On Monday (18 January), India woke up to the news of a 25-year-old research scholar of University of Hyderabad committing suicide in the hostel room of his friend. It’s neither a case of peer pressure to perform well nor a direct consequence of an unrequited love. His pangs were of different kind that made him write this in his suicide letter: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity. And nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing”. Rohith Vemula, the student from Guntur, succumbed to humiliation meted out to him for the last few months.
Who was Rohith Vemula?
This resident of Guntur was doing his PhD in Science Technology and Society Studies. His mother worked as a tailor to raise him and retired only after her son got his first Junior Research Fellowship. Despite having a double JRF, he faced several hurdles to get his PhD admission because of the “oppressive attitude of bureaucracy and brahminical mindsets of a few”, as put by his friends. The suicide note had a clear reference to his troubled growing up years: “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past”.
Events Leading to Dalit Research Scholar’s Suspension
There are two theories doing rounds as to why was the PhD scholar suspended by Hyderabad Central University (HCU) in August 2015. Rohith, a student leader of Ambedkar Students Association (ASU), had a tiff with the BJP’s student wing – Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – while the former was protesting the hanging of Yakub Memon in 1993 Bombay Blasts case.
Five Dalit research scholars were accused of attacking an ABVP activist during a protest. The Executive Council of the university suspended them based on the recommendations of a Proctorial Committee. The punishment pronounced on 21 December barred five students from accessing the hostel, libraries, common areas, and the mess. They could only access their classrooms and workshops related to their subject.
Another theory, as floated by one of the other suspended students, goes like this: When the ABVP on 1 August 2015 disrupted the screening of a documentary on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots at Delhi University, the ASA held a small protest against the disruption. In an incident of rebuttal, the university’s ABVP president put up a Facebook post addressing ASU members as goons. The incident was followed by “small, non-violent confrontation” between two groups. When Union Minister intervened, he made sure that ASU members were punished.
Involvement of Union Minister
Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who was a RSS cadre for years before joining BJP, wrote to HRD Minister Smriti Irani on 17 August stating that the university had become a “mute spectator” to the attack on a student. His vitriolic letter against the alleged favoritism towards the Dalit research scholars was supported by his belief that the University of Hyderabad “has become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. The students believe that the minister’s letter led to the suspension of Rohith and his friends.
Students Cry Social Boycott
The students are squarely putting the blame on the university administration for creating a situation that forced Rohith to hang himself. The verdict among Rohith’s friends is out: Administration’s ignorance towards students’ issues pushed Rohith to take such an extreme step. Ever since the five students were suspended and forced to sleep in a makeshift tent on the campus, the move has been described by others as “undemocratic” and a “social boycott”.
A closer look into the incidents gives you an inkling that there has been an attempt at systematic ostracisation. Firstly, you suspend the individual from the university and isolate him from his like-minded peers. You humiliate a PhD scholar by denying him access to hostel and then you refuse to listen to his arguments. Rohith was not allowed to put forward his views before the Vice Chancellor of the university despite him making several requests for an appointment. His pleas were ignored despite the fact that he was living in the open for days. Intolerance has many shades and this one was little darker.
To add to Rohith’s dismay, even Dalit professors who came to meet the five suspended research scholars, were non-committal on lending a helping hand. On the contrary, they supported the Vice Chancellor. There was every reason for the ASU leader to be “heartbroken”.
The death has given students a new reason to intensify the protest against the administration. In fact, they carried Rohith’s body around the university campus on Sunday evening before it was sent for autopsy. They raised slogans asking the authorities to register an SC/ST Atrocity Act case against Union minister Bandaru Dattatreyam because he was the one who had called for action against the scholars and allegedly forced the university to expel them.
Andhra Pradesh, like several other parts of India, has failed the Dalits when it comes to framing reservation policy based on the principle of social justice. Disparate incidents like Dalits’ demand for job quota in private sector going unheard and a victim of women trafficking waiting for five years to get compensation testify to the fact. Rohith’s death is a symptom of that same malady.
Under such circumstances, one can identify with Rohith’s pathos in the following observation included in the parting note: “Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored”.
Quoting Rohith’s suicide as not being a Dalit vs non-Dalit issue, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) Smriti Irani clarified that the document which is being circulated as the deceased’s suicide note does not include any name or MP or Minister. This apart, the suspension of four other Dalit students (friends of Rohith Vemula) who were barred from accessing the library, café and hostel has been revoked. The decision to cancel the suspension of Rohith’s four friends came soon after 15 Dalit teachers resigned and accused Smriti Irani of distorting vital facts associated with Rohith’s suicide.
Hyderabad University eyes a new interim V-C
Hyderabad University administration is actively considering a proposal to replace Prof Vipin Srivastava with the next senior-most faculty member, hailing from the Chemistry Department. The new interim V-C is expected to open a channel of dialogue with the students who are protesting against the suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula.
London vigil for dismissal of Irani and Dattatreya
A large group of UK-based Dalit organisations, students and academics have demanded the dismissal of Union Ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya for their alleged roles in the suicide by research student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. The crowd held a candlelight vigil outside the Indian high commission in the Strand and also called for the dismissal of Appa Rao Podile, the vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad.
Nationwide strike to protest against Rohith’s suicide
Today, student organisations from across the country have called for a one-day strike in all universities to protest against the death of 26-year-old research student Rohith Vemula. 60 protestors, demanding the resignation of union ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya have been detained in Chennai. 200 student associations have set up a national joint action committee which is planning to mark Rohith’s birthday on Saturday, 30 January with a Chalo Delhi (Let’s march to Delhi) protest.