Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide on Sunday, sparking massive protests across the nation. His death has been viewed by certain sections as yet another indicator of caste discrimination in India’s institutions of higher learning. Rohith was one of five Dalit students, all from the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), who were suspended by the varsity administration under very questionable circumstances. The varsity had set up an inquiry against Rohith and four other ASA members after they allegedly assaulted Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader N Susheel Kumar. ASA activists allege that the Sangh-affiliated youth wing students had sought the intervention of Union Minister and Secunderabad MP Bandara Dattatreya in the matter. Subsequently, the minister shot off a letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) about “anti-national, casteist” elements at the university, in a clear reference to the ASA. After a series of flip-flops, the five were suspended in September. The decision was upheld in December. Meanwhile other reports claim that the students had earlier been cleared, but the varsity reversed its decision in December and suspended them, owing to political pressure. Activists from ASA allege that the findings of the varsity’s Proctorial Board, which had conducted a probe into the incident, were contradictory to its final decision in December. Under the suspension order, the five students were allowed to continue their studies but denied entry to the hostels, administration building and other common areas in groups. What’s worse, from July, the university had stopped paying Rohith his monthly stipend of Rs 25,000, which he was entitled to as a Junior Research Fellow from two different disciplines. His friends have alleged that he was targeted for raising issues under the ASA’s banner. Varsity officials have denied the allegation. “His stipend was stuck due to lapses in processing the paperwork. On many occasions, the funds arrive late and are disbursed in lump sums,’’ an official from the VC’s office had reportedly said to a newspaper. Coming from an economically disadvantaged family, Rohith was dependent on the stipend to make ends meet. Piece these elements together, and it is hard not to take cognizance of the social boycott directed at a group of students from a socially disadvantaged community. Cases have been registered against Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, the University of Hyderabad Vice Chancellor P. Appa Rao, and two BJP youth wing activists on charges of abetment to suicide, and violation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Legally, it would be hard to pin the accused on charges of abetment to suicide, since Rohith’s suicide note clearly states that no one is responsible for his act. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we do not take such statements at face value and take cognisance of the circumstances that led to his untimely death.
First and foremost, questions need to be put to the varsity administration. Why did they not disburse Rohith’s stipend for seven months, the varsity must come clean on why his stipend was withheld. Hiding behind mere procedural inanities will not suffice. Without any definitive clarification from the varsity, it is quite natural to believe that Rohith was indeed a victim of institutional caste discrimination. There is little doubt that Rohith was driven to destitution before he took the final step. Moreover, did the varsity come under pressure from the HRD Ministry to suspend these students? Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani has categorically said that the Ministry has nothing to do with the varsity’s decision to suspend the five Dalit students. If that is indeed the case, then why did the HRD ministry send four letters to the varsity, asking it to respond to a written complaint by Bandaru Dattatreya, even though the matter was already taken up? Protesting students have used these letters to point to intense political pressure and interference from the Centre. In response, the ministry said it is bound by rules to acknowledge and forward letters by lawmakers. Moreover, Dattatreya special interest in the case seems strange, considering that the University of Hyderabad is not located in his Secunderabad constituency. The varsity is in Chevella constituency. It is hard to gauge why the Union Minister poked his nose in the matter when he apparently had no stake.
India has a long history of institutional caste discrimination in its varsities. It is no secret that our varsities have always been culpable. In the University of Hyderabad alone, nine students have committed suicide in the past seven years. All of them were reportedly from Dalit or other backward caste communities. Investigations into them have found that the varsity was unable to accommodate students from marginalised communities as a prime motivating factor behind their suicides. In fact, numerous committees constituted by the University of Hyderabad have established a clear link between these suicides and caste-related discrimination. Some years back, the Thorat Committee, constituted by the Government of India to investigated the differential treatment of SC/ST students in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, found that Dalit students were faced with an environment that was hostile to them. Suffice to say, the findings of the committee were damning.