‘My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness’, were the last words written by Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula, a research scholar who has committed suicide to protest the discriminatory practices of the University of Hyderabad towards Dalits and other marginalized communities. Mr. Vemula hanged himself from a ceiling fan in his friend’s hostel room. It is to be noted that Rohith was a scholar who gained admission to the University on his own merit, not through a reserved seat.
Two weeks earlier, Rohith and four of his friends, all Dalits and members of the Campus group called Ambedkar Student Association (ABS), were moved out of their hostel rooms after being suspended by the University Administration. The purported disciplinary action was taken after an altercation between ABS and ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – Student wing of the BJP) in a dispute over the screening of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar’s communal riots that killed over 100 people and rendered 5000 – mostly Muslims – homeless.
What is unusual in this case is the direct intervention of the Central Government with a letter from labor minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, calling the ASA anti-national, casteist and extremist though it was the members of the ABVP, who first disrupted the film show and then set the political machinery in motion alleging the attack by Dalit students on its leader, Susheel Kumar. On the basis of his letter, the Ministry of Human Resource Development headed by Smiti Irani requested action against the five Dalit Students. It has been reported that HRD Ministry has written 5 letters to UoH and the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Mr. Appa Rao was simply eager to oblige.
Despite repeated attempts to inspire change, Dalit students have been deprived of their shelter, and cutoff from scholarship funds, without proper food appear to have faced an administration that lacked a caring and concerned leadership on the campus. They were pushed to the edge of despair, foreclosing a future without an education. To an independent observer, there is no doubt that it is a clear assault on Dalit Rights, and on the dignity of a people.
Since the ascension of BJP to power in 2014, this is one in a series of incidents that has revealed the mindset of a party, on one hand, urging the Dalits to unite under the flag of Hindutva but on the other, setting up a delimiter to what extent they can be included. First, the ban on the Ambedkar-Periyar study circle of IIT Madras, then the burning alive of Dalit Children in Haryana, and finally, General. V.K. Singh allegedly referring to them as animals. Rohith’s death alongside Dattatreya and Smithi Irani’s alleged involvement in it, has to be seen in light of these incidents.
News reports also talk about VC Appa Rao’s infamous past as Chief Warden of the Hostel. He instructed only Dalit students to clean up the bathrooms. Those Dalit students who opposed the diktat were suspended for an indefinite period. UoH is known for its caste-based discrimination in admission, evaluation of academic performance and even in administrative operations. Students often complain that they receive bad treatment as soon as they reveal their lower-caste backgrounds.
The future of a student is often determined once he/she was queried on his/her name, background, place of residence, and whether they eat meat. It has often been reported that higher caste students objected to sharing a room with a Dalit student, and untouchability is still said to be practiced without any shame. Dalit research students often need to wait up to 3 years to receive a guide.
RohithVemula’s suicide brought caste-based discrimination to the fore, not only in UoH but also on other campuses in Hyderabad. Suicides in higher education are quite rampant in the city. Five Dalit students committed suicide between 2005 and 2015 in UoH alone. In Osmania University, two women students who killed themselves in 2007 and 2011 respectively. In 2013, two Muslim students committed suicide in the EFL University.
It also points to a larger problem of discrimination and assaults on the Dalit community as a whole. According to the national crimes recording bureau, there were 13,756 killings, 27,017 rapes, 6,74,619 sexual assaults and 76,860 physical assaults in the last two decades alone. However, only 3% of these cases are said to have been adjudicated. Although discrimination based on caste has taken center stage with Rohith’s suicide, another minority group, students hailing from the seven states in the North East India have been fighting against what they call “racial profiling” in the UoH. The plight of these folks against discrimination and harassment across the country is well documented.
As the nation just celebrated the 125th anniversary of B. R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, there appears to be a growing conflict between the entrenched interests of the right wing Hindutva activists and the aspirations of the SC/ST and OBC and other minority groups that constitute a sizable chunk of the Indian electorate.
Undoubtedly, the BJP government is hard at work imposing and celebrating the elements of Hindu practices that are regressive, and making it even harder to have a civilized debate within the academic framework of caste, patriarchy or religious bigotry. “Campus has become the unsafe place for the discriminated,” said Archana Phadke, a cinematographer who worked for ‘Placebo’ a documentary that delineates the travails of student life in one of the country’s top colleges.
The suicide of Rohith Vemula shows the failure of the upper echelons of the society dealing with a resurgent Dalit community. Obviously, students like Rohith bring with them historical anger, and expect to have a place in the academic setting for an open debate without being branded as anti-nationalistic. When they get expelled for even a slight aberration, it constitutes social ostracism by the entrenched ruling class and unfortunately to the rest of the world, it is another indication that much hasn’t changed in India for several centuries. To add insult to injury, high Government officials are in a fishing expedition to undo Rohith’s Dalit background.
“I always looked at the stars and wanted to be a writer, a writer of science like Carl Sagan. But in the end, this is the only letter I am going to write,” Rohith said in a suicide note.
“I loved science, stars, nature – but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second hand. Our love is artificial, our beliefs [are] coloured. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt,” he wrote.
A promising future of a bright young man was cut short and a voice for justice, fairness and rational thinking was silenced, and yet, he will be long remembered as a martyr for Dalit rights and human dignity.
Authored By: George Abraham
(Writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)
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