On the 17th of January 2016, Rohith Vemula, PhD scholar in Humanities at Hyderabad Central University, committed suicide in one of the hostel room. In his suicide note, he wondered at a society where a person’s value is reducible to his ‘immediate identity and nearest possibility’, while holding no one responsible for his death. Taken with his letter addressed to the Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad University and written a few weeks earlier, it is clear he felt forced to take his life because he was a Dalit. He had faced caste discrimination all his life and the caste discrimination he faced in the University too became unbearable for him.
Rohith Vemula was an M.Sc. and aspired to be a science writer. He was born to a Dalit mother who had been adopted by a backward caste woman and married by her into a backward caste family. After two children, the husband discovered the women’s Dalit origin and threw her and her children out of the house. Rohith grew up on his mother’s earning as a tailor; saw her dishonoured and ill treated in her adopted mother’s home – probably because she was an abandoned woman with children, as her Dalit origin was already known in that family.
Rohith was selected to Hyderabad Central University through the general list; he did not avail the quota seat. In the University he joined the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). In July 2015, the ASA held a prayer meeting on the hanging of Yaqub Memon and also a rally against capital punishment. When the screening of a film on the Muzzafarnagar riots (Muzaffarnagar abhi baki hai) was prevented in Delhi University, the ASA protested and organized a screening of the film. The ABVP unit of the university objected to this and its President, Susheel Kumar, tweeted against the screening, calling the ASA ‘anti-national’ and other derogatory terms. Few ASA activists went to Susheel Kumar’s room and made him post an apology for this. This incident took place on 3rd August 2015.
Central Ministers force, VC Complies
The same evening, Susheel Kumar was admitted to a private hospital for acute appendicitis and he lodged a complaint that he was beaten up by five ASA members including Rohith Vemula. A Proctorial committee investigated the complaint and on 12th August 2015 gave its report stating that Kumar had not been beaten up and also upbraiding both sections of students. Susheel Kumar approached BJP MP from Hyderabad, Duttatreya, who is the Central Labour Minister and a seasoned RSS leader. The Labour Minister – who rarely attends to issues concerning workers raised by letters of trade unions, whose ministry is charged with enacting pre-corporate changes to existing labour laws, who is deaf to the demands of the working class movements – immediately responded by writing to the Human Resources Development Ministry on 17th August demanding action against ‘anti-nationals’. The HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, not only wrote to the Vice Chancellor demanding action, but followed this up with four reminders in two weeks.
The Vice Chancellor complied and a ‘continuing’ Proctorial enquiry was begun under this pressure which gave its report on 31st August 2015 suspending the five ASA members for the semester, with no action against the ABVP leader. This was protested and the chain of events led to the five students being prohibited from 11th Dec. 2015 from all public spaces within the University including the hostels, library and the canteens. In protest, the five students began living in the open outside the gate of the University from 21st December. A meeting was sought with the VC who refused to meet them probably because he could not explain his subservience. Rohith Vemula wrote a letter to the Vice Chancellor on 18th December pointing out the role of the VC in going all out against Dalit students when the ABVP student was being of questioned about his demeaning comments against Dalits. In the same letter he suggested that he should distribute some poison or ropes to all dalits in the University and also tells him to suggest ‘euthenasia’ to them.
On 17th January 2016, the ASA held a meeting at the dharna site to decide to intensify the protest by starting a relay hunger strike from the next day. Rohith did not go the dharna throughout the day and in the evening was found hanging in his friend’s hostel room.
Caste Discriminations in Institutions of Higher Learning
The entire incident raises many disturbing questions. The foremost is the hatred faced by those Dalit students who manage to secure entrance into institutions of higher learning. The upper castes are less than a fourth of the population but many of them hold that their centuries old stranglehold over higher learning is actually their birth right. In that perspective, they see reservation as a gross injustice against their ‘merit’ and their stranglehold over jobs and higher education is seen only as completely ‘natural’ and not related to hold over resources an institutions of power. As a result, in institutions of higher learning including scientific institutions and especially in professional institutes of medicine and engineering, blatant anti Dalit discrimination prevails. Teachers openly ask students their caste, caste segregation operates in allotment of hostel rooms, research guides of Dalit students do not co-operate with them, there are Govt. institutions where Dalit students are made to sit on the floor while interacting with their guides, are failed simply because they are Dalits. This is especially the case in professional institutions. Govts. come and go, including those with a ‘Dalit’ agenda, but this discrimination continues unabated unless challenged by a progressive student movement. Without the latter the rule of modern day Dhronacharyas over institutions of higher learning continues unchecked.
Sycophant, Casteist Heads of Institutions
The issue repeatedly arises that Govts. attack Education and institutions of higher learning through their Vice Chancellors and Directors and not in spite of them. The reason is that their basis of selection is bowing before the powers that be, their caste and religion. This has been true of all Govts. After the advent of the Modi Govt., manoeuvreings to establish hegemony of the Hindutva vision over higher education and to saffronize education have snowballed. Upper caste chauvinism is an invariable associate of Hindutva. The RSS Supremo wants a relook at reservations; the comments of an Union Minister and the Haryana CM when two Dalit toddlers were burnt alive is known; on the day Modi tried to pacify students incensed over the suicide of Rohith Vemula by terming him a son of India, one of the MPs of his party stated that anyone sympathizing with Rohith is a fool. No matter how hard Hindutva leaders try to prove their pro Dalit credentials to show a ‘Hindu’ unity against Muslims, their understanding gets exposed at the slightest test.
Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani has earned the title of Manusmriti Irani from the students agitating on the issue of Rohith Vemula and this is the best proof of how effectively she has served the Hindutva forces. She has been extremely useful to the efforts of the RSS to impose an upper caste, Hindu communal vision on educational institutions. Even before this she had demanded action against the Ambedkar Periyar Circle in IIT Chennai for debating the anti people economic policies of India. In the same manner she is equally useful in forwarding the pro-corporate agenda of the RSS BJP Govt. of Modi for commercialization of Education. This step of hers also goes against the interests of poor and Dalit students, student movements and democratic student organizations.
Of course in all these steps, the Govt. is blindly abetted by the Directors and Vice Chancellors, a large number of whom share the same world view and the rest could do anything to retain their powers, irrespective of what is the effect on higher education. It is worthwhile to recall that over a hundred Heads of Institutions were reported to have gone to the RSS office in Delhi in 2014 to meet the RSS Supremo. In the case of Hyderabad Central University, the entire enquiry report was overturned though the University had already completed its own internal mechanism. However the VC did not even stand up for the rules of the University.
Another mechanism is used to harass the Dalit students in institutions of higher learning and this has also been brought to light by Vemula’s suicide. The suicide note mentions that the University had not yet paid him one lakh seventy five thousand dues of his Fellowship money and he wanted the same to be handed to his mother after repaying Rs 40,000 loan which he had taken from a friend. In this way Dalit students are harassed by making it impossible to meet educational expenses even when they have been selected for grants or fellowships. At this very time a student agitation is on against the decision of the HRD Ministry to stop non NET scholarships. Students are also demanding that the rider of ‘merit’ which is going to be used for future allocations should be scrapped as the selection of a student for higher education is itself the qualification for the same. The proposal is only aimed against students from minorities and the Dalit students.
Those Dalit students who are first generation learners face tremendous social and economic hurdles in order to enter institutions of higher learning. They have to seek entrance to Govt. run institutions; that they manage to pursue their studies despite the contempt and ostracism they face here is only proof of their abilities.
In order to defend herself in the Rohith Vemula case, the HRD Minister offered two arguments which were immediately seized by BJP and other Hindutva organizations and widely propagated. The first not only negated Rohith’s life long struggle but also that of his mother- it was asserted that Vemula was not a Dalit at all because his father was from a backward caste. The second argument indirectly indicates a fact- the Ministry maintained that this was not a Dalit issue because these students are not like Dalits ‘of Maharashtra’, rather they are ‘anti nationals’, they are ‘Leftist Dalits’.
Albiet in a totally negative manner, the second argument brings out a truth. Rohith and the ASA were raising democratic issues- they were opposing capital punishment to Yakub Memon, they were protesting against the anti minority violence of Hindutva forces in Muzzafarnagar. In the same vein, the students of the Ambedkar Periyar circle in IIT Madras were discussing the anti people economic policies. They were not only talking about caste discrimination, they were talking about the policies of their country, about how minorities are dealt with by the Hindutva forces and the communal state apparatus. This really inflames the upper caste chauvinists that the Dalits should dare to be concerned about anything other than themselves. If the exploited sections of India understand that India is their responsibility and if they unitedly fight for each other and on common democratic concerns, what can save the ruling classes of India?
However, Rohith’s suicide definitely is a Dalit issue and that is brought out by his own perceptions about the discrimination he and other members of his organization were facing, This is amply clear both from his letter to the Vice Chancellor as well as the loneliness on the issue of identity which reaches out through the suicide note.
Rohith Vemula’s Suicide is Murder
A case has been filed against the Vice Chancellor and the Labour Minister but ‘Manu’smriti Irani has gone scot free. The VC was forced to proceed on leave; the person who officiated was also forced by the students to move out as he had presided over the Committee which punished the ASA members. As a result of the student agitation, a third VC had to be named within one month. In order to pacify students and distract from its anti Dalit character, the Central Govt. has been forced to announce a Committee to investigate discrimination against Dalits in central universities and central institutions of higher learning and also study other problems faced by them. BJP supporters are spewing venom on Facebook, other Internet sites and on Twitter. Rohith was a ‘political’ person, did his ‘parents send him to study’ or to ‘do politics’? They advocate that only politics students should do is ABVP politics! He was a ‘coward’ that is why he committed suicide. This is the understanding of the ruling classes, that students should be kept divorced from thinking about the country, the policies of Govts., so that they can rule unquestioned and unexposed. On this issue the typical example is of the education system in America where the student movement against the Vietnam war brought the Govt. to its knees. The education and examination patterns were changed thereafter to deprive students of the time to think.
Revolutionary Restructuring Necessary
The forces engaged in fighting caste discrimination and seeking an end to casteism must rethink the accumulated experiences of the past 69 years. Merely enforcing education is insufficient to free Indian society from the centuries long shadow of Dronacharyas and their caste discrimination and caste contempt. Participation of some Dalits in the power structure, some special facilities for them, reservations in jobs and in education, some sharing of resources are also not enough even though they are necessary steps towards democratization. The present structure of Indian society acts as a base for the existence of the caste system. To end caste discrimination and oppression, a revolutionary reorganization of society is necessary.