Tragic suicide demands more than knee-jerk reactions

A lot has already been said about the unfortunate circumstances that may have forced Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad Central University since 2012, to commit suicide on 17 January, as reported in University World News. Since India’s policy-makers love to take decisions based on whatever has hit the news headlines, there have been a number of reactive plans announced already.

In all of this, what I see as an academician and as an academic administrator is another glaring case of not being able to see the wood for the trees. While a large number of India’s academic fraternity prefers not to have a voice on any real issues, seemingly omniscient policy-makers and government, as well as those from the media and the political classes, always come ready with advice and solutions for the problems and challenges that India faces today.

The problem is that a complex, hugely populated, lower-middle income nation like India cannot be managed through knee-jerk responses to day-to-day news headlines, and even more so when huge question marks over the quality of India’s news media remain. India needs good-quality planning from the short to the long term, without vested interests, and it needs those plans to be implemented correctly by those skilled in complex project management.

This is the shift that needs to happen so we can move on from the current set of affairs where those on the ground end up managing policies which have been devised in response to news headlines instead of news headlines following, analysing and reviewing the progress of policies, irrespective of the short-term blips caused by news headlines.

Root causes

And that is the sad conclusion in the case of Vemula. India watchers will know that Vemula’s suicide is not the first or last of its kind. Rather, it is one in a long line of such cases, whose number do not seem to be decreasing in the medium to long term. There is no sincere attempt in the reactions that have followed the news to address the root causes that prompted Vemula to take this extreme step because this would not be politically convenient.

When we look at this incident, these are the questions that come to mind:
  • • Is it a case of discrimination against ‘Dalits’, the so-called ‘lower castes’ of India?

  • • Is it a case of political intolerance? This is more worrying given the suicide happened on a university campus where free speech, discussions, debates and questioning, without bias, should be promoted?

  • • Is it a case of academic intolerance in universities that try to stifle questions which do not show the ruling government in a good light?

  • • Is it a case of the excessive nationalism that has pervaded India since the new government came to power in 2014?

  • • Is it a case of universities, more so publicly funded universities, displaying absolute apathy towards the student community, as is often seen with most state soft-infrastructure service providers, be they healthcare or the police? "A university official denied the allegation [of non-payment of Vemula’s scholarship], blaming the delay on 'paperwork'," reported The Indian Express, in a hard-hitting article "Behind Rohith Vemula’s suicide: How Hyderabad Central University showed him the door".

  • • Is it a case of 'justice delayed is justice denied' in India? If the judiciary was easily accessible and affordable to India’s masses, could such conflicts be better handled? In my opinion, if the right to justice, as in the fundamental right in the Indian constitution, could be established, such high-handedness by a state power (or, for that matter, by anybody) could be drastically reduced. One recently retired Supreme Court judge of India estimated that it would take 360 years to clear the 33 million pending cases in India’s courts, assuming no new cases come up.

  • • Is it also the case that the media reacts to stories too late rather than reporting them in a responsible manner, creating noise and asking irrelevant questions rather than following them up at an earlier stage? Why was this story not followed up by any media outlet from August 2015 to the middle of January 2016, until the suicide happened? India probably has more newspapers than the rest of the world (around 70,000 newspapers are published in India) and the highest number of TV news channels (80). The job of the news channels seems to be to regurgitate what other media have said or to spin the story by creating unsubstantiated debate (what veteran journalists call the worst form of being ‘a slave to the loudest and most garish stories’).

  • • And is it a case of the growing rot in India’s social, political, legal and academic environment?
Unfortunately, there is no point in making the list longer. The answers to all these questions are a firm yes, yes, yes… yes.

Surface story

What has largely been covered in the media and in University World News is the surface of the story. That analysis is right, but it presents a fraction of the problems this case touches on, as can be seen in the case history in Wikipedia. This is particularly important, given a federal minister has now claimed that Vemula was not a ‘Dalit’.

In a country like India, instances like these do not hit the media headlines day after day until and unless the political class tries to make political mileage out of them. It has become a cliché to say Indians do not cast their votes, they vote for their castes.

The political class loves these simplistic tags: at times it is Dalit discrimination, at times it is discrimination against women, at times the economically weaker sections like farmers, at times children (who are often ignored as they do not have voting rights)… there is no end to it.

This is why understanding the macro-picture is important, so we can see that all these cases are strongly interrelated. You cannot solve one without solving the other. As case after case like this happens, our media and government tirelessly come up with knee-jerk ad hoc solutions, with no joined up approach. Such an approach may take a long time to implement, but it would have a long-lasting impact. We need to stop overreacting and start acting.

It does not matter whether Vemula was a Dalit or not, as is now claimed by Sushma Swaraj, a senior federal minister. Vemula was a PhD student; he was a human being. He deserves as many human rights, as many student rights and as much freedom as India’s Constitution allows, according to the best global practice. Period.

Unfortunately, as Mark Tully, a veteran BBC journalist, says, there are "No Full Stops in India" (his book title on India, published in 2000). Decades have passed and the situation in India has grown worse since TV news media were less of a menace back in 2000 and the government less likely to govern by managing the news headlines.

There cannot be, should not be and need not be separate rules for Dalits, women, farmers or students as long as everyone is treated fairly. India has been a prisoner of its attitudes to castes and genders and religions and classes, ignoring the macro picture.

No sensible person would say that the government shouldn’t review the country’s affirmative action policy, the caste-based reservation policy, from a wider socio-economic perspective, to make sure that the benefits of the reservation policy reach those who deserve them most.

Listen to universities

The knee-jerk reactions have already started. As a vice-chancellor, I have been waiting for yet another notice from the University Grants Commission or UGC, India’s university regulator, in response to this unfortunate incident.

Rather than merely issuing notices from the ivory towers of policy platforms, if the UGC, the All-India Council for Technical Education, the political class, the media and the government could instead listen to universities and understand the grassroots problems that our faculty members and students face, if they partnered with academic institutes and helped us improve in a true spirit of partnership rather than engaging in blame games, we would have a much higher chance of preventing future cases like that of Rohith Vemula.

The background to Vemula’s case has a lot more to do with India’s rising intolerance and growing nationalism, and the high-handedness of many of its publicly funded universities. Political interference in academic life must stop, irrespective of which party comes to power.

Unfortunately, the vice-chancellors and university administrators believe they are accountable to their appointing authorities in New Delhi or to the state, whereas their actual accountability is to students, and beyond students, to society.

Until and unless that attitude changes in publicly funded universities or any university, cases like that of Rohith Vemula will be the norm and not an exception.

Professor Ranjit Goswami is the vice-chancellor of RK University, Rajkot, India. He has first-hand experience of understanding the challenges facing Indian higher education, arising due to overregulation. They come in all colours – mostly frustrating, some ridiculously funny, some bizarre. However, he remains an optimist, believing that young people everywhere have the power to overcome all hurdles and start new journeys.