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.
Says Vijay, “Earlier, many students at UoH remained neutral to caste politics. After Rohith’s suicide, however, there is an increased awareness. It is sad that this required the death of a promising scholar.”
Student leader Dontha Prashanth says vice-chancellor Appa Rao’s “boycotting Dalit scholars, not responding to Rohith’s death and refusing to consult his friends/relatives has resulted in a deep distrust among Dalit students of the varsity management.” The PhD student explains that many students are now taking a serious interest in Ambdekarite philosophy.
Prof Kodanda Ram of Osmania University, who was also a leader of the Telangana movement, recollects his own days in UoH in 1980, when he was a PhD student. “Then too, we felt that Dalit students were being discriminated against, particularly in the sciences. The pressure on students from rural, marginalised communities was immense,” recalls the academician.
The Vemula suicide and the JNU affair have prompted discussions and debates on caste, reservations and discrimination on campuses across the country.
But if earlier, students with right, left and centrist ideologies debated and later shared their chai and samosas, today, one can feel the tension between them. ABVP leader Susheel Kumar, who was allegedly part of a scuffle with Vemula, says he is greeted with banners calling him a murderer.
While Prashant states that UoH feels like a jail today because of several curbs on people entering the campus, Appa Rao says such curbs were essential because many “ill-informed people” were putting out quotes that were misguiding the media.
Dalit Stree Shakti founder Jhansi Geddam feels that the movement in UoH might not sustain itself unless there is a proper intellectual guidance. “Sure, students are now talking about Ambedkar. But frankly, I don’t see any deshdrohis or deshbhakts in this churning. We cannot lay strong foundations on the basis of caste. So what we need are not caste-based organisations but a casteless society,” says Jhansi, explaining what Ambedkar actually envisioned.
“An attempt to abolish scholarships to Dalits is being implemented stealthily by the Union government and as part of it scholarships to Dalit scholars is withheld for more than six months. Dalit students enter campuses with great personal efforts and this is not liked by the dominant caste sections,” says Jhansi Geddam.
Political analyst and writer Telkapalli Ravi says the 125th birth anniversary of Ambedkar has become even more relevant today “because of the reactionary onslaught of rightist forces.” “If you notice,” he says, “nobody really condemns or contradicts Ambedkar. But the contradictions inherent in Indian society, which found play in UoH and JNU in recent times, are brought out by Ambedkar,” he adds.
By Madhavi Tata in Hyderabad