On 21 January 2016, addressing a packed hall of students and scholars at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, the French economist Thomas Piketty gave a talk in which he discussed the history of taxation, inequality and capital in the twenty-first century. Superficially, Piketty's discourse appears to be entirely distinct from another recent discourse on inequality—that surrounding the suicide of the Dalit student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. On a deeper probe, however, both allude to the same structure of discrimination, which is grounded in social inequality.
During the lecture, Piketty said that the history of inequality cannot be just “understood in economic terms.” The narrative of inequality, he emphasised, should be located in our “political and social history.” Unlike many among his fraternity in India and in the West, Piketty emphasised the importance of identities, culture and national in determining the divide between the privileged and the under-privileged. “Economists say that inequality is because of globalisation,” he said, “But that cannot be the only explanation for it.”
Coming just four days after the death of Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD student at the Hyderabad Central University who hanged himself following his expulsion alongside four other students, Piketty’s words rang with special resonance. In his speech, Piketty argued that emphasising meritocracy and mobility as a means of studying economic development stands in contradiction with the situation on the ground. Though his work on inequality fundamentally deals with the situation in the West, his argument holds good even in India, particularly in the context of the deeply entrenched caste hierarchy and the rampant culture of discrimination it spawns.
Rohith’s tragic death, which has sparked widespread protests across the nation, had its genesis in the events of July 2015. He was a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), an on-campus group that represented the concerns of lower caste students. In July, the Dalit students and members of the ASA attracted the anger of BJP’s student wing—the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), following the ASA’s protests against the death sentence awarded to Yakub Memon. Memon was convicted on the charge of colluding in the 1993 Mumbai bombings. After a clash on campus, the ABVP accused five students, one of whom was Rohith, of assaulting the local ABVP president, N Susheel Kumar. ASA members since have however repeatedly clarified that their protests were against the idea of capital punishment itself, a stance espoused by their ideologue BR Ambedkar, and that their protests were not about Yakub Memon per se.
Despite an inquiry committee set up by the university exonerating the ASA students in August, stringent action was subsequently taken against them following the appointment of P Appa Rao as the university’s new vice chancellor. Besides barring the Dalit students access to public spaces inside the campus, the Hyderabad University authorities also stopped Rohith’s monthly fellowship of Rs 25,000, part of which he used to send home to his mother. This month, the five expelled students were living in a tent pitched outside the campus, where they began a relay hunger strike.