- The Man: Though from the SC Mala community, Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula had obtained a seat in the general category
- The Mission: He joined the university in 2012 and received a Junior Research Fellowship from CSIR in April 2014
- The End: His Rs 25,000 stipend had been on hold since July 2015, he was expecting Rs 1.75 lakh in arrears
To get a measure of untouchability in our country, one needs only to look at the two-glass system. It is a practice whereby Dalits are not allowed to use the same glass as elite castes to drink water from. It was a version of this that Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula faced when he, along with four other PhD scholars and Ambedkar Students’ Association members, was suspended from one of the top varsities in India. Starting January 3, 2016, the foursome faced a social boycott, forbidden from entering the hostel, the mess, the administrative building and interacting freely with faculty.
Rohith could have been forgiven for the brief delusion that he might have harboured about having left caste prejudice behind at Savitribai Nagar in Guntur where his home was when he earned a PhD seat (Science, Technology and Society Studies) in the University of Hyderabad. Hadn’t Ekalavya? Dronacharya’s proxy protege had to lose a thumb, Rohith gave up his life. Science on your mind and poetry in your heart was never going to be enough. He wouldn’t be a Carl Sagan. A knowledge he was left with, before he left—“The value of a man...reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never...as a mind.” That the paper he said it on had to be his suicide note is our collective shame. On January 17, his deathday, Rohith was just 13 days shy of his 27th birthday. He took leave of the world, but not of his convictions. He hanged himself with it. He couldn’t have made a braver statement for the cause.
Dalit groups have widened their protests across universities in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Chennai. At Hyderabad University, students have begun a hunger strike, and 20 members of the faculty have resigned from their administrative positions. Writer Ashok Vajpeyi has returned the DLitt that he received from the varsity. The suspension of the four other students has been revoked but the students think it has come too late and they will not be satisfied till vice-chancellor Podile Appa Rao goes.
Dontha Prashanth, who was one the five suspended students (Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, Sheshaiah Chemudugunta and Vepula Sunkanna being the others), wonders if Rohith realised his suicide would be marked by nationwide protests. Prashanth has been swamped by visits from politicians and mediapersons in his wooden shelter. “I knew Rohith was feeling the pain of indifference to our plight,” he says. “We had been sleeping in the open for 14 days (camping in a tent outside and on a relay hunger protest), but not a single faculty member came to see us. He felt no one was taking us seriously.” In fact, Rohith would tell his friends as much: “We are sleeping like dogs out here and nobody cares”.
It was apparently a scuffle between ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar and the ASA activists in the first week of August that led to their eventual suspension. Rohith had never made light of his scorn for the Hindutva agenda and saffron banners, as his posts on social media sites show. Tensions had been simmering for a while, Susheel and others taking exception to ASA taking out a rally against Yakub Memon’s hanging and at another time protesting the ABVP’s stalling the screening of the Montage Film Society’s Muzaffarnagar Baaki Hai in Delhi, saying Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary was anti-Hindu.
ASA members say Susheel had threatened them and called them “goons” in a Facebook post. Sannaki Munna, a PhD scholar in Social Exclusion and Inclusion, says perhaps Susheel was pushed around a bit and his shirt collar tore. Another student, Bolle Kartheek (an MA in journalism), says Susheel “received two-three slaps at the most”.
The ABVP activist, however, in an interview to a Telugu channel, reiterates he was attacked by a mob of 20 ASA students that triggered his appendicitis. “I had to undergo surgery as a result of the thrashing. Doctors can certify the same.” He says he is sorry about Rohith’s death, but he complained because he had been “manhandled” and forced to tender a written apology.
Curiously, the same medical report of Archana Hospital which the Hyderabad University proctorial board and executive council used to dismiss Susheel’s complaint was later cited to dismiss Rohith and others. Susheel had admitted himself in Archana Hospital rather than go to the university health centre. Dr Anupama Rao of the hospital and then vice-chancellor R.P. Sharma had visited him there and found that he had been operated upon for acute appendicitis. Dr Anupama said no visible sign of injury had been found on him.
There had been earlier incidents too. “During the ‘Kiss of love’ event in 2014,” says Sannaki, “Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha and ABVP activists stormed the campus. Susheel’s mother N. Vinaya and his brother slapped some of the students who kissed in public.”
Tensions had clearly been simmering between the two groups for a while. “Instead of counselling the students, the university committee’s decision under Appa Rao to suspend five of them in one go seems too much of a coincidence,” says Human Rights Forum general secretary V.S. Krishna, who has been organising protests in the Andhra University, Vizag. He sees the discrimination of Dalits as systematic. “When Appa Rao was chief warden in 2002, he got 11 Dalit students rusticated over complaints against mess food.”
YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy quoted a Telugu saying—pichika meeda Brahmastram—(unleashing a nuclear warhead on a small bird, so to speak), to describe the expulsion of the students.
Local BJP leaders have been crying themselves hoarse saying the party is not anti-Dalit or Brahminical. But it was pressure from Union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani that led Appa Rao to suspend the students. The HRD minister insisted it wasn’t really a Dalit vs non-Dalit issue, just political parties fanning passion.
Yeranna Bogulla, a PhD student in biochemistry, scoffs at the statement. “It is totally a Dalit issue,” he says. “The minute we enter the campus, we are branded and silently segregated.”
And suspension is not the only form of discrimination, say Dalit scholars at the varsity. Sannaki says that whenever a “quota” student goes for administrative work, he or she is kept waiting or ignored. Rohith’s scholarship money of Rs 25,000 per month had been on hold since July 2015, administrative hiccups and lax paperwork being cited as the reason.
Sannaki also points to the discrimination inherent in the system of publishing lists of students with star marks—a single star for SC students, two stars for STs and a # mark for OBCs. “We hear remarks such as ‘Ah, here comes the star’ when we enter a classroom,” Sannaki says.
Dalit PhD scholar Maddari Venkatesh has more to add on the subject. He points out how guides are not allotted to SC/ST students on time. “This delays the doctoral work, which in turn leads to frustration,” he says. He recalls how while doing his MA, during the class on Dalit reservations, general category students would point at him and say, “Isn’t he sitting with us today, isn’t it what he wants?”
Retired professor G. Haragopal, who taught political science at the university, says that the problem is psychological at one level and structural at another. “The privileged caste faculty is not very cordial towards Dalit boys and girls who come from rural backgrounds,” he says. “At the same, the forward-caste boys and girls think they own the university. Dalit sections feel alienated. I have supervised five PhDs in political science of Dalit students and have seen them settle down in good jobs. From what I saw, these students have a rich life experience and an understanding of poverty, deprivation but theoretically and conceptually, they are weak. Another point is, in the entrance exam, there is no cut-off point for reservation candidates. So SC/ST/OBC students who get 25 per cent marks compete with students who get 55 per cent marks in the open category. In about 40 days, there is an internal assessment, where invariably the Dalit students fail. The tension adds up there and the overall climate becomes very intimidating. There are no special classes, structural corrections or additional forms of support. This is where the systems are not working properly.”
In March 2013, Integrated MA Linguistics scholar Pulyala Raju (a Dalit from Warangal), who had two semester backlogs, committed suicide at the university. In a Facebook post he wrote before hanging himself, Raju said, “Depression...depression, kills me everyday.” It was evident that, hailing from a deprived background, Raju was unable to cope with the pressures of academic life. On a PIL filed before it on the suicide, the Andhra Pradesh High Court issued an interim order in July 2013 on possible steps to stop student suicides. Among the measures suggested were: bridge courses for SC/ST/OBC students, a forum for students to voice their concerns which would be followed up by an academic committee. While the NALSAR institute has such a mechanism, the Hyderabad University appears to lag behind and a systemic malaise continues.
Tathagata Sengupta, an assistant professor of mathematics at the university, sees these not as suicides but “institutional murders”. “They are the fallout of discriminatory caste-based interactions in classrooms and hostels,” he says. He recollects how one professor at the university told a student from a marginalised community that he was not fit for mathematics and would be better off being an agricultural labourer like his parents. “Another SC student was told that a central university was not the right place for him. Instead, he should enrol into a state varsity,” recollects Sengupta.
“This sort of exposure of intellectual elitism leaves first-generation varsity students overwhelmed and intimidated,” says Jhansi Geddam of Dalit Stree Shakti. “Many elite-caste students even refuse to share rooms with Dalits. University officials look the other way.” Sengupta says that the Dailt polarisation Rohith’s suicide has spurred is also because of the Modi government’s “Hindu supremacist agenda and its goal to build a Hindu rashtra”. Despite it, however, many Dalits, Sengupta asserts, don’t consider themselves Hindus because it would mean staying put on the lower rung of caste forever. “A significantly large number of Dalits is therefore embracing Buddhism or Christianity to get away from the BJP’s politics of violence, seclusion and hierarchy,” he says.
“There have been 11 suicides in about 10-12 years and 10 of these have been by Dalits. Isn’t that something that needs a deeper analysis?” asks V.S. Krishna. Writer Kancha Ilaiah, who has also expressed solidarity with the protesting students, says that Dalits, who come from a meek and fearful environment, are capable of being assertive and active too. “They might come through reservations but they are still talented and the elite castes are inconvenient with this lot. I have not seen previous governments get this involved in the functioning of universities, and ministers writing letters to faculty. A quarrel between two student groups should be left to the university authorities. Why were Dattatreya and BJP MLC Ramachandra Rao getting involved? A rift between Dalit and non-Dalit students must be handled much more carefully in an educational institution than in the outside world,” feels Ilaiah.
Rohith’s death is grim warning enough. It has united students to demand justice for him. They see him as a martyr for the Dalit cause. Dalit students at the university who had earlier confined themselves to academics are now joining ASA.
“I feel shocked by his suicide,” says Yeranna. “But one thing’s for certain. Rohith stood for something larger than himself.” “But for Rohith’s suicide,” asks D. Uday Bhanu, a PhD scholar in Telugu, “show me one mediaperson who is actually interested in the lives of Dalit students. Getting a seat in the SC category is itself a social boycott. All my life, I have lived in a ghetto on the village outskirts, our marriages, our birth and death ceremonies are in isolated parts. And when we come here expecting a better life, it is all the same. When I eat beef, the kind of glares I am subjected to by privileged caste students is humiliating. Like many of us, Rohith too found a huge gap between theory and practice.”
ASA had been his refuge. Its efforts had been causing enough churn on the campus. In December 2013, when Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen came to deliver a talk on ‘Are coffee houses important to education?’, he was interrupted by ASA members. On November 23, 2013, M. Venkatesh, a 26-year-old PhD scholar in chemistry, had committed suicide by consuming rat poison. He had been depressed over not being allotted a guide. The students yelled as Sen was to begin his lecture, “Talk about caste discrimination in higher education, not coffee houses.”
After Venkatesh’s suicide, Rohith would often tell his friends that the former’s death would soon be forgotten and discrimination against Dalits would continue. Rohith, who went on to crack the CSIR fellowship that year, was asked by at least two professors if he had achieved it in the reservation category. He had not. Rohith was a meritorious student who got a seat in the general category.
When he joined ASA, he and his fellow warriors would often be branded anti-national. It was ABVP’s Susheel who had asked: “When ASA students state that if one Yakub is hanged, a Yakub will be born in every household, is it not anti-national?”
“Just because someone opposed capital punishment for Yakub Memon, can we term them anti-national,” argues Osmania University professor K. Nageshwar. “By that logic, the late President Abdul Kalam or the Law Commission, which opposed capital punishment, are anti-national.”
Sitting alongside ASA protesters now, Osmania University leader and Congress hopeful Manne Krishank says that even during the Telangana agitation, many students were branded anti-national. “It is shameful that even as India celebrates its 66th Republic Day, critiquing of dominant paradigms (caste, for example), which is so central to a liberal culture, is quickly termed as unpatriotic, Naxal, terrorist or extremist.”
“This polarisation of Dalits against the BJP is a natural course when the Ambedkarite vision of equality is antithetical to what the BJP, RSS and ABVP profess,” says Congress leader Sravan Dasoju. “The irony is that having politicised a college-level fight by scuttling the fundamental freedoms of a socially marginalised lot, when someone visits the university to offer condolences, the BJP calls it political pilgrimage. This exposes the party’s double standards,” he says. Asked why politicians are queuing up at the university, Jagan says, “I come here for the same reason that national mediapersons have, because I feel there is a need to intervene.”
Meanwhile, the compensation sought by students for Rohith’s family has been bumped up from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 5 crore. As the Congress and BJP trade colourful insults over the Modi government’s saffron agenda creeping into central varsities, the Telugu Desam and Telangana Rashtra Samiti have kept a low profile on the issue.
While the TDP understandably refuses to displease ally BJP (Susheel’s mother Vinaya is contesting GHMC elections on a BJP ticket), the TRS has only issued a statement through MP K. Kavitha. One TRS MP, K. Vishweshwar Reddy, visited the campus briefly but Telangana CM, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, has maintained a stony silence. Even as the varsity was rocked by unrest, TRS’s second-in-command, IT minister K.T. Rama Rao, kept busy with Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation poll strategy, NASSCOM and real estate developer meetings. AP chief minister Chandrababu Naidu flew to Davos in pursuit of his economy boosting agenda.
Both TDP and TRS leaders admit privately that with GHMC polls around the corner, the Rohith Vemula suicide and Dalit rights issue is something they’d like to avoid. According to sources, Appa Rao, a Kamma by caste, is close to Union minister for urban development M. Venkaiah Naidu. It is unclear as to why Secunderabad BJP MP Dattatreya, an OBC leader and a known ‘people’s neta’, found it necessary to champion the cause of a troublesome ABVP student. But he is no longer at the helm of the BJP campaign in the municipal polls since the FIR was filed in the Rohith suicide.
As indefinite hunger strikes, rallies and political drama hang heavy in the central university, it is evident that Rohith’s suicide has left a large section of society shaken. As Sengupta says, “Rohith’s death could not have been predicted. But the movement he has given birth to is a necessary one. An annihilation of caste is a distant dream but at least incidents such as this make society introspect.”
By Madhavi Tata in Hyderabad