In The Aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s Tragic Death, We Would Do Well To Heed Thomas Piketty’s Thoughts on Inequality

Thomas Piketty's comments on inequality allude to the same structures that surround Rohith Vemula's tragic death. Photo by Harsha Vadlamani
26 January, 2016

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.

In an op-ed published in the newspaper Le Monde in January this year, and reproduced on the web publication The Wire, Piketty wrote: “The biggest challenge (in India), often poorly understood in the West, is associated with the legacy of the caste system, with, in addition, the risk of identity-related clashes between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority (14% of the population, 180 million people, out of a population of 1.3 billion people) currently stirred up by the BJP,” or the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Consider Rohith’s case, for instance. Divorced from her husband, Rohith’s mother, Radhika, worked as a tailor, raising Rohith and his two siblings on her own. In a report in the newspaper the Indian Express, dated 24 January, Radhika Vemula was quoted as saying, “After three children, my husband and I divorced and I brought up the kids on my own. Since I am from the Mala community”—a Scheduled Caste community—“I brought them up like that. We used to live in a lane in Guntur where, even today, only SC families live.” “My children are as much Dalit as I am,” she asserted, scotching the BJP’s attempts to dismiss Rohith’s death as a non-Dalit issue, and to project him as a member of the OBC Vaddera caste to which his father belonged.

Since Rohith’s death, public discourse in the media has revolved around human dignity, identity and rank discrimination based on caste. In this process, two narratives have unfolded side by side—one representing the dignity of the grieving mother of Rohith and his family, and the other highlighting the inadequate response of the BJP leadership, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to the incident. The comments made by the BJP leaders, including those of the Human Resource Development minister Smriti Irani, who rushed to claim that this was not a caste issue, not to mention attempts by a succession of BJP spokespersons to obfuscate the facts, reaffirms that the government is unwilling to address the real issue of continuing casteist prejudices, no matter its aspirational rhetoric that favours a modern India.

Despite his Dalit background foregrounding the culture of inequality, Rohith secured admission to the university in the general category, and not by way of the reservation system. Against the background of an educational apartheid where the underprivileged have poor access to good primary education (let alone higher education) Rohith surmounted a formidable barrier. The lack of access to good education was tragically confirmed again in the recent deaths of three girl students of SVS Yoga Medical College at Kallakurichi near Villupuram in Tamil Nadu. On January 23, the girls committed suicide, accusing the college authorities of charging excess fees and not providing even the basic facilities of a medical college. The private college did not have classrooms, laboratories and teachers, even though it admitted 100-odd students, and charged a minimum of Rs 5 lakh as fees.

But the discrimination in education does not just begin and end with the quality of education. For Dalit students, the classroom turns into yet another space for confronting caste-based discrimination. Even after moving up the educational ladder, Rohith was denied the respect and equal treatment he was entitled to in the classroom and within the campus. His suicide is a reminder of the fact that caste discrimination continues to define Indian society and its institutions.

Most leading neo-liberal economists of the world like to draw a sharp distinction between economic policies and social and political contexts. As a result, discourse is disproportionately skewed in favour of GDP rates, foreign capital investment, and privatisation, with no emphasis on social, political and cultural inequalities. In this context, we would do well to heed Piketty’s words. In an interview to the Indian Express, he said: “To me, the main danger with extreme inequality is that if you don’t solve it through peaceful and democratic institutions then it will be solved in other ways.” Public unrest is often exploited by politicians, noted Piketty, and that they tend to blame a certain section of the poor. “That’s extremely frightening,” he concluded.