Too little, too late
Four days after research scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide, the University of Hyderabad on Thursday decided to revoke the suspension of four Dalit students. Vemula and four other Dalit students from the Ambedkar Students Association were suspended by the varsity in August for allegedly assaulting Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student leader Susheel Kumar. Despite Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani’s spirited defence against charges of caste discrimination and political interference in the Dalit scholar’s suicide, many have questioned the veracity of her claims. In a dramatic turn of events, 15 Dalit officials at the Hyderabad University have resigned from their administrative posts. In their protest, the SC/ST officers’ forum of the University of Hyderabad has accused Irani of making “fabricated statements” and “misrepresenting facts”, when she said that a panel which decided on the punishment for Rohith and his four colleagues included a Dalit faculty member. The Executive Council, which had initially approved the suspension of the five students despite the findings of the Proctorial Board, has no Dalit representation, according to the officials. Moreover, the officials also said that contrary to the Minister’s assertion, there were no Dalit faculty members on the sub-committee of the executive council. “Incidentally, the Dean, students’ welfare, who happens to be a Dalit was notionally co-opted as an ex-officio member of the committee,” they said. It was the sub-committee (of the executive council), which had upheld the suspension order on the five Dalit students. It is imperative to remember that the varsity’s Proctorial Board, which had looked into the allegations of assault against the ABVP member, had found no evidence of assault by the ASA students. Although a case could be made for Irani’s claims that the incident was being misrepresented with “malicious intent” as a “caste battle”, there is little doubt that excessive political interference and the Vice-Chancellor’s shocking disregard for Rohith’s economic condition led to the tragic turn of events.
It was Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who had started the “caste battle” by saying that the varsity is a den of casteism and anti-national activities in his letter to the HRD Ministry. ASA activists allege that the RSS-affiliated youth wing (ABVP) students had sought the intervention of Union Minister and Secunderabad MP Bandara Dattatreya in the matter. The minister then shot off a letter to the Ministry of Human Resource Development about “anti-national, casteist” elements at the university, in a clear reference to Rohith’s friends. Although Irani has categorically said that the HRD Ministry had nothing to do with the suspension order, it is hard to fathom why it sent four letters in three months to the varsity, asking it to respond to a written complaint by Bandaru Dattatreya, even though the matter had already been taken up by the varsity? Protesting students have used these letters to point to intense political pressure and interference from the Centre. Moreover, Dattatreya special interest in the case seems strange, considering that the Hyderabad University is not located in his Secunderabad constituency. The varsity is in Chevella constituency. It is hard to gauge why Dattatreya intervened in the matter when he has no apparent stake in it, except that the situation involved students from the ABVP. What was essentially a clash between two students groups has now turned into a political hot potato for the BJP and a “caste battle” fought across various ideological camps. Political parties have shamelessly gathered en masse at the university to score brownie political points against the ruling BJP. Unfortunately, none of them have come up with real solutions to end the scourge of caste discrimination, which is still rampant in institutions of higher of education. 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. Numerous committees constituted by the University of Hyderabad have established a clear link between suicides and caste-related discrimination.
“The council after taking into account the extraordinary situation prevailing in the university, and after discussing the issue in detail, has resolved to terminate the punishment imposed on the students concerned with immediate effect,” the university’s Executive Council wrote in its order that had revoked the suspension of four Dalit students. If only the VC and officials at the university taken cognizance of Rohith’s “extraordinary situation” earlier. By all accounts, Rohith Vemula was known as a bright doctoral student who had secured the much-vaunted Junior Research Fellowship. According to reports, soon after he had completed the first year of his Ph.D. in June 2015, Rohith was unable to pursue his research because he had been tied down by investigations, one conducted by the police, and two by the university authorities, based on a dubious complaint of assault lodged by the ABVP student leader. Embroiled in multiple probes based on dubious charges, unable to pursue his research, and subsequently suspended from the hostel, Rohith also had to face the ignominy of not receiving his monthly research stipend of Rs 25,000 for seven months. Suffice to say, the decision to withhold Rohith’s fellowship, for whatever reason, pushed him into destitution. And there is little doubt that destitution is what drove him to suicide. Rohith had no financial resources to fall back upon.
Nonetheless, the most shocking aspect of the suicide is the attitude of the current Hyderabad University VC. Despite Rohith’s desperate pleas, the VC saw no reason to respond. Never at any point, did the V-C bother to take cognizance of his desperate economic situation, which was quite naturally brought about by dubious charges of assault. In fact, while he was living in the open after his expulsion from the hostel, Rohith wrote a letter to the VC that when Dalit students are admitted to the University, they must be supplied with poison. Quite clearly, the VC had failed to understand the gravity of the situation. Moreover, not once did he visit the protesting boys, despite their desperate situation.