide and killing is a tragedy. Vemula’s is a sequel to stories of similar self-killings by Dalit students in various prestigious campuses across the country. But there is a tendency to romanticise this tragedy by Gandhi and those overly inspired by Marxism. This was evident in the manner in which Vemula’s virtues were extolled and compensation for his death demanded. "His family should be paid Rs 50 crore," said a student reading the charter of demands before Gandhi said. "But you have mentioned Rs 5 crore!" Gandhi pointed out. The student leader corrected and put the figure at Rs 5 crore.
Vemula’s suicide and subsequent politics is a classic case of trivialising India’s biggest social tragedy. In over six decades of positive discrimination (a euphemism for reservation in jobs), Dalits, in spite of their sizeable numbers in government employment, are given only grudging entry into the portals of power across the country. There has never been a Dalit cabinet secretary of India for want of political will, not merit. Similarly at the secretary level in the government of India, representation of dalits is an abysmal 4-5 percent. The story is the same at the level of joint secretary, a post critical to the formulation of government policy. It’s no different at the state level either; Dalits hardly ever make it to the top to the extent that there’s been only one Dalit IAS officer, Mata Prasad, who was made chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh for the first time by Mayawati. There hasn’t been another since.
Just recently, Umrao Salodia’s, decision to convert to Islam got more traction in the media and people’s mind than the basic reason why he resigned from service: he lost the opportunity to become Rajasthan’s first dalit chief secretary when the incumbent was given an extension.
This in-built discrimination against dalits was highlighted by Governance Now, a policy magazine, in an October 2013 cover story titled ‘The policy pariahs’. Here’s how the lead intro to the report summed it up:
“A Dalit wrote the most important policy document of the nation, our constitution. But 63 years on, there have been very few IAS officers from SC/ST in the highest echelons of policy-making. Why is this so? Are these officers who pass the most gruelling exam of the country–with some positive discrimination, of course–so incompetent that they deserve to rise only so much and no further? Or are they not allowed to live down their caste identity even decades after entering the IAS?”
What this shows is simple. The stories of discrimination against Dalits are ideology-neutral. If no Dalit IAS officer ever rose to be cabinet secretary of India in the entire 55 years of the rule of the Dalit-loving Congress, one of the most brilliant civil servants from the community, Mata Prasad, was denied the chance by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This trend has continued even though the political colour of governments started changing intermittently post-1977.
What is curious is the fact that hypocrisy of those carrying the banner of justice for Vemula’s suicide is not lost on dalit masses. In state after state, dalits are becoming increasingly alienated from the political ideologies of the Left and the Right. The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh as a dominant political force is an expression of dalits’ disaffection with the dominant political ideologies. This is the precise reason why Dalits deserted Marxism in West Bengal and the radical left in Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in droves.
Vemula’s suicide has merely engendered an optical illusion in which politicians are clutching at straws to win over a powerfully social block. The farcical manner in which the suicide is romanticised for political expediency is hardly a remedy. There is an imminent risk of turning this tragedy into a media spectacle where politicians and activists jostle for their two minute of fame. That would indeed be a disservice to Vemula’s memory.