Media and civil society only hear dead people

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Opinion | 01/02/2016
Media misread campus politics. The ABVP’s Hindutva aggression is not normal student activism, but they ignored this until it led to Rohith’s suicide,

  Rohith Vemula (right) and the rival student organisations which clashed


Yes.  They only hear dead people. Issues that were ignored since August 2015 --poisonous campus politics and the heavy-handed treatment of dalit students at Hyderabad University-- were hurtling Rohith Vemula and his friends from one indignity to another. The  local media paid scant attention to it. The national media was not even expected to see this as an issue.

And suddenly the floodgates have opened and a deluge of coverage both in the Telugu media and national media confronts us. No detail is too small. No anecdote too trivial. Columnists who had never met Rohith or who could never really have understand what he must have gone through, are waxing eloquent and psychoanalysing the state of mind that drove Rohith to take his own life.

A PhD scholar of the economics department at the  University of Hyderabad who knew Rohith said quietly, “It’s the suicide note. It is contemplative, poetic and sounds like something ‘people like them’ could have written. Not the stereotypical ‘bad English’ expected of a dalit student. Otherwise, when will the national media ever take interest in such cases?” Rohith’s heart-wrenching suicide note that held up the possibilities destroyed by the dismal reality of the Indian social order stunned the media into sitting up and taking notice.

It is true that there have been several cases of gross injustice and discrimination in universities in Hyderabad. Students have tried to fight back and had to back down in despair as there was no support from either the institutions or the media. Even in this case, people close to Rohith believe that he was despairing as he saw no way out of the deadlock and no one to reach out to. The protests and hunger strikes were blasé for the media.

But in a routine reporting milieu what, if anything, can we expect from the media? Hyderabad has a long history of ideological battles on campus between  the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and progressive groups. George Reddy’s murder on  Osmania University campus in the seventies by a mob of 30 right-wing students is used as an excuse till today by the university to disallow elections on campus.

Reddy was a gold medallist in nuclear physics, an articulate intellectual and a boxer. He founded the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union. Most of the accused went unpunished, but he remained an inspirational figure.

The fitful and superficial coverage that one sees of student politics in the media leads to a misleading impression of student activism. The larger society sees political activity on campuses as problematic instead of seeing it as necessary for political education and training in mature political participation.

Political parties that ride on the shoulders of their student wings use them to create a vote bank but are wary of student power once they are in government. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) is a case in point. The TRS came to power on the strength of student activism for a separate Telangana state but 18 months later, the state’s universities lack funding and vice chancellors – severely impacting students - and the promised jobs have not materialized.  

Student activism needs to be understood as a healthy social phenomenon that makes educated young people engage with the political process to steer it in a more rational direction. Campuses are a microcosm of society, especially the state-run campuses where India’s diversity is reflected to a greater extent. Campuses also have become hubs for mainstream politicians who hand-hold and advise, and peddle influence with the police to harass opponents. Needless to say, it is the dominant classes and castes which can effectively leverage their social and political contacts.

It is one such instance of a group, the ABVP, resorting to peddling its reach in national politics relentlessly to fix its opponents, that resulted in Rohith’s suicide.  ABVP’s opponents did not have the support of the administration, which was easily intimidated, the police or the political establishment. The media did not find the story newsworthy.

When students come into unfamiliar campuses, they need support groups and in the University of Hyderabad, the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) is one of the several that emerged as a support group for educating and mentoring students during their time on campus. Without such groups, life can be much harder for the new entrant.

The ABVP indulges in aggressive agendas of its own not just in Hyderabad but on most campuses across the country. Over the years, at Osmania University, one saw them sometimes forcing everyone to sing Vande Mataram (ee desamlo undalante Vande Mataram padaalsinde - if you want to live in this country, you have to sing Vande Mataram), sometimes browbeating students into participating in brick-collection for building the Ayodhya temple (udyamanikaddosthe addamga narikestham - if you come in the way of our movement for the Ayodhya temple, we’ll slash you in half), collecting donations for Hindutva causes, and then the annual events like the installation of huge Ganesh idols in hostels when they compelled everyone to participate.  

They also dictate if students are allowed to see films like Muzaffarnagar Baqui Hai, or if students can hold protests against capital punishment. Successive administrations have not found the courage to take a stand and since they could not fight them, many joined them.

It is inevitable that not everyone can follow such agendas and counter forces do emerge. Often the counter is provided by organisations like the ASA or left organisations like the Student Federation of India or the Progressive Democratic Students’ Union. The confrontation leads sometimes to physical assaults and counter-attacks. The coverage about university politics is often around incidents of violence and disruptions caused by such conflicts leading the outside public to believe that university students are anti-social elements. Often the underdog gets this label while those who intimidate have the protection of the state machinery.

Institutions of higher education have been playgrounds for gross caste prejudices and the politics of dominance by various groups. In the campuses in Hyderabad, there is a new configuration of solidarity that has been emerging between dalits and minorities over the last several years.

In the 2014 elections, a dalit PhD scholar, Sharad Naliganti from Osmania University contested on the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen ticket against the BJP candidate in Amberpet constituency. Naliganti’s hostel room in which all his books, certificates, clothes and some money he had saved up for his sister’s wedding were set on fire allegedly by ABVP students.

In the case of Rohith too, he was boldly anti-Hindutva and fearless in his defiance and dislike for such politics. Rohith was also associated for some time with the Student Federation of India. The ABVP is known to constantly monitor, troll and intimidate left wing activists and Ambedkarites to silence them; this, even as an unprecedented national debate was playing out on in the media about tolerance and the need for debate on issues in a democracy.

Whether it is George Reddy who courageously fought back against the dominant ideology or Rohith who chose to exit from the scene in despair, two promising scientific minds have been sacrificed at the altar of Hindutva campus politics. Both civil society and the media have heard their voices only after they are gone. But they will both inspire generations of young people who still believe that another world is worth fighting for.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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