A murder and a suicide have queered the pitch for the BJP’s relations with two major communities – the Muslims and Dalits.
If Mohammed Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri in Uttar Pradesh last September further alienated the Muslims who were never very close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anyway, Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad has dealt a crippling blow to the party’s recent attempts to woo the Dalits.
From this standpoint, the BJP will be greatly worried about the possible electoral impact of the young scholar’s fateful decision to take his own life.
Apparently unused to dealing with the aftermath of a protester killing himself, the BJP has made the situation worse for itself by taking a legalistic view of the tragedy by referring to Rohith’s last letter in which he absolved everyone of any responsibility for his death.
“I am the only one responsible for this”, he wrote. “Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.”
What the BJP failed to understand was the young man’s highly-sensitive mind, which blamed his own fate of being born as a Dalit for his plight.
“My birth is my fatal accident. Never was a man treated as a glorious thing made up of stardust,” he wrote with a knowledge of science that is beyond the capability of the average politician.
How touchy he was can also be seen from the sarcastic letter he wrote to the vice chancellor last month, asking him to provide all Dalit students with 10 mg of a poison pill and “a nice rope” with “directions to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar”.
This ironic letter has been seized upon by a BJP minister, Thawar Chand Gehlot, to give a legal twist to the case by suggesting that Rohith was suicidal.
It is understandable that a party as crassly combative as the BJP, one of whose ministers called its opponents “haramzadon” or illegitimate offspring, and another asked beef-eaters to go to Pakistan, will not have a clue about such sensitiveness.
There is little doubt that the crudity of the ministers was behind the tragedy. It followed union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya’s description of the Hyderabad university campus as a den of anti-nationals following a clash between a group of Dalit and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) students, in which Rohith was involved.
Dattatreya apparently just could not accept the fact that his party’s student wing can be targeted by the alleged anti-nationals when the BJP is in power at the centre.
Hence his missive to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani for intervening. A senior colleague’s anger and her own sympathies for the ABVP evidently made Irani badger the university authorities with as many as five letters for “action”.
Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile – (Irani’s poodle?) – had no option, therefore, but to stop Rohith’s monthly stipend and suspend him and four other students.
What is noteworthy about the entire episode is that it has all the hallmarks of the BJP’s belligerent style of functioning against all those it regards as its adversaries. One is to dub them anti-national and/or anti-Hindu, and the other is to ride roughshod over institutional autonomy.
And a third is to describe all protests as “manufactured”, a phrase which Finance Minister Arun Jaitley used at the time when writers and artistes were returning their awards, and is being used again – along with the term, photo-ops – as opposition politicians pour into Hyderabad.
While these charges and counter-charges may be typical of political skirmishes, what will cause the BJP sleepless nights is the likelihood of the Dalits deserting the party in droves in the Hindi heartland and elsewhere.
As it is, the BJP’s hold on the Dalits has tended to fluctuate. In the 1990s, only one out of 10 Dalits voted for it. In 2014, however, one out of every four Dalits voted for the BJP largely because of Narendra Modi’s promise of development.
But the anger and distress felt by the community over the untimely death of a bright scholar cannot but have an adverse effect on the party in next year’s Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, which will be the first real test for it in a state with a large Dalit population.
The test will be crucial because, as the Bihar outcome has shown, the BJP’s influence on the backward castes and Dalits is much less now than at the time of the last general election since Modi’s appeal has begun to fade away. There is little doubt, therefore, that the Hyderabad tragedy will seriously hamper its outreach to the Dalits.
For Modi, the suicide of a promising student is another headache at a time when nothing seems to be going right for him.
While the economy is refusing to cross the seven percent mark, the saffron militants have begun to make life difficult for him after a relatively quiet period by calling for building the Ram temple and training children as young as eight years old in the use of firearms to fight the “enemy”.
These antics might have been described as irrelevant sideshows but for the death on the campus which can be ascribed to the BJP’s intolerance of dissent which was noted earlier by sections of the intelligentsia.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])