The latest narrative around Radhika Vemula should be seen in its proper perspective. Radhika, the mother of Rohith Vemula, has acknowledged that the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) provided her financial help. In fact, many political parties offered her family financial assistance. But the attempt to paint her as someone paid to speak against the ruling BJP is aimed at maligning the Dalit upsurge over Rohith's death.
A similar strategy has been hatched to malign Dalits in Bhima Koregaon by alleging links with urban Maoists. At a time when Dalit unrest is proving to be costly for the Narendra Modi dispensation, a calculated campaign is underway in mainstream and on social media to dismiss recurring Dalit protests as 'anti-national' or paid acts at the behest of the Opposition. This is nothing but a disservice to the Dalit movement which is a reaction to Hindutva upsurge.
In fact, from the beginning, all kinds of narratives were spread to discredit the massive upsurge over the tragic death of Rohith, a University of Hyderabad research scholar who alleged discrimination on the basis of caste. Instead of a honest, soul-searching and a credible inquiry to identify the root of the problem, all kinds of reports questioning Rohith's Dalit identity were put in the public domain.
This continued — using the official machinery — even as Radhika repeatedly dismissed such reports as fabrications intended to divert the attention of the nation from the Dalit unrest following her son's suicide. Kantilal Dande, collector of Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, where Rohith's family hails from, purportedly confirmed in a report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) that Rohith was indeed a Dalit.
But the Justice (retired) AK Roopanwal Commission observed that Rohith was not a Dalit despite this being beyond its brief. The commission was constituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to probe the circumstances leading to Rohith's suicide, not his caste identity. In fact, NCSC chairman PL Punia reiterated that all records and his investigations proved that Rohith was a Dalit.
In a judgment dealing the rights of children born out of inter-caste marriages, a Supreme Court bench comprising justices Aftab Alam and RP Desai held that “the determination of the caste of such a child was essentially a ‘question of fact’ to be decided on the basis of evidence in each case.” The child can claim the mother’s caste if he or she is brought up by the mother as a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe.
It is a fact that Radhika, who belongs to the Mala community (a Dalit sub-caste), separated from her husband who is a Vadera (Other Backward Classes), and brought up her children — including Rohith — in a Dalit colony. The NCSC is a constitutional body created to protect the interests of Dalits. Notwithstanding its pronouncements, people in power continue to push the narrative that Rohit wasn't a Dalit. But can they deny he was a research scholar who was suspended and forced to commit suicide? How does it matter whether he was a Dalit? Justice should have been done through an impartial probe.
However, BJP leader and the Union minister Piyush Goyal attacked the Opposition for giving a political angle to Rohith's death and exploiting Radhika's grief for some "very low-level politics". Radhika, speaking to ANI, said even though "it's true that the IUML promised to provide me with money, they haven't used me for political gain. It was my wish to speak against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and if needed I will speak again at any of their meetings."
In a democracy, political parties respond to situations they think will be politically advantageous. Thus, many Opposition parties plunged into the movement to bring Rohith justice.
But that does not in any way undermine the credentials of the movement.
Instead of accusing its political rivals of reaping political mileage from a tragedy, the government should introspect on why it failed to adequately respond to the concerns of casteism on campuses triggered by Rohith's death. Instead, the student wing of BJP parivar has engaged in direct confrontation with the Dalit activism on university campuses. The government and the ruling party has been firmly behind the sections of university administration accused of creating the situation that purportedly forced Rohith to commit suicide.
While Goyal further stated that Opposition's dirty politics were exposed by Radhika, she never said so. Reports emerged of Radhika referring to IUML's "unfulfilled promises" but she later denied saying that. Even assuming that the earlier reports are true, Radhika was only referring to the IUML.
But the Union minister and BJP spokespersons were quick to point fingers at all the Opposition parties. And they seemed to forget that while in Opposition, the BJP behaved no differently. In the rough and tumble of politics, parties leave no issue untouched — be it a death or dharna — to counter their political rivals. So what's new about this instance?
However, by accusing Opposition parties of using Radhika for their own gain, the BJP and its media allies are also insulting someone seeking justice for her son. The political controversy cannot make us oblivious to the issues thrown up by Rohith's death. Apart from being offensive, a narrative to malign the Dalit movement can prove politically disastrous for the ruling dispensation.
The government and the BJP should instead address the underlying issues thrown up in the wake of Rohith's death. Politics cannot cloud genuine issues of social justice.
Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 22:12:27 IST