19 JANUARY 2016
Death of a Dalit scholar
The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, is yet another tragic testimony to the feudal passions of caste that roil India’s institutions of higher education, which are known to harbour delusions of being meritocracies. Vemula was one of five Dalit students, all belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), who had been suspended by the administration. The ‘suspension’ order allowed them to continue their studies in the university but denied them entry to the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups. It is difficult to imagine a more blatant exhibition of social boycott than such a punitive measure, directed at a group of students from a socially disadvantaged community. That this comes from the governing elite of a central university makes it even more appalling. The ostensible reason for the suspension of Vemula and the four others was an alleged clash between students belonging to the ASA and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of the right-wing Sangh Parivar. An inquiry by the university culminated in the suspension order. It was against this punitive measure that they had been protesting. On Sunday, the young scholar decided to cut short both his protest and his life. His suicide note, which was posted on social media, states categorically that no one is responsible for his act, a statement that should not be taken at face value.
The police have registered cases against Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, the University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor P. Appa Rao, and two ABVP activists on charges of abetment to suicide, and violation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Activists say the circumstances leading to Vemula’s death were sparked by a letter from Mr. Dattatreya to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, charging the ASA with being “extremist” and “anti-national”. Trying to make sense of a death by suicide is an onerous, and frequently futile, exercise. But Vemula’s death demands it, not least because it is a national shaming. It brings the Indian state face to face with its utter failure in addressing the social evil of caste and casteist discrimination. The Thorat Committee, constituted some years ago to investigate differential treatment of SC/ST students in just one institution, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, had come out with a damning indictment of the way Dalit students were treated. Forced into ghettoes in the hostel, discriminated against by teachers, denied access to sporting and cultural activities, SC/ST students in India’s premier educational institutions walk into an environment that’s virulently hostile to them. Not surprisingly, according to one estimate, in the last four years 18 Dalit students chose to end their lives rather than continue to battle on in these dens of caste prejudice and social exclusion. The first step toward treating the rot of caste is to acknowledge it — after Vemula’s tragic death, it would be a crime not to.
A new beginning with Iran
It was a remarkable moment in international diplomacy. Until last year, it was unimaginable that there would be a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis. Even when a deal was reached in July, critics continued to attack the efforts, questioning the operating challenges of the accord and Iran’s dubious nuclear record. But proving its critics wrong again, Iran quickly acted to rein in its nuclear programme. It decommissioned its enrichment centrifuges, removed the core of its heavy-water reactor and shipped out most of its low-enriched uranium stockpile — all in months. On Saturday, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran had complied with its commitments. Within hours, nuclear sanctions were removed, signalling Iran’s reintegration with the global economy. The implementation of the deal demonstrates the willingness of both the U.S. and Iran to move past their history of hostilities and begin a new future of cooperation. U.S. President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani deserve credit for their visionary determination. It was not easy to effect structural changes in the thinking of their respective foreign policy establishments and chart a new course of constructive engagement. Both faced criticism at home. There were regional challenges as well, such as the steadfast opposition from Israel. Still they stuck to the path of diplomacy which brought new hopes to a region that is otherwise tormented by conflicts.
Over the past few months, U.S.-Iran ties have substantially improved. Though both sides maintain that cooperation is limited to the nuclear deal, in actuality it is much broader. Tehran and Washington are engaged in Syria and Iraq. They share common interests in Afghanistan. The quick release of American sailors whose patrol boats drifted into Iranian waters signalled the shift in ties. The prisoner swap deal, announced just hours before the sanctions were lifted and under which Iran released four Americans and the U.S. seven Iranians, is another indicator. But the question is whether these changes are sustainable and, if so, what effects they can have on the troubled West Asian geopolitics. In Iran there appears to be a consensus on enhanced engagement with the West. Despite the anti-American public posturing, often from the hard-line quarters of the establishment, Iran’s political elite remains largely supportive of President Rouhani’s moves. But it’s not the case in the U.S., where the Republican front runners for the presidential election are highly critical of the deal. It is not clear what could happen to the Iran-U.S. détente if a Republican is elected to the White House. But if both nations overcome these challenges and sustain the momentum, it can transform the region for the better in the long run. India should take the cue from the deal. A peaceful, stable Iran is vital for its interests, particularly for energy security and connectivity. New Delhi should get Tehran on board, again.