NEW DELHI – On January 17, Rohith Vemula, a PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad in India’s Telangana state, hanged himself. Even in a country of 1.2 billion people, a single death can have a major impact.
Vemula was a Dalit – a member of what was once known as the “untouchables,” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. He was also a leader of the Ambedkar Students Association at Hyderabad University, seeking to promote Dalit rights. In death, Vemula has achieved something he could not have imagined: He has become a national hero, his tragedy emblematic of the toxic durability of caste in India’s development narrative.
Unlike race, caste is invisible: a person’s face does not indicate it. Yet it retains a powerful hold on Indian society, limiting the opportunities available at all stages of life. To be a Dalit is to wear an invisible stigma that dogs one’s daily interactions. Vemula’s death has reminded Indians once again that the more than 300 million who belong to the lowest castes, as well as the “tribals” or indigenous people, still face discrimination, prejudice, hostility, and even violence on each step of the social ladder.
To be sure, India’s government has made significant efforts to redress the situation. Nine days after Vemula’s death, India celebrated the 66th anniversary of the adoption of its constitution, which sought to combat the country’s rigid social stratification with the world’s first and most comprehensive affirmative-action program. Designated castes and tribes were guaranteed not only equality of opportunity, but also positive outcomes, aided by quotas for educational institutions, government jobs, and even seats in parliament and state assemblies.
These quotas, or “reservations,” were granted based on people’s (presumably immutable) caste identities. It was a small step toward compensating the millions of unfortunates who had suffered daily the injustices and humiliations of “untouchability.”
Over the last 66 years, politicians have maintained a strong commitment to affirmative action. Though originally intended to expire after ten years, the reservations have been extended for 70, with further extensions certain when they come up for renewal in 2020. The quotas remain the “third rail” of Indian politics; one touches it at one’s peril.
Yet Dalits feel only marginally better off than their wretched forebears. And, indeed, they remain behind the advanced castes in terms of all socioeconomic indicators, from education levels to family income.
Vemula was admitted to his university on merit, not through the reservation system. Yet he faced all the prejudice that would be directed at any Dalit. He left behind a passionate letter outlining his mistreatment at the hands of an insensitive and bureaucratic university administration. The ultimate indignity was the withholding of a fellowship on which he depended to support not only himself, but also his single mother – a punishment for his political activism. In fact, intensifying his letter’s pathos, he requested that part of the money the university owes him be paid to his family to cover debts he incurred as a result of being denied his fellowship. Clearly, reservations of public-sector jobs and college seats alone have failed to end the discrimination.
Vemula’s death sparked a wave of public protests, with leading politicians flocking to Hyderabad to add their voices to the growing clamor against not just the university, but also the government – especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remained silent for nearly a week after the tragedy. Finally, Modi spoke emotionally at the Dalit-majority Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow (named for an iconic Dalit leader who had chaired the Constitution Drafting Committee), pleading that the issue not be politicized: “Politics has its place, but a mother lost her son.”
Yet politics is integral to the problems highlighted by the tragedy. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had hoped that caste consciousness would wither away after independence. But the opposite has happened. Because caste was such a powerful source of self-identification, it proved to be a useful tool for political mobilization in India’s electoral democracy: When Indians cast their vote, they too often vote their caste. Granting sops to various castes proved a major vote-getting tactic for India’s politicians.
If India is to eliminate the discrimination and indignities faced by members of its lower castes, it must transcend the politics of identity and focus on broader development goals and socioeconomic challenges. This will be no easy feat – especially as Indians compete for scarce opportunities in an overpopulated land. So long as prejudice persists, politicians in India’s contentious democracy will exploit it.
January 30 marked the 68th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who fought not merely for independence, but also for a more just, equal, and moral India. The country must see in the Vemula tragedy a reminder of the vital need to rededicate ourselves to Gandhi’s ideals, so that bright Dalit students are not driven to despair – or worse. It may be a pious hope, but it is the very foundation of Indian nationhood.