By Anwarul Hoda:
“I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.” This is how Rohith Vemula starts his ‘last’ letter.
A student of science at the University of Hyderabad and aspiring to become a writer, the Ph.D. scholar committed suicide at the age of 26. He left behind a suicide note claiming that only he was responsible for his act and no one else. The day was January 17 when Rohith Chakravarty Vemula left his body behind to sail to the world of stars and to know about the other worlds.
Rohith Vemula was among the five Dalit scholars who were suspended by the University. All of them were active members of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). They were allowed to continue their studies in the University but were restricted from participating in all social gatherings inside the college campus and also, were not permitted to enter the hostel and other university buildings, including the common room and library in a group. It was a complete social boycott of students belonging to a community which has long been a victim of casteism in India. The charge on them was of assaulting Susheel Kumar, the student leader of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student group affiliated to the Rashtriya Sweysewak Sangh, the parent organization of the ruling party, Bharatiya Janta Party.
On the basis of reports in the media, especially the one published by daily newspaper Indian Express, on January 20, the entire sequence of events leading to Vemula’s suicide can be summed up thus. According to Sreenivas Janyala’s detailed report, on August 3, there was a clash between ASA and ABVP. The scuffle between ASA and ABVP broke out after a protest organized by ASA at the University. Members of ASA held a protest opposing the hanging of Mumbai serial blast accused Yakub Menon and against ABVP’s attack on the screening of documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai which was shown at Delhi University. Responding to the protest, Susheel Kumar posted a Facebook update referring to members of ASA as ‘goons’. Later, in front of security guards, he reportedly apologised for the comment.
Trouble started for the five students who were expelled later when, on the 4th of August, Susheel Kumar admitted himself in a hospital and alleged that he was beaten up by mob of 40 students of ASA.
According to a report in ET, the inquiry committee set up by the University following the ‘clash’ let off both groups with a warning at first. They also could not find evidence of ‘physical assault’ as alleged.
However, Bandaru Dattatreya, BJP MP, on August 17, turned a college issue into a political issue. He wrote a letter to Human Resource Development Minister, claiming Hyderabad University was a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.” In his letter, he urged action, as according to him, the university administration was silent. Subsequently, five students of ASA were suspended on August 31. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Human Resource Development wrote five letters to Hyderabad Central University authorities asking them to act on the matter.
On January 3, students were asked to vacate their rooms. The suspended students went on a hunger strike and were supported by several organizations and students.
On January 17, Rohith was found dead along with a letter in one his friends’ hostel room. After the death of Rohith, protests took place all over the nation in solidarity and also against the existing system which forced Vemula to kill himself.
Under pressure, the suspension of ASA students was revoked by the University administration. An FIR against Susheel Kumar, along with Dattatreya, BJP legislator N Ramchander Rao, who had also taken up the matter earlier, and Vice-Chancellor P. Apparao was filed for leveling false allegations and abetment to suicide.
It’s very unfortunate that in the age of competition and economic development, casteism continues to have strong roots. But the death of Vemula should not be seen as an issue arising only from the problem of casteism. The death of Vemula also highlights the institutional problems and the political interference in student campuses. In fact, it is much more than just a Dalit vs. non-Dalit issue as stated by poet K. Satchidanandan at the just concluded Jaipur Literature Festival.
Left or right, either extremist or secular or liberal, everyone has something to say on Vemula’s death. But in all this politics, the questions that remain unanswered are about space for contrary ideology, campus democracy and the dictatorship of university authorities. Let’s leave aside the caste identity of Rohit for a while. Why is it that if any thought-process is contrary to the ideology of the ruling party and its allies, it is termed as ‘anti-national’? What was the big crime Vemula and his friends committed that they all had to face expulsion whereas Susheel Kumar was left with only a warning? Does it not show discrimination on the part of the V-C’s office against the ideology Vemula followed?
It’s high time that we started treating students as the most valuable part of the nation’s wealth. The State should provide space for their ideological development. Right from the beginning of its tenure the BJP has been trying to push forward its political Hindutva ideology through different educational and cultural institutions. Appointment of RSS sympathizers at prestigious institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and at various other reputed chairs must be seen in the same light. In the war of ideology, students are being targeted.
Politicians are rushing to Hyderabad from all over the India. Meanwhile, the Ministry of HRD has ordered a judicial probe. Last but not least, the Prime Minister also expressed his grief; in fact, he cried five days after the tragedy. Students from all over the nation are asking for justice for Vemula, along with politicians like Rahul Gandhi and Kejriwal demanding the resignation of Smriti Irani and that of Bandaru Dattatreya and P. Apparao.
Politicisation of issues and delivery of justice in India is another debate. The case of Rohith is not the only one; in fact, it’s the ninth suicide committed by Dalit students in Hyderabad University. From top to bottom, many administrative problems have been highlighted after the tragedy. University administration should be made more responsible and accountable against any injustice in campuses. There is also a need to curb political interference in student campuses. Otherwise, there is no guarantee another suicide due to discrimination won’t occur.