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Protests for Rohith Vemula at Harvard India Conference
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Protests for Rohith Vemula at Harvard India Conference

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Protests for Rohith Vemula at Harvard India Conference
Demands Made for Prosecution of Culprits; Indian Consulate Intervenes

Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA)

February 8, 2016, Cambridge, MA.

“Did you know India is home to the world’s oldest surviving system of discrimination? Do you know how many Dalits (formerly untouchables), Tribals, and ‘Backward’ castes are represented at this conference – when demographically they constitute 85% of the populace?” read a flyer distributed by protesters outside the Harvard India Conference organized at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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Protesters Gather Outside Harvard India Conference to Demand Justice for Rohith

 The annual conference attracts leaders from business, government, scholars, students and the broader community.This year, protesters targeted the prestigious conference to attract international attention to India’s caste problem.

Protesters comprising of a group of professionals and academicians in and around Boston area gathered in solidarity with victims of caste violence in India. Focusing on Rohith Vemula’s death the concerned members came together under the banner of Boston Against Caste which was cosponsored by Boston Ambedkarites in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Conference speakers included former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, Union Minister for Communication and Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and the Consul General of New York Dnyaneshwar Mulay. Media personalities Karan Johar and Kamal Haasan also were invited speakers.

Intervention by Indian Consulate

Mid-way into the protest the Deputy Consul General of India, New York City Manoj Kumar Mohapatra came out of the conference to speak with the protesters. He expressed concern that they were projecting India in a “bad light” at a high profile event and asked the organizers to withdraw the protest. Mr. Mohapatra offered to set up a meeting with the Union Minister Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad if the protest was immediately withdrawn.

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Indian Consulate Officials Ask to Cancel Protest

Protestors refused the offer explaining that their protest was not against the minister but to protest against the system of caste which is institutional in the Indian society. Protesters handed over their flyers with demands to the Deputy Consul General. According to one protester, Mr. Mohapatra issued a veiled threat during the conversation saying that next time any of the protesters came to the consulate for a passport they might face difficulties.

Making Their Presence Felt

Protesters distributed more than a hundred flyers over two hours encouraging attendees to ask important questions which otherwise would not surface in conventional dialogue. The flyers described the circumstances around Rohith Vemula’s death and questioned the caste position and privilege of organizers and attendees with the following excerpt:

“..The tragic suicide of a bright Dalit PhD scholar, 26 year old Rohith Vemula an anti-caste activist at a top Indian university poses difficult questions – particularly around representation – to those involved in maintaining caste hierarchy. Ignoring these questions while eagerly claiming to represent the country in transnational settings such as these is typical of the disturbing pathology of Indian caste privilege – a sight you paid good money to behold.

Asking the important questions

Can Ms. Nirupama Rao shed light on how soft power is to be projected for a country with rampant caste discrimination?

Is Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad capable of describing a vision of an emergent India without caste?

Can he explain why his ruling party colleagues, Union Ministers Bandaru Dattareya and Smriti Irani intervened directly in University of Hyderabad administration to expel Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula?

Can the panel on education describe which communities are worst affected by their plans to privatize public education instead of investing in it?

Can Mr. Karan Johar explain away the non-representation of Dalit and Tribal screen personalities?”

Growing International Concern

The vocal protest outside the Harvard India conference comes only a couple of days after Harvard South Asia Institute organized a seminar on the circumstances behind Mr. Rohith Vemula’s death. There, panelists issued a call to action stating that caste discrimination in Indian campuses and the questions or representation in academia cannot be ignored anymore. They urged participants to take up this issue seriously and build more sustained awareness and advocacy initiatives around the questions of caste in universities in India and abroad. An official report of the panel is available here.

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A Harvard Panel on Rohith Vemula Drew About 40 participants

 Over a dozen protests – including at major Ivy League Universities – demanding criminal prosecution of
culprits have occurred since Mr. Vemula’s death on January 17th. These include at Harvard University
(Jan 22); Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (Jan 23); University of Michigan (Jan 23); Indian
Consulate, San Francisco (Jan. 23); University of Pennsylvania, (Jan 24); Stanford University (Jan 28); and
in Washington DC (Jan 30). Protests outside the US occurred at the University of South Africa, Pretoria
(Jan 22); India House, High Commission of India, London (Jan 25), Australia (Jan 25); Indian Embassy in
Rome, Italy (Jan 27); and at Indian Consulate, Toronto (Jan 29).

“End this Culture of Impunity”

One of the organizers of the protest at Harvard Indian Conference, Mr. Vaibhav Sravade, expressed concern about the lack of response from the government after the death of Rohith Vemula. “In spite of massive protests after his death, even the minimum of demands – the sacking of the VC Appa Rao – is being denied. This is the indifferent nature of the current regime which is completely disconnected from our concerns”, he said.

Protesters expressed anger that the government was more concerned about its image than in delivering justice. They released a statement saying “unless the culture of complete impunity changes through delivery of justice and punishment of the culprits, the caste question will haunt India at every single international forum in the future”. 

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