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Rohit Dhankar

The series of letters written by MHRD to the UoH is made out to be an incontrovertible evidence of “institutional murder” in the national press as well as in all debate on the unfortunate suicide of Rohith Vemula. Often just stating “the MHRD letters show it all” is considered the proof that the MHRD forced the UoH to “murder” Rohith Vemula. I wonder how many people have bothered to read these letters carefully and see for themselves what is written there in.

In this piece I am making an attempt to read and analyses these letters, and share what they communicate to me. My analysis and reading may be totally wrong and misplaced, and I will remain open to a different interpretation if advanced to me.

In total I have been able to collect 7 letters concerning this matter from various internet sources. All of them can be found here Rohith Vemula MHRD Letters to HCU. They begin with Mr. Nandanam Diwakar’s letter to Mr. Dattatreya and end with a letter written by an Under Secretary to MHRD to the Vice Chancellor of UoH. This list of letters I am referring to in this piece is as below:

  1. Nandanam Diwakar to Dattatreya, 10th August 2015
  2. Dattatreya to Smt. Irani, 17th August 2015
  3. (Email) Under Secretary to the Registrar, UoH, 3rd September 2015
  4. Deputy Secretary to the Registrar, 24th September 2015
  5. Deputy Secretary to the Registrar, 6th October 2015
  6. Joint Secretary to the Vice Chancellor, 20th October 2015, and
  7. Under Secretary to the VC, 19th November 2015.

The chain events leading to Rohith Vemula’s suicide as published in the Wire, on 19th January 2016, if believed, makes it clear that the first statutory committee looked into the matter before the first letter from MHRD came to UoH, and the Acting VC at that time was Professor R.P. Sharma. In the final report of the Proctorial Board it was recommended that “the five students who led the group to the ABVP student member’s room be suspended for six months on grounds of indiscipline”. Because of the protest of students against this recommendation the then Acting VC Prof. Sharma “decided to constitute another committee to look into the matter and for the time being revoked the suspension”. Prof. Apparao took charge as VC at the end of September 2015. It seems, though exact dates have to be looked into, that the decision of the Proctorial Board to suspend the students for 6 months came before the first email from the MHRD was sent to the UoH. And this decision was harsher than the final decision of suspension of students from the hostels but allowing to attend classes and use all other facilities of the university.

Now let’s come to the letters. The first letter from Mr. Nandadanam to Mr. Dattatreya, Minister of State, Government of India, is the longest and I think should be read carefully. The issue of supporting or opposing the BJP politics has to be suspended for some time when one analyses this letter. It expresses a view point in the Indian politics and understanding, without any endorsement or rejection, that view point is important, and has to be understood. Partly because in a democracy all voices have to be heard and partly because even if one wants to fight and defeat this view point, it can hardly be done without first understanding it.

This letter is written by a district level functionary of BJP to a Minister of State in the GoI belonging to BJP; therefore, the political intentions and use of power wielded by a MoS belonging to the ruling party cannot be denied. Therefore, let us note the political intentions as well as use of power to push those political intentions. Interestingly this letter is addressed to “Sri Bandaru Dattatreya garu” but actually begins by saying “Respected Madam”, that shows that the intention was to finally send it to some Madam, obviously, the Minister MHRD.

The letter claims that Mr. N Susheel Kumar () was abused, manhandles, tortured and hackled by ASA activist, by name only Dontha Prashant is mentioned. I read somewhere that Susheel Kumar is brother of the letter writer Diwakar; therefore, pushing political carrier of a brother by another brother should also be noted. The cause for this supposed to be attack is mentioned as a Facebook posting by Shusheel Kumar stating that “ASA goons are talking of hooliganism – feeling funny”. The letter also gives a list of various acts of disruption etc. by the ASA activists which includes disruption of a lecture by Amartya Sen and threatening students who criticise ASA politics. If thirty ASA students went to Susheel Kumar’s room to demand an apology and pressurised him to write an apology letter then the incident shows something. That is, the hooliganism remark is actually proved by this action (if the report is true); exactly as “intolerance” remarks by various people are proved by social media attacks on them.

There is an important paragraph in the letter which states the position of the letter writer regarding ASA politics in the campus: “We oppose ASA for not being pro-dalit and adivasi students association but for its methods and orientations that is nothing short of unwarranted aggression in the name of assertion and equality, contempt and hatred for all except them in the name of protecting particular social groups (threatening and intimidating dalits who subscribe to other political ideologies is one of their main political activity) and disintegrating the idea of unity in diversity that underwrites India as a nation-state in the name of narrow caste politics (paradoxically it is the identity politics of subaltern elites that they practice!) geared at pecuniary benefits rather than any tangible re-organisation and re-alignment of material conditions and mentalities.” The letter writer thus sees ASA politics as aggressive, against the idea of unity in diversity and casteist. And claims that he does not oppose ASA for being pro Dalit and Adivasi students. This looks like BJP’s political line. Anyone who questions BJP policies and opposes their representatives is promptly called “antinational” or “threatening” the idea of India, and doing caste politics. The letter writer, therefore, is reiterating his party line.

This is exactly like anyone questioning the left politics is immediately called reactionary and fascist. Any one questioning Dalit identity politics is called Manuwadi and casteist. Every political formation has its abusive labels; Diwakar is using his party’s abusive labels here.

The letter writer lists seven points as their prayer, explaining what they want from the authorities. They are worth reading and commenting in full.

  1. “Why is it made to perceive on campus that it is shameful to be Hindu and Indian in Indian Universities?” [Comment: this is BJP and RSS line about the atmosphere in the universities. I personally do not think it could be dismissed out of hand. In the last 50 years or so, due to (i) internal weaknesses of what is called Hinduism, (ii) distancing of intellectuals from Hinduism, as most of them do not admit in public that they are Hindus, (iii) criticising almost everything that is associated with Hinduism, and (iv) highlighting Hindu bigotry (rightly) but explaining or ignoring publicly expressed bigotry from other religious communities has led to a situation where many students coming from orthodox Hindu families which have no animosity to others feel that they are being derided just for being Hindus. However, it is just a question in the letter, which explains the writer’s worry. One may agree or disagree with this, but an Indian citizen does have the right to express this worry. However, the letter writer does not see the other side where Dalits students also feel shunned and minority students may have similar feelings. Our universities are getting increasingly divided.]
  2. “Why does university allow programs like prayer meeting for Yakub Memon?” [Comment: This explains the writer’s idea of limits of freedom of speech and expression. The letter elsewhere explains that this amounts to contempt of court as the Supreme Court upheld death sentence for Memon. This means that the Supreme Court’s decision should be respected, and cannot be criticised, BJP party line. Again, one may agree or disagree with this position, but many people do have this position and a citizen does have the right to complain about it.]
  3. “Why it is that students indulging in conducts unbecoming of students are not equally and proportionately punished?” [Comment: this looks like reporting a grievance emerging out of the perception that some students (by implication Dalits) are awarded punishments—if ever done—lighter than those awarded to non-Dalit students for similar acts. The perception may be right or wrong, but it could be expressed.]
  4. “Direct University of Hyderabad to enquire on all activities of ASA and other radical groups on campus.” [Comment: had this demand been for all student politics in the campus, one may have no objection to it. But it singles out only ASA and radical groups to be enquired into. One can understand this prayer (as he calls it) in the light of events he is complaining about, but it also expresses his mind-set of accepting the politics of ABVP, and considering it above suspicion; while desire to curb the politics of rival groups. Not fair, but one can demand.]
  5. “Formulate guidelines and policies to streamline what kind of program can be and cannot be conducted in Universities.” [Comment: I do not know how anyone can object to this? A fair demand, which if accepted would apply to all equally.]
  6. “Ensure ideas of nation, nationalism and nation building are propagated and spread in universities by the authorities at regular interval.” [Comment: it may sound very un-progressive to many intellectuals but all school curricula and many university vision and mission documents include these objectives. So how can one object to this?]
  7. “Set up committees to monitor activities of radical and anti-national students and faculties in University of Hyderabad.” [Comment: This is an accusation that the UoH does have antinational students and faculty. It also associates ‘radical’ groups with anti-national. This is an expression of BJP idea of universities, radicalism and nationalism. And is similar in character to number 4 above. One may disagree with this, but they have the right to express this as anyone else.]

One may strongly disagree with many conclusions and the politics behind this letter, it is also clear that it is to enhance ABVP politics in the campus. But it is also clear that these ideas and worries have to be engaged with, and people who want to take forward their own politics do write such letters. The letters of support written to JNU and UoH by many academics and intellectuals fall in the same category, though supporting opposite politics. One crucial difference is that this letter wants the state power to curb certain politics, while the support letters want the state power to freely allow that politics.

However, the claims of attack and physical harm to Mr. Susheel Kumar made in this letter are contested, and they actually may be false accusations in degree. This is coming from a position of power as BJP is ruling at the centre and partisan politics is certainly part of it.

The letter written by Mr. Dattatreya to Mrs. Irani forward the above mentioned letter and endorsed the accusations of both anti-national politics as well as attack on Susheel Kumar. He has written the letter on his official letter-head as a Minister of State, but makes the point that is writing as an elected representative from Secunderabad as well.

He claimed that the UoH “has, in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.” In support of this claim he cites “that when Yakub Menon was hanged, a dominant students union, that is, Ambedkar Students’ Association has held protests against the execution.”

At the end of the letter he says that “The purpose of my writing this letter is only to highlight the affairs in Hyderabad University. I earnestly hope under your dynamic leadership things would change in this Campus for the better.”

Now all this is known BJP political line on caste and nationalism. The issue is: can people who hold these ideas—even if they are wrong—express them and actively work to realise them? Their nationalism may be narrow and they may want the marginalised groups to protest without challenging the idea of nationalism as they define it; but should not the thinking people pay attention to these ideas as well? To understand their origin, to investigate how much water do they hold, and to address those origins. The second point is: even if prayed to curb a certain kind of politics in the campuses, should state act on it? Now we come to that.

The first email from the MHRD is from an Under Secretary to the Registrar of UoH, written on 3rd September 2015. It is very short so I will quote it in the full.

“Dear Sir,

Please find attached herewith a copy letter dated 17.08.2015 of Shri Bandaru Dattatreya, MoS for labout and Employment along with enclosures.

It is requested that issue raised by the Hon’ble MoS may kindly be examined and the facts may be intimated to the Ministry to enable us to submit reply to MoS.

With regards

Ramji Pandey

US” (Emphasis added)

It is worth noting that the email requests that the issue raised be examined and facts be intimated to the MHRD so that they can submit a reply to the MoS who raised this issue. It does not ask for any other action against any one. Just enquire and let us know.

I do not know what else a ministry can do if issues of such nature are raised about politics in a university? The MHRD is not asking to take any action, not asking if any action is taken, not naming any one; all it does is refers the matter to the responsible and competent authority to ascertain facts of the matter, so that a reply can be furnished.

All the subsequent letters of the ministry repeat the same request with reference to letters that have been sent before, and none of them mentions either students or suggests any action to be taken or demand that any other action than examining matter be taken.

What changes in the letters is the level of the officer writing as well as the authority they are addressed to. Some are written by Deputy Secretary, one is written by Join Secretary and some are written to the Registrar while some to the VC.

Another thing that changes is the subject line in some of them. It becomes “Antinational activities in Hyderabad Central University premises – Violent attack on Sri Nandanam Susheel Kumar, Ph.D. student and President of ABVP – reg.” This subject line is taken from the first letter written by Mr. Nandanam Dewakar to Mr. Dattatreya. But the request remains the same: examine, inform about the facts, so that a reply could be given to the MoS.

This is well known how the events turned. It is also clear that the first two letters (from Dewakar and Dattatreya) are (i) raising some concerns which are very important in their party line, (ii) want to help ABVP gain ground in the university, and (iii) oppose Dalit and radical students’ politics in the university. But they are politicians and as the ASA and left has their politics they have theirs. They want to push that politics by whatever means they have at their hands. At the least overtly the MHRD is keeping a very unbiased and fair line; all it does is wants to ascertain facts. What the MHRD would have done after the facts were ascertained is only a matter of guess work.

Now, I am not good in interpreting and reading ‘deeper mining’ in the texts. I stop where incontrovertibly drawn conclusions on the basis of reasonably certain premises stop. Looking for hidden meanings that require a host of unsustainable assumptions are unacceptable to me. Simply because there shall be no end to such interpretations; depending on what you want and how many unsustainable assumptions you can tolerate, one can prove anything through such methods. But I do not think that helps us understand the situation better. Therefore, I fail to understand what is wrong with these letters. If there are any other justifiable interpretations, I certainly would like to know.

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