The suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula in University of Hyderabad (UoH) is nothing short of institutional murder. It is undeniable that the scientist, scholar and activist Rohith Vemula had been pushed to despair because of the manner in which the Central University had victimized Dalit student activists under pressure from the ABVP and Ministers of the Central Government.
The Ambedkar Students Association of the UoH had held a protest against ABVP’s disruption of a screening in Delhi University of a documentary film on Muzaffarnagar communal violence. Subsequently, Rohith Vemula and four other members of the ASA had been falsely charged with having attacked an ABVP leader. A Proctorial enquiry found neither medical evidence nor testimonies of security staff to back up the ABVP leader’s claim. Yet, the students were suspended following pressure from a BJP MLC Ramachandra Rao. However, the then Vice Chancellor revoked the suspension and promised a fresh enquiry.
However, the suspension continued and the fresh enquiry was never held – in large part because of the meddling by BJP’s Secunderabad MP and Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatraya.
It is on record that Dattatraya wrote to the HRD Minister accusing the ASA of ‘casteist, extremist and anti-national’ activities. This letter cited an ASA protest against the death penalty for Yakub Memon and falsely claimed that an ABVP leader had been attacked when he protested against this event. In response to this letter, the MHRD sent no less than four letters in a span of three months to the University, demanding that action be taken to curb ‘anti-national’ activities on the campus. It was in obedience to this witch-hunt that the University reversed a former Vice Chancellor’s decision to revoke the suspension of the five students including Rohith.
One of the key culprits responsible for Rohith’s death is the systematic misuse of power by the BJP Government at the Centre to harass activists and scholars. The sequence of events in UoH followed the same pattern that has already been seen in the IIT Madras – when the IIT Madras derecognized the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle in response to a letter from the HRD Ministry, which cited anonymous letters accusing the APSC of inciting hatred against the Modi Government. The same MHRD that sends insistent letters seeking action on organizations with dissenting ideologies, remains silent when the ABVP repeatedly indulges in violence and vandalism on campuses. When Central Ministers and the HRD Ministry act as an arm of the ABVP or the RSS and sends letters to Universities branding student activism as ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-Government’, it is nothing short of a witch-hunt.
There are several other recent instances of similar witch-hunts on campuses. One is BHU’s termination of a teaching contract with Dr Sandeep Pandey following a complaint that his teaching was ‘against national interest’. Another is the ABVP protest and pressure from Minister of the BJP Government in Rajasthan that forced police in Udaipur to file an FIR against a professor who delivered a lecture at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur.
Another culprit for Rohith’s death is the administration of the University of Hyderabad. The University, instead of going by its own investigation that had found the accusations against the ASA members to be false, chose to succumb to political pressure from the Central Government and ruling party. Rohith had, weeks before his suicide, written a letter to the Vice Chancellor saying that if the VC could not protect the rights of the Dalit students facing political victimization, it should just provide suicide ropes in every Dalit student’s room. Instead of acting with urgency on this bitter and desperate cry for help from Rohith Vemula, the Vice Chancellor chose to ignore it.
The third and final culprit is the institutional failure of our education and political systems to address the deep-seated hostility and injustice faced by students from Dalit and other deprived backgrounds. In 2013 a fact-finding report had documented 24 student suicides in various colleges in Hyderabad till 2013. The Andhra Pradesh High Court, acting on a PIL into which several college and University teachers of AP had impleaded themselves, had recommended several short- and long-term measures to counter the systemic hostility and caste discrimination faced by such students. But colleges and Universities in Andhra Pradesh largely ignored these recommendations.
Nor is the problem limited to Andhra Pradesh. In the last four years, it is estimated that 18 Dalit students committed suicide in the country’s higher education institutions. In 2007, the Thorat Committee had found evidence of open, blatant caste discrimination and violence against Dalit and adivasi students in AIIMS. Students who battle caste discrimination and arrive at the halls of higher education are humiliated, demoralized, declared academically ‘unfit’ - and the epidemic of suicides continues while the various corrective recommendations gather dust.
The saffronization drive of the BJP Government cannot be trivialized as merely a case of political appointments. It is an attack on reason, on academic and political freedom, on struggles for caste and gender equality on campuses, and on dissenting voices among students and teachers. This drive turns deadly when it compounds the systemic discrimination against Dalits in higher education.
Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Pansare were killed by the Sangh Parivar’s bullets, and Rohith Vemula was a victim of a saffron witch-hunt by the Sangh Parivar and the Modi Government. His death has exposed, once again, the deep-seated hatred of RSS, ABVP and BJP hold for Dr. Ambedkar and his struggle against the caste system.
All those responsible for Rohith’s death must be punished – and the Central Ministers Dattatraya and Irani who led the witch-hunt must not be spared, but must immediately be sacked.