Rohith Vemula: Rising above politics

Last week at University  of Hyderabad, a bright and young research scholar Rohith Vemula took his own life. Rohith’s death has sparked a major controversy. There are mixed feelings of sorrow and disgust everywhere. But, the sad reality is that instead of paying a genuine tribute to Rohith and consoling his family, politicians are busy blaming each other. The media is no exception. But, the bigger question is whether politicians or the media could gain anything from such an attempt? 

The way the entire incident has been presented by the political class is pathetic and hard to digest. In his suicide note, Rohith does not blame anyone. There is yet to be a thorough inquiry on the root cause behind the incident. The real abettors of this tragedy are yet to be exposed, but political parties have left no stone unturned to take advantage of the situation. Is it necessary to give a political colour to such deaths on campus? Why do politicians come forward only when a Dalit student or minority student dies naturally or unnaturally? If there is any concern for students, why do they keep mum when a normal student dies, or is killed brutally? Perhaps the answer is loud and clear. Elections in Assam, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are on the horizon. 

Very recently, violence had broken out in Malda. But hardly any politician came out to condemn the violence. Even the media underplayed the Malda incident. Similarly, there was no such concern for the Pathankot incident. Hence, it is pertinent to ask why do politicians and the media take the trouble to hype up issues related to any Dalit or religious minority? Shall one presume that only Dalit students commit suicide, face institutional problems, or are tortured? Even if it is a real problem for Dalit students, has there been any thorough analysis of such cases by the political class? Is any government taking real steps to prevent such tragedies in future? Had there been a genuine concern for Dalit students, the politicians would have thought of proper solutions.

Rohith is not the first student to commit suicide in Hyderabad University. The varsity has seen at least eight Dalit student suicides in the last ten years. The Rohith Vemula incident is a cautionary tale about the way caste plays out in the sleek brick and glass buildings of our educational institutions. There are many such case studies in Hyderabad and other universities. It is high time that public authorities went in-depth to understand the real reasons behind the series of Dalit student deaths. Such cases have been recorded since 2004 as well when UPA was in power at the Centre. In 2007, a Dalit student Senthil Kumar, who belonged to Panniandi caste, committed suicide in his hostel room in same Hyderabad University. Initially, it was suppressed, but it was later found that Senthil took his own life because he was not receiving adequate academic support from the university.

Another incident had occurred in 2007, where a middle-class Dalit student Ajay Shree Chandra committed suicide. He was admitted under reserved category despite having the merit to be admitted under General category in IISc, Bangalore. Similarly, Rejani S Anand, a Dalit student of the Institute of Human Resource Development Engineering (IHRDE) College at Adoor in South Kerala committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor in 2004. The reasons behind her suicide included discrepancies in hostel facilities, poor academic support from the university and her inability to procure loans from banks despite meeting the eligibility criteria, among other reasons. 

From the above-mentioned cases, it is observed that suicide seems to be the only legitimate form of protest for Dalit students to highlight their discrimination. The “Dalitness” of these students, in the modern spaces, is yet to acquire a language that articulates the pain suffered from recurring acts of injustice.

According to recent reports, 90 percent of the students that IIT Roorkee gave a second chance to after expelling them for poor performance in 2015, belong to reserved categories (SCs, STs and OBCs). Students commit suicide for various reasons. These can range from an inability to bear the financial burden to poor academic performance, especially in the sciences etc. It is also observed that such marginalised students are sometimes remain left out of mainstream activities of the institutions due to various reasons. Sometimes such students get involved into student politics and get trapped within it. Rohith was involved in campus politics. He was criticised for his comments on Yakub Memon’s hanging and got into a tussle with other students’ wing in the campus. 

These cases are examples of how caste functions in a “modern” space like Hyderbad University. Dalit students are almost compelled to carry the mark of their community. However, one must understand that they are also modern individuals in elite higher educational spaces. Parents of these students, who reside in faraway places, do not have the requisite financial capacity to support their children emotionally. 

To some extent, the parents were not aware of the intensity of humiliation that their child was subjected to in modern spaces. The issues come to the forefront only when politicians start playing blame games and media capture them as a sensational matter. But the reality is that such cases do not come from direct cause of caste discrimination, rather something else. Therefore, instead of addressing the real issues, without eradicating the root cause, it is not justified to play only politics on such mishaps with Dalits and minorities?  Not the caste, but the lack of ability of the Universities to accommodate all and the lack of autonomy may be blamed for such issues.   

(The writer is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are strictly personal.)
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