The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar of University of Hyderabad, has attracted national outrage and international attention. All across India, on campuses and elsewhere, Dalit students are spontaneously agitating to demand justice for Vemula, although the heart of the struggle remains a corner of the University of Hyderabad campus. I was there at that epicentre recently, and what struck me were the similarities between what is unfolding today and the student agitation against VP Singh government’s decision to implement Mandal Commission’s recommendations in 1990.

Back then too, students had protested all over India, but the nerve centre of the challenge was the Delhi University campus. That movement’s support came mostly from upper caste students groups but it had also banded together crowds of students who had become disillusioned with their messiah, Prime Minister VP Singh. That movement was disorganised, it lacked leadership, and it was wanting in coordination. Just as the Dalit students’ movement is today.

At the Hyderabad university campus, as I witnessed, students are demonstrating under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association, but there’s no leadership or coordination among them. Many political leaders have paid them visit, albeit on their own. Some are being cheered, some jeered, and some are not being allowed on the stage despite the entreaties of the student leaders. A donation box has been set up at the protest site, but few outsiders can reach it due to the stringent security checks at the university gates. The protest is uncoordinated, yet it manifests waves of emotions and anger.

In the 1990s, the movement led by upper caste students was not successful in resisting the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report that put in more affirmative action for the lower castes. Today, there is also little likelihood of the Dalit students’ movement getting immediate concessions from the Modi government, particularly their demand for the removal of Smriti Irani from the Human Resource Development Ministry. It could, however, end up damaging Modi’s reputation irreparably just as the Mandal agitation did to Prime Minister VP Singh.

Principled politics?

Thanks to the Bofors scandal and his perceived principled stand against corruption, VP Singh had become the Youth Icon of the late 1980s, unseating a much younger Rajiv Gandhi from that honour. In those days, it was near impossible to criticise the Raja of Manda on a university campus. Even his opportunistic coalition with the Hindutva right – which enabled their entry into the mainstream of Indian politics – was overlooked by liberal left students and academics. Singh, after all, was seen as the saviour who would deliver the country from the corrupt Congress regime, and that hope had united students and youths in his support for change.

The sheer political expediency of Singh to save his chair from spirited attacks by Devi Lal-led dissident groups resulted in the implementation of the almost-forgotten Mandal Commission’s recommendations. That decision sparked a social churning across the country and led to the political mobilisation of oppressed social groups, changing India’s political map country forever. However, the way Singh took the decision disillusioned the students and youths who had expected him to remain above petty political and economic self-interest, and to take the nation to a new height.

His move consolidated his support among the majority of students belonging to Other Backward Classes, but it also took away his aura as the country’s youth icon.

Political consolidations

Today’s the growing Dalit students’ movement might fail in forcing the Modi government to refrain from doctoring the country’s higher education to suit the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. But if it sustains and spreads, it could have the potential to bring about a seismic shift in the institutional and behavioural domination of upper caste mind-sets in India’s education sector.

Dalit students’ mobilisation for equality and justice has started to gain momentum, and the tragic death of Rohith Vemula has given them an immediate and emotive platform. Thanks to this, the social engineering project of the Sangh Parivar to Hindutvise Dalits for political gains could face a big setback. Politically, the agitation of Dalit students could further consolidate upper caste students in support of Modi, but at the same time, it could dent his claims of being a national leader who remains above specific interests, at least among Hindus.

The revelations of his ministers’ direct involvement in promoting divisive caste politics in University of Hyderabad has begun creating a critical fracture in Modi’s image as the country’s reigning youth icon. The Dalit students’ agitation, like the Mandal protests of 1990, threatens to divide the country’s academic campuses again on caste lines and that can seriously limit Modi’s support among the aspiring youths and students. As VP Singh was reduced to the “messiah of Mandal politics”, Modi faces the same danger of being bracketed and losing his appeal among students and youths. Modi took five days just to speak up on the issue. The time to act on it is running out fast.

The writer is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden.