Hyderabad suicide: Outrage merely an indication of media bias and cynical opportunism, not large-scale social change

Rohith Vemula's suicide has proved again that subaltern voice in India shall always be held hostage at the altar of political opportunism and media's confirmation bias.

As Ajay Singh points out in this Firstpost article, discrimination against Dalits isn't anything new. It is also ideology neutral. Regardless of the colour of the government at the Centre or states, Dalits have historically been at the receiving end of structured discrimination in the fields of education, healthcare, sanitation, nutrition, crime and we are not even scratching the surface.

All these did not happen in a day.

Let's leave alone the larger issue of social prejudices against the Dalits. Let's take a look at what has been happening inside the Hyderabad Central University campus. A report in The Times of India tells us that unable to cope with the rampant, institutionalised, caste-based discrimination, as many as eight students from the Hyderabad Central University have committed suicide in the last decade.

Another report in The Sunday Guardian as many as ten students have killed themselves in the last two years alone while another dozen have tried to commit suicide at the University of Hyderabad. According to the report, the students belonged Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other Backward Classes (OBC), minorities or belonged to rural areas.

These are staggering numbers. The question is, why have these incidents failed to capture national consciousness in the past? Why are these skeletons tumbling out only now?

 Hyderabad suicide: Outrage merely an indication of media bias and cynical opportunism, not large-scale social change

Students protesting over the death of Rohith Vemula. PTI

In 2008, PhD scholar Senthil Kumar committed suicide by consuming poison in his hostel room at the HCU campus just a year into his doctorate. Senthil was a 'paniyaandi', a pig-breeding community of a village in Salem district of Tamil Nadu. Senthil's poverty-stricken family was squarely dependent on his scholarship which was stopped when he failed a subject.

Even after a year into his studies, the University had denied him a supervisor.

These facts, initially denied by the HCU, came to light when Vinod Pavarala Committee — to investigate the circumstances behind Senthil's suicide — found caste-based discrimination as the main reason behind the tragic death.

The silence in the media over Senthil's suicide was deafening.

On Tuesday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi visited the University and said, "The conditions for Rohith to commit suicide were created by the V-C and the minister in New Delhi."

It isn't known whether the Gandhi scion is aware that in 2008 there was a UPA government at the Centre and a Congress government in the state.

And as this News Minute report points out, the Paravala Committee had recommended steps to be taken in the HCU following Senthil's death, but the UPA government paid no heed to the suggestions.

We saw a replay of the same incident in 2013.

PhD scholar at HCU's Advanced Centre for Research in High Energy Materials (ACRHEM), Venkatesh consumed pesticide in his hostel room. The Dalit third-year chemistry scholar "was not provided a guide and a lab, even after three years when other students started their researches and published international papers," an independent panel probing his death and that of another student found out.

Once again, these deaths barely registered a whimper.

In a welcome departure, Rohith Vemula's death has generated a tsunami of protests across India with repercussions reaching abroad. The media is burning in righteous indignation and political parties have kept their differences aside to speak in one voice against this atrocity.

Has the subaltern in India finally found a voice? Have the marginalised social groups finally found agency? Are they increasingly now being accepted within India's hegemonic power structure?

If the mainstream English media has found a sudden interest in Rohith Vemula's suicide, it is less due to the fact that it is a culmination of Dalit discrimination and more because the suicide — from which BJP surely cannot absolve itself of moral responsibility — fits nicely into its perception of the Narendra Modi government as one that pursues majoritarian politics.

A perception which is belied by facts.

If application of outrage over atrocity against the marginalised depends on who is in power at the Centre, then the fourth estate is guilty of indulging in confirmation bias instead of driving large-scale social change.

Lack of fairness in coverage, under such a situation, will only serve to develop the fault-lines of our democracy instead of opening the closed windows of our narrow minds.

Political parties, on the other hand, have only been too happy to feast on the tragedy. Their eagerness to cash in on Rohith Vemula's tragic death is less ideological and more, obviously, political. The spectacular rise of BJP under Modi in 2014 was interpreted by most regional parties an indication of clear and present danger.

With the rapid fading away of the Congress, BJP has become the biggest political outfit in India, threatening the hegemony of personality-driven local parties. Many satraps such as Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have since been forced to join hands despite decades of political differences just to keep the BJP away.

It is in this context that we must put the 'United Opposition Front' which also includes an almost-regionalised Congress. And this loose conglomerate which represents varied castes, ideologies and interests are united only in their opposition of BJP.

It is easy to see, therefore, why flights to Hyderabad are running full these days. At the end of the day, we have managed to draw all the wrong conclusions from Vemula's death.

His suicide won't stop atrocities against the subaltern, merely remain as a footnote in the circus that is Indian democracy.

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Updated Date: Jan 21, 2016 17:15:11 IST