Suicide highlights campus discrimination against Dalits

A political furore and student protests have broken out over the suicide of a 28-year-old research student and campaigner for the rights of Dalit communities at the Hyderabad Central University, who was found hanging in a university hostel room on the campus last Sunday, according to the police.

Protests in Hyderabad spread to other cities calling on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government to sack Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya for allegedly driving the student to his death, the newspaper reported. Dattatreya has strongly denied the allegation, the Hindustan Times reported.

The row has revived claims of discrimination against students from Dalit communities – formerly known as untouchables, who fell outside the caste system – in education institutions across the country. According to one report, at Hyderabad University eight students from so-called 'backward' communities have taken their own lives in the past 10 years after being forced to suffer institutional and social discrimination.

Rohith Vemula, who was in his second year at the science, technology and society studies department, along with four others were suspended from the hostel in September.

This followed allegations that they attacked a leader of the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, during an argument after the screening of a controversial documentary about Muzaffarnagar riots two years ago – in which 60 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were displaced during clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

Following an investigation by the university administration, the five students – all members of the Ambedkar Students Association – were expelled from the hostel, and barred from campus facilities, except their classrooms and respective workshops. But this action sparked large protests by students demanding social justice.

The protestors claim the suspension came after Dattatreya wrote a letter to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani describing the university as a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.

The PhD student was active in the Ambedkar Students Association, or ASA, and campaigned against discrimination against Dalits. He had recently been sleeping rough with the other expelled students, demanding reinstatement.

According to The Times of India, other students formed a Joint Action Committee for Social Justice and went on an indefinite strike last Sunday against the administration’s decision. But Vemula apparently returned to the hostel, locked himself in a room and hung himself. According to The Hindu, instead of a rope, he used an ASA banner.

India News reported that a few weeks before his death Vemula wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor sardonically praising him for taking on the movements campaigning for self-respect for Dalits on campus and suggesting, in an echo of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, that he should serve 10m Sodium Azide to all Dalit students at the time of admission for use when reading material from the Ambedkar Students Association, and “supply a nice rope” to the rooms of all Dalit students to enable them an easy exit.

“Hence I request your preparations for the facility of ‘euthanisia’ for students like me,” he wrote. “And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever.”

Following the discovery of Vemula’s suicide, Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile told The Times of India: “I am shocked over the extreme step taken by the scholar. I had no clue that he would take such a step.”

The suspension of Vemula – who came from a poor family in Andhra Pradesh and was able to study due to a scholarship under the Junior Research Fellowship Programme – and that of the other students was revoked in the wake of protests over his death.

The Human Resource Development Ministry has set up a two-member fact finding team to investigate the incident.

Student protestors claimed the university administration’s “ignorance towards students’ issues” forced Vemula to take his life and intensified their protests.

Angry reaction

According to the Hindustan Times, students clashed with security staff on Monday amid an angry reaction to the issue on social media. The students demanded that a case be brought under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Union Labour Minister and BJP leader Bandaru Dattatreya. They said that Dattatreya’s letter to Irani called for action against the PhD student and others for their “anti-national acts”.

Protestors claim the letter was an act of discrimination against Dalit students, The Economic Times reported.

On Tuesday, as protests escalated in Hyderabad and other cities – including Delhi, Mumbai and Pune – Indian National Congress Party Vice-president Rahul Gandhi, visited students at the Hyderabad University. His party has claimed that BJP has an “anti-Dalit agenda and mindset” and demanded the removal of Dattatreya and Irani.

Gandhi said: “Conditions for Rohith’s suicide were created by the vice-chancellor, the minister and the institute. Whoever is responsible for this outcome has to be punished in the strictest manner possible.”

However, the BJP accused him of “politicising” the issue and stoking up a tense situation.

Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot said it was wrong to play any kind of politics over such a sensitive case.

“We are working right now in order to gather as much information as we can regarding the case and we will do everything we can to ensure that justice is delivered. When incidents like these happen where a Dalit has been victimised, our department immediately gets into action,” he told ANI.

Police have since charged Dattatreya and Podile with abetting the suicide of the Dalit scholar, according to reports in the Hindustan Times and The Times of India.

An investigation by The Hindu found that Vemula hanged himself on the 14th day of a sleep-in strike against the authorities. He was frustrated at being unable to pursue either his research or his political activism because of three ongoing investigations against him, one by the police, and two by the university authorities, the newspaper said.

The investigations were launched after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad student leader of the University of Hyderabad campus, Susheel Kumar, lodged a complaint.

The incident was noted only as a “scuffle” by university security staff and a doctor who examined Kumar found no evidence of an assault, only a bruise on his shoulder. But the police booked the students under four serious sections.

The Proctorial Board found no instance of assault or harm done to Kumar by a 30-member mob of ASA students who had approached his room on the night of 3 August. But all five students were suspended for one semester.

Following the continuing protests this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to Lucknow on Friday, expressed anguish and pain over Vemula’s suicide.

“Reasons may be there. Politics may have been there. But the fact is that a mother has lost a son. That pain I can feel,” he said.

On the same day, Irani reportedly spoke to Vemula’s mother by phone and offered assurances that a judicial inquiry would ensure justice for her son.

However, Congress accused Modi of shedding “crocodile tears”, and saying nothing about what action would be taken by those deemed responsible.

But there was more to Vemula’s anguish than the perceived injustice regarding the assault allegation.

The university had reportedly stopped paying him his fellowship monthly stipend in July – and friends believe this was a deliberate act, related to him raising issues under the ASA banner, according to investigations by The Indian Express.

Whether or not a claim by a university official that this was merely a bureaucratic delay while the university adjusted to his decision to change course half way through his PhD is true, the impact was that his family was struggling to support him and he had to borrow off a friend to survive.

The BBC reported that P Vijay, a close friend of Vemula’s, described him as a hard-working and brilliant student who spent most of his time in the university library, studying for his PhD in sociology. His hobby was rock climbing, but he was also an avid reader of revolutionary literature and wanted to become a writer.

"I cannot believe what has happened. He was a source of inspiration for others. But he was also very sensitive and was depressed over what was happening around him," Vijay said.

Suicide note

Vemula eloquently described his feelings in his suicide note.

Writing in a literary style, he rages at a world in which “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”

He refers darkly, in a refrain, to childhood troubles: “My birth is a fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

And he laments his broken dreams. “I always looked at the stars and wanted to be a writer, a writer of science like Carl Sagan. But in the end, this is the only letter I am going to write.”

Despite his anguish, he insists that “no one instigated me, whether by their acts or my words” to take the final act. “This is my decision,” he says. “Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I have gone.”

In death, as in life, it appears, he is destined to be frustrated.