A Death Unforetold

Rohith Vemula's suicide has taken from us a bright young idealistic man pushed to the brink by a society in which social custom legitimises discrimination and exclusion. Laws that are expected to act as deterrents against such evils, regularly bend and fall to the ground like the arrows that challenge divine astras in mythological TV shows. Traditional beliefs are the divine astras that protect modern society from legal interference with values on which our social order is firmly founded. If I am born dalit, I learn from day one at school what the rules are under which I must exist. It's not just my fellow students whose parents will have ensured that these rules are observed by their wards; it is also my teachers who believe in them. In a city like Mumbai, there's no obviously visible discrimination. But the pronouns 'they' and 'them' are inflected in such a way as to make the words as painfully divisive as prohibiting dalits from drawing water at the village well.

The first legal arrow shot against caste discrimination was the Untouchability Offences Act of 1955, under which first-time offenders could be jailed for six months or fined Rs 500 or both, depending on the seiousness of the offence. The hope in those initial, rosy-hued years of independence, was that this little legal nudge would help people see the beauty of equality, fraternity and justice. But the fact that newer, more stringent laws have had to be enacted between then and now, proves how powerful and enduring our divine astras are.

The flip side of laws is the validity they give to certificates as evidence in courts of law. Unless a certificate of caste is proven to be forged, a clever lawyer can use it to defeat lived experience. Sushma Swaraj, our External Affairs Minister and a lawyer by training, surely had this in mind when she pronounced last week in Thane, "The facts have come out in the case and as per as my knowledge (sic), that student was not a dalit." She was referring to Rohith Vemula. If it is proved that he was not a dalit, the punitive action that her party colleague Bandaru Dattatreya instigated against him, will not come under the purview of  the SC/ST Act of 1989.

The 'fact' that Swaraj relies on is of Rohith's mother, a dalit, being married once to a backward caste man. A fact that she would rather not look at is that this man soon abandoned his wife and children, leaving her with only one option for survival-- to return to her community. Would any bright young man in caste-divided India otherwise claim to be a dalit? "The fatal accident of birth" as Rohith called it, had to be both his identity and his call to action.

In a society that sees exclusion as power, the more people you exclude the more powerful you feel. Our laws and even the shastras say that it is the father's blood and not the mother's that determines the children's caste. But social practice says otherwise. A classic Marathi novel, Brahmankanya  (Brahmin's Daughter ) written by Dr Shridhar Vyankatesh Ketkar and published in1930, was devised to demonstrate this.The good-looking, educated Shanta, daughter of Manjula, a Pune Brahmin's low-caste mistress, is advised by her well-wishers to convert to Christianity if she wishes to marry; for she will forever be stigmatised in Hindu society. A young progressive Brahmin lawyer of Pune decides such extreme measures are not necessary. He will marry Shanta and make her 'respectable'.

All is well till their daughter Kalindi reaches marriageable age. That's when her father comes crashing down to earth from his moral heights. No young Brahmin is ready to accept Kalindi's hand in marriage. The embittered Kalindi flings her father's "noble" action in his face. "Who can say today whether you married my mother out of genuinely generous intentions or to acquire fame as a progressive," she fumes. "Even if it was an act of generosity, fact is that it did not harm you. It has harmed your children. You are still a Brahmin. But we are not."

With this, Kalindi commits social hara-kiri. She leaves her parents' home to live as the mistress of Shivsharanappa, a Lingayat tobacco merchant. Fortunately for her, the author was an optimistic believer in the possibility of social reform. The novel ends with Kalindi marrying a dynamic trade union leader of Bombay. Unfortunately Dr Ketkar, 85 years after you saved Kalindi, Rohith Vemula is dead.

Published On : 03-02-2016