When 26-year-old Rohith Vemula left behind a heart-breaking suicide note on January 17, 2016, describing his birth as “a fatal accident”, a shocked nation stirred in anger. The accident, of course, was the Dalit tag, which dogged him all his life. But his death has started campus debates on caste and discrimination against SC/STs and other marginalised groups. This is not only happening at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), of which Vemula was a student, but at campuses across India—nothwithstanding efforts to play down how the suicide might have been precipitated by gross interference by a Union minister from the state and Smriti Irani’s HRD ministry in what was essentially a minor scuffle between students. Also being discussed is Vemula’s political journey, of how he started with the Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the CPI(M), but later moved to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), where he discovered an ideology that appealed to him, one that aimed at a casteless, classless society.
At UoH, the media, politicians, activists and intellectuals are barred for now. But it’s still roiling. Pedapudi Vijay, a PhD student and Vemula’s batchmate, who also faced suspension with him, speaks of three core demands: a) a Rohith Act to end caste discrimination on the campus; b) removal of the vice-chancellor, who had suspended Vemula and four other Dalit students; c) withdrawal of cases against protesting students and faculty.