Home > 2016 > The Space that Killed Rohith Vemula

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 10 New Delhi February 27, 2016

The Space that Killed Rohith Vemula

Sunday 28 February 2016

by Probal Dasgupta

Does Rohith Vemula’s suicide note make charges that can serve as the basis for judicial action against individuals who drove him to his death? This question has been under intense public discussion. There have also been claims that he was not a Dalit. Those claims are easy to refute: it is verifiable that his mother Radhika, who belongs to the Mala caste (an SC community), divorced her Vaddera (OBC) husband in 1990 and brought Rohith up in a Mala neighbourhood in Guntur. Rohith’s upbringing, coupled with facts about his birth, is the decisive criterion according to the relevant Supreme Court judgment.

The main point, however, is that the framework governing all these debates rests on certain structural premises concerning the judicial-penal system. In the context of the punitive procedures that drove Rohith to his death, it becomes important to inquire how those structural premises bear on the autonomy of the university. In precisely what setting does the judicial-penal function operate in the management of universities and other HEIs (Higher Educational Institutions)?

Let us begin with what we all understand. We know that autonomy implies that the police cannot walk into an HEI campus except when requested by its management. That this management exercises a surrogate version of judicial and penal authority over its employees and students. That fully flourishing autonomy means a management willing and able to discourage interference from the government. Anecdotes that still circulate about Gurbaksh Singh, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, highlight his ability to send a Chief Minister packing. These ideas mark the limits of the received wisdom as far as the autonomy of an HEI is concerned.

In the wake of Rohith’s tragic passing, if we refuse to stretch these limits—to the point of acknowledging the idea of the universityper se as an autonomous imperative that goes beyond the capacity to repress, coerce and impose— then we will be irresponsibly prolonging the crisis that leads to such suicides, and not by Dalits alone. In this intervention, I raise some questions about the propriety of certain ways of punishing a university student in the context of the idea of the university. These questions arise under any set of assumptions. Public debates on this matter rarely address the issues raised here. If authors who hold views radically different from mine can be persuaded to respond to these questions, a serious debate will become possible.

For the sake of argument, it helps to put oneself in the shoes of penal authorities willing to characterise a person as an ‘offender’. I take it that in an HEI, as in the bigger judicial-penal system, the reason that leads penal authorities to punish is that they wish to help the offender to behave, that is, to reform his/her behaviour. (For convenience, I am italicising the HEI leadership’s standard terms; any errors of perception on my part are inadvertent.) But the authorities at an HEI are not trained as penal specialists. They are acting on the basis of their own sense of the primarily educational mandate of an HEI. Therefore I further assume that the authorities at an HEI notice the recurrence of disciplinary problems in the case of students who come from certain backgrounds (however one chooses to characterise these backgrounds). It follows that the authorities at an HEI are bound to recognise the need to apply their mind to the serious problems at the level necessary in order to prevent their recurrence.

Now, consider the case of a Dalit student from an impoverished background. The sincere desire of the authorities of an HEI to help a particular Dalit offender to behave is bound to lead them to notice the social setting which exposed that offender to a less than idyllic childhood environment. The long-term impact of that exposure must be taken into account by any HEI leadership that does not confine its actions to the penal function. The managers of an HEI cannot help noticing these matters sooner or later, once they seriously try to put in place measures designed to bring about the behavioural changes they would like to see. Since one is dealing with human conduct, it also follows that the management of an HEI must be concerned with the perceptual and cognitive basis of such behaviour.

In this context, I need to note that the University of Hyderabad—where I worked from 1989 to 2006—is a site of particular interest in the context of sustained inquiry about such questions. In 2005, some of us kick-started interdisciplinary research there on cognitive science, now organised under a Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences. It so happens that Vipin Srivastava, who is the university’s acting Vice-Chancellor at the moment of writing, has spent the last few years shaping the research profile of that centre. The fact that Srivastava, who started out in physics, has later moved into cognitive science is an encouraging circum-stance. It is perhaps understandable that today, under sudden pressures that he was unprepared for, he may be implementing purely adminis-trative measures based on what he perceives as procedural exigencies (I notice that an active cognitive scientist appointed during Srivas-tava’s directorship of the Centre, Joby Joseph, is on the other side of the barricade: Joseph has been one of the faculty members taking part in the hunger strike.) In the long run, however, those of us who want all academics to seriously think about the crisis can expect the Srivastavas on all our campuses, for scientific reasons, to support our efforts actively—by the Srivastavas I mean those academics who realise the need for inquiry to cross the artificial ‘science/arts’ boundary. If our Srivastavas fail to meet these expectations, we will have a scientific problem on our hands, not just a procedural, political or ideological divide.

This was an aside, though an important aside in the present context. We return now to our main point. We take it, then, that tough-minded academic administrators are bound to eventually realise that bringing about behavioural change requires serious cultural and cognitive improve-ment. It is possible that such administrators visualise a need for such improvement primarily in the mind of the individual ‘offender’. However, surely even they see that one individual’s mind cannot be improved in isolation. The enterprise of improving anybody’s cultural and cognitive profile, however one might pursue it, must be anchored, first of all, in some assumptions about social interaction, and must also envisage a societal intervention to change the atmosphere.

In this context it becomes important to notice that, in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s tragic death, the initiative for changing the atmosphere on the University of Hyderabad campus is being led not by any Dalits-only lobby driven by identity politics, but by a coalition spear-headed by the upper-caste leadership of organi-sations working for social change. Academic administrators who find it difficult or inappro-priate to engage with identitarian organisations may find it easier, in this context, to take due part in the dialogue that has become imperative.

Academic administrators who emphasise adherence to disciplinary norms may have noticed that the one-man commission appointed on January 28 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development will be guided by the UGC (Prevention of Caste-Based Discrimination/ Harassment/ Victimisation and Promotion of Equality in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012. Sukhadeo Thorat’s article ‘Discrimination on the campus’ (The Hindu, January 26, 2016, p. 10) draws attention to the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 2015 and to the UGC Regulations, noting their limited scope and effectiveness. He concludes that “we need a separate law against discrimination in colleges/universities, to treat an act of discrimi-nation as a punishable crime [...] as in the case of gender discrimination and ragging”. He argues for “the legal route” by pointing to the ragging precedent: “when ragging was made a puni-shable offence, instances of ragging dropped dramatically”.

That the nation has to start a mid-day meal scheme to keep children in school, that every HEI has to establish a CASH to discourage sexual harassment, and that the same logic may now compel campuses to set up a mechanism to protect SC and ST citizens from harassment —these are gross measures. The fact that they are being put in place indicates the magnitude and starkness of the structural crisis. Now, if there is one thing we know about crises, it is that disaster management approaches, even if implemented with Japanese efficiency, are inadequate. Your superb management team may be able to rescue thousands of flood victims. But disaster managers are not in the business of foreseeing and preventing floods.

In this context, it becomes appropriate to focus on the exchange on NDTV on January 19, 2016 between Barkha Dutt and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, Apparao Podile. Dutt repeatedly asked him: “When Rohith wrote you an anguished personal letter why didn’t you reach out to him at a human level? You tell me that he was a student you yourself had taught; couldn’t you have reached out to him?” Apparao’s responses ranged from “We have to follow rules and procedures; we make important decisions collectively” to “You must notice that I did not break any rules or laws; if I had, you would have been asking me why I broke them”. The point to note is that even in a crisis situation, publicly facing a journalist’s question about why he had, as a human being, not reached out to a fellow human being, this leader of a university did not see any need to affirm the value of responding at the human level. He deeply believes that the only obligatory responsibility of the leader of a university is to adhere to acts, statutes, laws and rules.

The chilling point is not that Apparao is a particularly reprehensible member of the academic community; the point is that, in his adherence to rules alone, he is typical of the leaders of our universities. This is one symptom of the crisis that we are trapped in. If we want to find a way out of the crisis, firefighting methods are necessary but are not enough. We must find a way to get university managements to understand that in the context of university autonomy, punishment on a campus is not analogous to a court trying offenders and imprisoning them if they are found guilty. Any punishing that may take place must occur as part of the enterprise of educating that is the cultural responsibility of the entire campus, going beyond the scholastic duties of the teacher in the classroom or the laboratory. The question is how to help university managers to under-stand this. That they do not understand this is a significant component of the crisis that Apparao’s remarks exemplify.

Will it help if we invoke the welfarist approach that postulates rights and entitlements and proposes measures that will build various capacities as part of the state’s duty to the individual citizen? Does such rights-based welfarism have the wherewithal to actually address the crisis?

The discourse of the rights and capacities of citizens shares with our tough-minded academic administrators the assumptions of methodo-logical individualism. Even within this shared framework, all participants in the debate must recognise that the obligation of the state—or of the administrative authorities of a university— is not simply a rulebook-defined duty to provide physical and mental first aid to those in distress, and to stop relevant others from violating their rights. Remember that we are talking about a university. Tough-minded academic adminis-trators claim to be concerned with norms. Maximising the cultural and cognitive growth of young adults, in the company of experienced adults engaged in teaching them, is the constitutive, normative aim of the enterprise of a university. If teachers cannot provide culturally and cognitively optimal company to each other and to students, it becomes difficult for students who come from traditionally oppressive cate-gories to overcome their biases and customs and to stop themselves from persisting in their oppressive ways.

The obligation, at a university, is to provide literate and informed help to students, and if possible to do so pre-emptively, before crisis-level need for aid pushes an individual into panic and worse, a mental state that might make the giving or receiving of any effective help impossible. This obligation cannot be met by an administration per se; it is a cultural and cognitive responsibility, and those responsible, the teachers, need to realise that eradicating oppressive and oppression-fostering habits is not as straightforward a task as observing the laws of the land.

By saying the job is challenging I don’t mean that cultural norms are elusive and obscure. I mean that the term I just used—‘traditionally oppressive categories’—is not an absolute but a relational term; it only makes sense in the context of a particular dyad. Men are tradi-tionally oppressive vis-a-vis women (that’s the men/women dyad); Savarna Hindus, vis-a-vis Dalits and Adivasis; Mainland Indians, vis-a-vis North-Easterners; big city dwellers, vis-a-vis compatriots from small towns and villages; and many more dyads.

Now, these dyads have cross-cutting effects, best clarified by giving an example. Suppose you are a Savarna man from a small town. This means you are likely to be traditionally oppressive towards Dalits, Adivasis, women. However, when you encounter an elite woman from a metro-politan city, you may find her arrogant and oppressive. Your feelings of insecurity may lead you to behave badly towards her—at least playing up your social power as a male, even if you don’t go so far as to harass her in the technical sense.

It is these cross-cutting effects of the dyadic relations between the backgrounds we come from that make it specifically difficult to understand our realities in terms of notions like ‘traditionally oppressive categories’. We are nonetheless bound to use such risky notions as we struggle to come to terms with the crisis. The take-away from this intervention is that I would like to propose some mutuality in this enterprise. Let us acknowledge the need to negotiate, to find new formats for dialogue, at every level, as part of our daily living on and off campus, as part of what it will take to overcome the crisis. I don’t mean tolerance, though that is an essential minimum; I mean dialogue, without which we will be stuck where we are, as a polarised society.

One problem that has been decelerating our cognitive and cultural progress is that in our society we are not simply polarised: we are complexly polarised. If Hindu/Muslim had been the only dyad to deal with, we would not have had a crisis. Some of our fellow citizens, who go so far as to imagine that “those Hyderabad university Dalits shed tears when Yakub Memon was executed, that means they are in league with Muslim extremists, this is the fundamental problem, we need more patriotism in this Hindu- majority nation”, are not just trapped in a political package they have consumed. They have failed to notice that Dalit and Muslim organisations do not work together. At the deeper level of perception that we have to attain, they are missing the point that Dalit/Muslim is not even an operative dyad in the context of India’s polarisations. The overall relation between Dalits and Muslims is mediated through the Dalit/Savarna dyad within that ‘Hindu majority’ and the Hindu/Muslim dyad (though I acknowledge that this global formulation sets aside the marginalised status of Pasmanda Muslims within the Muslim fold).

The point is that we in India, on and off university campuses, are polarised in multiple ways. Bringing our literacy to bear on under-standing how we are situated is half the battle. This is one important responsibility that even the best of us have been failing to face. I don’t wish to imply that all of us are avoiding the task on purpose. Many of our tough-minded academic administrators are well-meaning persons driven by the highest principles. We have been failing because it is a complex challenge. We badly need, we urgently need to get better at it. If we don’t, the crisis won’t just continue unabated; we will have a much deeper crisis on our hands.

[This author’s intervention in Bangla on Rohith Vemula’s life and death published in the daily Anandabazar Patrika on January 26, 2016 can be accessed at the following website, where an English translation is also provided: https://www.academia.edu/21275993/May_We_Never_Forget]

This author belongs to the Linguistic Research Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.