Be a Dalit and pay a price

The suicide of a Dalit research scholar, Rohith Vemula, at the University of Hyderabad has again exposed the social fault lines in our universities, political interference in their functioning and their unwholesome consequences.

These consequences are not only on the academic life of institutions but unfortunately even on the very lives of students. Vemula had been suspended with four others belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) after an alleged spat with students belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which is the BJP’s students’ wing. The suspension was withdrawn following an enquiry but was re-imposed after the vice-chancellor received letters from the Union Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry. HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s letters were prompted by a letter written to her by Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya. It is clear that the suspension, which amounted to a social boycott, led to the suicide of the scholar.

The police have filed a case against Dattatreya, the vice-chancellor and others for abetment to suicide and violation of SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The minister’s culpability is clear in the matter. He had no business to prompt the HRD minister to act on an internal matter of the university. Dattatreya’s letter even told the HRD minister that the students were ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-social’, probably because they protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and opposed the anti-beef campaign. The BJP leaders cannot resist the dangerous temptation to brand as anti-national people holding different views. Dattatreya obviously wanted the students who had problems with the ABVP punished. The HRD minister pursued the matter with the vice-chancellor till the students were suspended for a second time. An issue which should have been resolved within the university, was politicised with the interference of the two ministers. After this, it is hypocritical and dissembling of the BJP to claim that others are politicising the matter.

Neither the minister nor the university authorities have been able to satisfactorily answer the questions arising from their conduct. The intervention of both ministers created the circumstances which led to the suicide of the scholar. Both are morally, politically and legally responsible for the unfortunate turn of events. The vice-chancellor is doubly guilty. He succumbed to pressure and acted wrongly. Vemula’s suicide and the treatment he and others got from the authorities also show how oppressive and hostile the environment is for Dalit students on campuses. Casteist prejudices and the politics that revolves around them rule the roost in universities. Poor Dalit students often have to pay the price. 

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