The shocking suicide of Dalit research scholar and activist Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad on January 17, 2016, highlighted the dark reality of caste-based structural inequality and oppression making their presence felt in the institutions for higher education which are considered to be liberating spaces.
Nationwide student protests following the death of Rohith brought to the fore a discourse on caste-based discrimination in university campuses across India. Such discrimination is a lived reality Dalit students face as a founding hindrance in accessing higher education.
The ‘Justice for Rohith’ movement led by the Joint Action Committee (JAC) consisting of 17 organisations, representing progressive, liberal, left and Ambedkarite ideologies, highlighted the systemic exclusion and marginalisation which Dalit students face in their everyday life from upper caste professors, peer groups and administration in the colleges.
The movement also highlighted the discriminatory anti-Dalit politics of Hindutva forces and their attempt to saffronise higher education institutions after their ascendancy to power at the centre. This has been vehemently resisted by the Ambedkarite and left organisations.
The call for enacting the ‘Rohith Act’ to facilitate the setting up of an institutional mechanism to end caste-based discrimination was one of the major demands of the movement, apart from ensuring justice to Rohith by punishing the culprits responsible for his ‘institutional murder’. The demand of the ‘Rohith Act’ gives new hope for democratic and discrimination-free academic spaces.
After two years, when I look back at Rohith’s university and try to locate changes, I find continuously shrinking democratic spaces, false cases and selective denial of entries to eminent scholars from left-liberal-Ambedarite backgrounds as the new norms in the university.
The Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, who had faced the ire of the students for punishing Dalit scholars during the events leading up to Rohith’s suicide, continues to follow his policy of suspending Dalit students who question his discriminatory attitude towards them while favouring those from the Sangh Parivar’s Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).
Last semester, 10 students were punished with academic and hostel suspension on the charges of finding a girl in the men’s hostel. Among these students, some are from Dalit and tribal backgrounds.
Priests are allowed to worship Ganesh and celebrate Vasant Panchami but Buddhist monks were denied entry on the day of Buddha Jayanti. It clarified the nature of the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) administration. Despite lots of protests, deliberation and complaints, the university administration still remains a men-dominated and upper caste body that gives women, Dalits and tribals just legislatively necessitated compulsory representation.
The Rohith Vemula movement did lead to the activation of an ‘anti-discrimination cell’ in the University. But still, the university administration remains in the hands of those selectively appointed by the Vice Chancellor, to follow his dictates without any genuine concern of upliftment of Dalits.
Recently, the Gender Sensitisation-Committee against Sexual Harassment (GSCASH) was replaced by the Internal Complaint Committee (ICC), which reduced the earlier vibrant gender sensitising body as a mere complaint redressal committee. This shows the HCU administration’s myopic understanding of caste and gender discrimination. All the institutional bodies meant to look into unequal treatment on the campus are either non-functional or act as mere complaint registration offices. Many among the administration who hold powerful positions are Brahminical – they do not understand the multi-faceted nature of the persistence of discrimination. The use of casteist remarks and wardens making fun of students’ humble backgrounds has emerged as a new trend.
Recently, a Dalit professor from the School of Economics, who happens to be progressive and who was also the president of UoHTA, was publicly abused on Facebook by a student (who also happens to be a national co-convenor for the ABVP) for asking a question on the ‘saffornisation of education’ in his end semester examination paper – ‘Economics of Education’. Professor K Laxminarayana has registered a written complaint but no action has been initiated in the last one month by the Appa Rao-led HCU administration.
All the above incidents indicate that even though Appa Rao’s administration was strongly challenged by the Rohith Vemula movement, with the passing of time and the gradual decline of the movement, the administration succeeded in establishing a regime of terror, actively assisted by the BJP-led government at the centre.
In July 2016, the UoH administration came up with a new farman, banning public gathering or meeting in open spaces inside the campus. Such an undemocratic move by the administration was strongly challenged by Students’ Union and the progressive groups inside the campus. SC/ST Teachers’ Association, with the collaboration of concerned teachers, initiated a weekly open discussion programme – ‘When Academia Meets the Streets’. All these efforts paid off and the democratic and critical public spaces of the campus were saved.
In April 2017, the HCU administration came up with new plan of changing the students union’s Constitution, with the agenda of making the VC the custodian of the union and keeping new undergraduate students out of university elections.
Students protested and challenged the administration’s intervention in the students union’s Constitution. In retaliation, the administration put arbitrary charges against students union president Kuldeep Singh Nagi. He was served more than five show cause notices on absurd charges like sloganeering, writing slogans on the walls, etc.
The attempt of punishing the president on these frivolous charges was also challenged and stopped by the united forces of the student community. These are a few examples to illustrate the HCU administration’s strong commitment towards a right-wing agenda, and also the ability of students to resist unitedly.
The suspension of Rohith and his friends in August 2015, and the stands the administration took at the time, act as wake up calls for all progressive student groups. Keeping aside ideological and political differences, 17 organisations came together to form the Joint Action Committee (JAC). After the death of Rohith, the JAC emerged as an organization that had representation from left, liberal and Ambekarite organisations. The JAC also held open meetings to listen and incorporate independent voices on the campus. This was the first movement I had seen at HCU which was not led by any particular organisation. Even though it had its own limitations, it presented a new model for politics – one that suggests that progressive groups with their differences can work together with a democratically decided ‘common minimum agenda’.
That understanding was visible in last three union elections, where many progressives decided to contest together, keeping aside past incidents and differences. They decided to unite and intensify their fight against the ABVP.
Those complicit in the death of Rohith are still walking freely. A concrete ‘Rohith Act’ is yet to materialise and a discrimination-free campus is still a daydream. But when I look back on the dynamic nature of HCU’s campus politics, I find that the Rohith Vemula movement clearly gives a new model to fight the right-wing onslaught through the strategic alliance of the left and Ambedkarite forces.