The death of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar and activist, who took his own life, has brought into focus widespread discrimination against Dalits in institutions of higher learning and strengthened the marginalised section’s resolve to resist casteism.
Rohith and four students were suspended by the University of Hyderabad on the basis of a false complaint by Sushil Kumar, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Janata Parishad, student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, alleging assault by Ambedkarites.
Following prodding by Bandaru Dattatreya, Minister of State for Labour, the Human Development Ministry had exerted pressure on the university to act against them.
The agitating students have demanded the resignation of Dattatreya, HRD Minister Smriti Irani and Vice-Chancellor P Appa Rao whom they blame for Rohith’s death and vowed to continue the stir until they quit.
Initially, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored the nationwide protests on the issue. After students showed him black flags at a Lucknow university he expressed sorrow at the “loss of a dear son of India.”
Smriti Irani pointed out that Rohith had said in his suicide note that he was not acting at anyone’s instigation. The irony in the preface to that statement was lost on her. “I forgot to write the formalities,” Rohith wrote. “No one is responsible for my act.”
He also wrote: “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty.”
Police found no substance in Sushil Kumar’s complaint. According to hospital records, he was admitted for an appendicitis operation.
Prof Prakash Babu, Dean of Students Welfare, contradicted Irani’s statement that the students were suspended on the recommendation of a committee headed by him. He said he was included in the committee at the last minute and he had opposed the students’ suspension.
In the complaint to the police, the ABVP had named Prakash Babu, who is a Dalit, also as an assailant. He was included in the committee evidently to create the impression that the issue did not involve caste.
Dalit teachers of the university decided to relinquish administrative duties in protest against Irani’s false statement.
As protests snowballed the university revoked the order of suspension against the students. The HRD ministry announced a judicial inquiry. The Vice-Chancellor went on long leave.
The Central government’s strategy, it seems, is to tire out the students. It had used this strategy when students of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, launched an agitation against the appointment of a small-time actor as its head.
Education is an area in which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the power behind the BJP, is taking a keen interest since the party came to power. Last year authorities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, had banned the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle, a Dalit group functioning on the campus, following a complaint by the ABVP. Public protests forced it to withdraw the decision.
The sequence of events at the IIT and the UoH suggests that the ABVP and the HRD minister are collaborating in an RSS project to prevent Dalit student activity in institutions which, though technically autonomous, are under the Central government’s control.
Thanks to the 15 per cent reservation for Dalits in employment and enrolment, there is significant Dalit presence among the faculty and the students on the central campuses. Taking the cue from the RSS, the ABVP alleges that anti-national (read anti-Hindutva) elements are active on these campuses.
To the chagrin of the Hindutva brigade, radical student groups, motivated by the ideals of Dalit icon and chief architect of the Constitution BR Ambedkar, are challenging casteism.
Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Sitaran Yechury and Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Admi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal rushed to Hyderabad to express solidarity with the agitating Dalit students.
Political observers believe the Hyderabad events may hurt the BJP in the upcoming Assembly elections. But casteism on the campuses is an issue that predates Modi’s arrival on the scene.
Following a spate of suicides by Dalit and other backward class students of Central institutions the Manmohan Singh government had appointed a committee headed by University Grants Commission Chairman Sukhdeo Thorat in 2006. It recommended several measures to end social isolation and oppression of the marginalised sections.
The government failed to act upon the recommendations, and suicides have continued. Rohith’s was the tenth on the UoH campus. At least a dozen suicides have been reported from other Central campuses.
What makes the present situation ominous is the BJP-led government’s open support to caste supremacists on the campuses.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 26, 2016