Piyush Goyal’s sudden sympathy for Rohith Vemula’s mother, often discredited by his party colleagues, betrays nervousness.
On 20 June, union minister Piyush Goyal informed the world that he would be holding a press conference on the Rohit Vemula issue. He called out the opposition, especially Rahul Gandhi, for exploiting the late PhD scholar’s poor family.
“I was anxious after reading Rohith Vemula’s mother’s statement. For how long will some opposition parties continue to play politics over it? The family is not financially stable. Fake assurance of money was provided to a distressed mother for political purposes,” Goyal said at the conference.
Goyal criticised the opposition for “making false assurances of financial support” to take Radhika to political rallies.
His remarks followed reports carried by a section of the press about Radhika’s frustration at discovering that one of two cheques given to her by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) of Kerala could not be encashed.
But the IUML immediately clarified that it stood by its promise, saying the cheque had bounced because of a spelling error and a new one was being reissued.
Radhika made it clear that she was not being used by any political party and that she spoke against the government because “it was anti-Dalit”. She went to political rallies to campaign against the Modi-led government as she believed that its ideology was dangerous for the people and the nation.
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Goyal, however, suspects that there is some pressure on her and he would like it to be investigated.
But wasn’t it the BJP and its ministers that, in the aftermath of Vemula’s death, employed all their resources to prove the “distressed mother” was a liar and the family didn’t belong to the Scheduled Castes at all?
Unable to face the Dalit anger triggered by Vemula’s suicide, the party had tried their best to discredit him and his mother. And the easiest way to do so was to reject their “Dalitness”.
The question Goyal asked is valid because it is his party that has been playing politics over Vemula’s suicide. Before his suicide, the party and its leaders had gone out of their way to declare him and his comrades in the Ambedkar Students’ Union “casteist, anti-national and extremist”. They had said Vemula’s politics could not be seen as Dalit politics because he did not confine himself to Dalit issues.
His gravest crime, which invited the onslaught, was that he had opposed capital punishment for 1993 blasts-accused Yakub Memon and condemned the RSS’ student wing, ABVP, for preventing the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a documentary on anti-Muslim violence in UP in 2013. He had also supported the right to eat beef.
It is important to understand the discomfort BJP leaders have with the likes of Vemula. They would prefer them to speak only for themselves and remain locked in the identity frame given to them by the patronising political powers.
But Vemula and his friends were proposing an alliance: Of the Dalits, Muslims, and other minorities. They claimed their agency: They can speak not only for themselves but also for other sections of society. In short, theirs is not a sectional voice. They have the force of a democratic universality.
When the IUML offered to build a house for Radhika, it was again an expression of this alliance. It can be formidable if it takes root and spreads to other parts of the country.
It is this fear that led the BJP to vilify the caste status of Vemula and his mother. Had she remained the grieving, compensation-seeking mother, she would not have posed any problem for the BJP. But she decided to claim Dalitness and resolved to become a political voice. She has been moving around after the death of her son, attending mass rallies, telling people about the vicious politics of the BJP that is fatal especially for the Dalits. So, for them, it is necessary to destroy her claim of autonomy.
This is what Goyal is doing by describing her as a non-thinking entity that can be used for ‘anti-national’ aims. The desperate promptness with which the minister decided to publicise his sympathy for her betrays his nervousness. But by refuting him and refusing his sympathy, Radhika Vemula has once again claimed her right to be — and her right to speak for herself as well as others.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
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