Making sense of Rohith’s death from 7000 miles away

Caste privilege paved the way: from cradle to grave

Jigna Kotecha

Accept it or not, privilege is real. Very often privilege depends on inequality of numbers – the majority subjugates the minority. And someone has to become a minority, because they are the most “easily-identifiable” scapegoats to blame for any kind of crisis. If not Blacks then Jews, if not Mexicans then Muslims, if not Muslims then immigrants/refugees (for the world outside India) and Dalits (for the world inside India), if not anyone then homosexuals. When it comes to India, caste – the most celebrated form of bigotry in Indian culture – is the determining factor of privilege and subjugation.

Rohith Vemula’s suicide is an evidence that caste and privilege are exclusively mutual in India. An evidence that caste is a promise of rights, social status, power, security, an easy life, hence privilege. An evidence of our silent comfort with the same caste privilege; silence that had capacity to kill Rohith and Mohammad Akhlaq, and rape Kawsi Hidme and Soni Sori. And an evidence of our intolerance towards any change in caste hierarchy that might limit our privileges.

Dalit Lives MatterComplexities of social stratification in India starts with religion, branches into caste and further splits into sub-castes. For instance, if I am a Dalit and I convert to Muslim, I will still remain a Dalit and will be addressed as Dalit Muslim. So, there is no escape from caste status because of social beliefs, lack of acceptance, and entrenched superior-inferior mindset.

Approximately, 16 per cent of India’s population is Dalit, excluding the population of Dalit Muslims, Dalit Buddhists, Dalit Sikhs, Dalit Christians and Dalit Hindus. Larger population is living below poverty line. But, hate for reservation and love for management quota continues. According to the data compiled by National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a crime against Dalits happens every 18 minutes — three women raped every day, 13 murdered every week, 27 atrocities every day, six kidnapped every week, but everything became more visible only after Rohith’s suicide.

For Rohith, death was a refuge; refuge from caste, from atrocities, from discrimination, and from the war that even Ambedkar could not win. A refuge away from cultural-religious determinism and closer to nature. He wrote that caste has reduced human intelligence to immediate identity (identity assigned by our ancestors who thought that Sun revolves around Earth) and nearest possibility (aping age-old caste system is the nearest possibility to segregate human beings than to think of better possibilities for social reform). He wrote that man is a mind, not a vote, or a number. Still most of us will vote for candidate of their caste, community or religion in elections and would take pride in representing a “number”. And, I think, it was dangerous for Rohith to carry caste and science – horror and hope – together.

A Brazilian friend was sitting beside me when I was reading the headline – ‘Silent cremation of Dalit student Rohith Vemula,’ and she said, “I know about Dalit. They are untouchables, right? I know it from soap opera ‘Caminho das Indias’, a love story of a Dalit man, whose parents were burned at the stake for accidentally touching their master, and an upper caste girl, whose parents arranged her marriage with an upper-caste rich man. But it was in 2009. Are Dalits still punished for transgression?”

The simple answer was yes. But I don’t know why I felt importance of explaining the complex social stratification of caste in India to her.

At last, I asked her, “Do you know Gandhi?”

She said, “Yes!”

Again I asked, “Do you know Ambedkar?”

“No,” she replied quickly.

It is true that we are born with caste specifications in India and grow up accumulating a lot of pre-scientific hunches about evolution, religion, and caste from our surroundings. But we are taught both history and science; history to learn that it will be a doom to repeat it and science to unlearn irrational beliefs and realise the insignificance of caste and hatred. However, every new generation is taking shape using the old mold of predetermined caste structures. But Rohith’s death has disseminated the atrocities perpetrated on Dalits in every part of India. It should be a catalyst to unleash revolution for social reform, to uncover the sick and irrational beliefs, and to end caste determinism.