Authors: Arundhati Roy
As soon as he was sworn in, the new prime minister began to display the kind of paranoia you might expect from a man who knows he has a lot of enemies and who does not trust his own organization. His first move was to disempower and make redundant a faction within the BJP led by Advani, whom he now viewed as a threat. He usurped a great deal of the decision-making in the government, and then set off on a dizzying world tour (which hasn’t ended yet), with a few pit stops in India. Modi’s personal ambition, his desire to be seen as a global leader, soon began to overshadow the organization that had mentored him, and which does not take kindly to self-aggrandizement. In January 2015, he greeted the visiting US president, Barack Obama, in a suit that cost over a million rupees, with his name woven into the pin stripes: narendradamodardasmodinarendradamodardasmodi. This was clearly a man who was in love with himself—no longer just a worker bee, no longer merely a humble servant. It began to look as though the ladders that had been used to climb into the clouds were being kicked away.
The ModiModi suit was eventually auctioned and bought by an admirer for Rs 4.3 crore (roughly $647,000). Meanwhile, it became the delight of cartoonists and the butt of some seriously raucous humor on social media. A man who had been feared was being laughed at for the first time. A month after his wardrobe malfunction, Modi experienced his first major shock. In the February 2015 Delhi State election, even though he campaigned tirelessly, the fledgling Aam Admi Party won sixty-seven of seventy seats. It was the first election Modi had lost since 2002. Suddenly, the new leader began to look brittle and unsure of himself.
Nevertheless, in the rest of the country, thugs and vigilante assassins, sure of political backing from the people they had brought into power, continued about their bloody business. In February 2015, Govind Pansare, a writer and a prominent member of the Communist Party of India, was shot dead in Kolhapur, in Maharashtra. On August 30, 2015, M. M. Kalburgi, a well-known Kannada rationalist, was assassinated outside his home in Dharwad, in Karnataka. Both men had been threatened several times by extremist right-wing Hindu organizations and told to stop their writing.
In September 2015, a mob gathered outside the home of a Muslim family in Dadri, a village near Delhi, claiming that they had been eating beef (a violation of the ban on cow slaughter that had been imposed in Uttar Pradesh as well as in several other states). The family denied it. The mob refused to believe them. Mohammad Akhlaq was pulled out of his home and bludgeoned to death. The thugs of the new order were unapologetic. After the murder, when the Sangh Parivar’s apparatchiks spoke to the press about “illegal slaughter,” they meant the imaginary cow. When they talked about “taking evidence for forensic examination,” they meant the food in the family’s fridge, not the body of the lynched man. The meat taken from Akhlaq’s house turned out not to be beef after all. But so what?
For days after that, the Twitter-loving prime minister said nothing. Under pressure, he issued a weak, watery admonishment. Since then,
imilar rumors have led to others being beaten to within an inch of their lives, even hanged. With their tormentors assured of complete impunity, Muslims now know that even a minor skirmish can ignite a full-scale massacre. A whole population is expected to hunch its shoulders and live in fear. And that, as we know, is not a feasible proposition. We are talking about approximately 170 million people.
Then, quite suddenly, just when hope was failing, something extraordinary began to happen. Despite, or perhaps
of, the fact that the BJP’s massive majority in Parliament had reduced the opposition to a rump, a new kind of resistance made itself known. Ordinary people began to show discomfort with what was going on. That feeling soon hardened into a stubborn resilience. In protest against the lynching of Akhlaq, and the murders of Kalburgi and Pansare, as well as that of the rationalist and author Narendra Dabholkar, murdered in Pune in 2013, one by one, several well-known writers and filmmakers began to return various national awards they had received. By the end of 2015, dozens of them had done so. The returning of awards—which came to be known as
, an ironic reference to
—was an unplanned, spontaneous, and yet deeply political gesture by artists and intellectuals who did not belong to any particular group or subscribe to any particular ideology, or even agree with each other about most things. It was powerful and unprecedented, and probably has no historical parallel. It was politics plucked out of thin air.
was widely reported by the international press. Precisely because it was spontaneous, and could not be painted into a corner as any sort of conspiracy, it enraged the government. If this was not enough, around the same time, in November 2015, the BJP suffered another massive electoral defeat, this time in the state of Bihar, at the hands of two wily, old-school politicians—Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Lalu is a doughty foe of the Sangh Parivar, and, way back in 1990, he was one of the few politicians to show some steel and arrest Advani when the
passed through Bihar. Losing the Bihar election was a personal as well as political humiliation for Modi, who had spent weeks campaigning there. The BJP was quick to suggest some sort of collusion between its opponents and “anti-national” intellectuals.
In a party that can mass-produce trolls but finds it hard to produce a single real thinker, this humiliating setback sharpened its instinctive hostility towards intellectual activity. It was never just dissent that our current rulers wished to crush. It was thought—intelligence—itself. Not surprisingly, the prime targets in the attack on our collective IQ have been some of India’s best universities.
The first signs of trouble came when, in May 2015, the administration of the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai “de-recognized” a student organization called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC). Its members are Dalit Ambedkarites, who have a sharp critique of Hindutva politics but also of neoliberal economics, and of the rapid corporatization and privatization that is putting higher education out of the reach of the poor. The order banning the APSC accused it of trying to “de-align” Dalit and Adivasi students, to “make them protest against the . . . Central government” and create hatred against the “Prime Minister and Hindus.”
Why should a tiny student organization with only a couple of dozen members have been seen as such a threat? Because by making connections between caste, capitalism, and communalism, the APSC was straying into forbidden territory—the sort of territory into which the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and the US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had strayed, and paid for with their lives. The de-recognition led to public protests and was quickly rescinded, although the APSC continues to be harassed and its activity remains seriously impeded.
The next confrontation came at India’s best-known film school, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, where BJP and RSS cronies were appointed to the institute’s governing council. Among these “persons of eminence,” one had until recently been the state president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS. Another was a filmmaker who had made a documentary called
Narendra Modi: A Tale of Extraordinary Leadership
. An actor by the name of Gajendra Chauhan was appointed the council’s chairman. His credential for the post, apart from his loyalty to the BJP, was his less-than-mediocre performance as Yudhishthira in a television version of the Mahabharata. (Of the rest of his acting career, the less said the better. You can find him on YouTube.)
The students went on strike, demanding to know on what basis a chairman with no qualifications for the job could be foisted on them. They demanded that Chauhan be removed from his post. Their real fear was that, by stacking the governing council with its cohorts, the government was setting up a coup, preparing (for the nth time) to privatize the FTII and turn it into yet another institution exclusively for the rich and privileged.
The strike lasted for 140 days. The students were attacked by off-campus Hindutva activists, but were supported by trade unions, civil-society groups, filmmakers, artists, intellectuals, and fellow students from across the country. The government refused to back down. The strike was eventually called off, but the unrest just moved to a bigger arena.
For several years now, the University of Hyderabad (UOH) has been a charged place, particularly around Dalit politics. Among the many student groups active on the campus is the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). As a formation of Ambedkarites, like the APSC in Chennai, the ASA was asking some profound and disturbing questions. For obvious reasons, the ASA’s main antagonist on campus was the ABVP, which is emerging as the eyes and ears of the RSS, and its agent provocateur, on almost every campus in the country. When, in August, the ASA, quoting Ambedkar’s views on capital punishment, protested the hanging of Yakub Memon—convicted for the 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai that followed the Shiv Sena–led pogrom against Muslims—the ABVP branded them “anti-national.” Following a head-on confrontation between the two groups over the documentary film
Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hain
(Muzaffarnagar Is Still Standing), which the ASA wanted to screen on campus, five students—all Dalits, and all members of the ASA—were suspended and asked to vacate the hostel. Young Dalits reaching out in solidarity to the Muslim community was not something the Sangh Parivar was going to allow if it could help it.
These were first-generation students, whose parents had toiled all their lives to scrape together enough money to get their children an education. It’s hard for middle-class people who take the education of their children for granted to imagine what it means to have such painstakingly cultivated hope so callously snuffed out.
One of the five expelled students was Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar. He was the son of a poor single mother, and had no means of supporting himself without his scholarship. Driven to despair, on January 17, 2016, he hanged himself. He left behind a suicide note of such extraordinary power and poignancy that—like a piece of great literature should—his words ignited a tinderbox of accumulated fury. Rohith wrote,
I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.
I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.
The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.
I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.
Maybe I was wrong, all the while, in understanding [the] world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. . . . My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.
Imagine this. We live in a culture that shunned a man like Rohith Vemula and treated him as an Untouchable. A culture that shut him down and made a mind like his extinguish itself. Rohith was a Dalit, an Ambedkarite, a Marxist (who was disillusioned by the Indian Left), a student of science, an aspiring writer, and a seasoned political activist. But beyond all these identities, he was, like all of us, a unique human being, with a unique set of joys and sorrows. We might never know what that last secret sadness was that made him take his life. Perhaps that’s just as well. We must make do with his farewell letter.
The things that make it revolutionary might not be immediately obvious. Despite all that was done to him, it contains sorrow but not victimhood. Though everything we know about him tells us that he was ferocious about his identity and his politics, he refuses to box himself in and define himself by the tags that others have given him. Despite bearing the weight of an oppression and cultural conditioning that is centuries old, Rohith gives himself—wrests for himself—the right to be magnificent, to dream of being stardust, of being loved as an equal, as all men and women ought to be.
Rohith was only the latest of the many Dalit students who end their lives every year. His story resonated with thousands of Dalits in universities across the country—students who had been traumatized by the medieval horrors of the caste system, and the segregation, discrimination, and injustice that follow them into the most modern university campuses, into India’s premier medical and engineering colleges, into their hostels, canteens, and lecture rooms. (About half of all Dalit students drop out of school before they matriculate. Under 3 percent of the Dalit population are graduates.) They saw Rohith Vemula’s suicide for what it was—a form of institutionalized murder. His suicide—and, it has to be said, the power of his prose—made people stop in their tracks and think and rage about the criminal arrangement known as the caste system, that ancient engine that continues to run modern Indian society.
The fury over Vemula’s suicide was, and is, an insurrectionary moment for a thus-far marginalized, radical political vision. It saw Ambedkarites, Ambedkarite Marxists, a coalition of Left parties and social movements march together. Alert to the fact that if this configuration was allowed to consolidate it could grow into a serious threat, the BJP moved to defuse it. Its clumsy, outrageous response—claiming that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit—backfired badly, and pushed the party into what looked like (and could still turn out to be) a tailspin.