JNU row shows no lessons learnt from Rohith Vemula’s suicide

JNU row: Is there no space left in the country to express dissatisfaction, no matter how unpalatable the slogans may be?

Updated: February 19, 2016 12:51 pm
dalit, dalit scholar, dalit scholar suicide, dali scholar commits suicide, rohith vemula dead, rohith vemula father, indian express Students protesting on the Hyderabad University campus after the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula (Photo by Harsha Vadlamani)

By Hamari Jamatia

After working for some years as a journalist, I joined the University of Hyderabad last year to pursue a PhD. The beautiful 1000-acre campus with its forests, rocks, lakes, pleasant evenings, safe environment and a packed study schedule was a comfortable break from the rush of breaking news and missed stories. Happily settling down to an academic life, I ignored the sore sight of Rohith and his four friends who had put up a shed in the middle of the North Shopping Complex that is but a collection of two canteens, a juice hut, a grocery store, a salon and a tailor.

It was the coldest time in Hyderabad and they slept on mattresses strewn on the hard footpath with just Ambedkar and Savitri Bai Phule posters to separate them from the harsh winds. I didn’t know any of the students personally and on my daily visits to the shopping complex for tea, never took time out to meet them. It was, at that point of time, none of my business.

Then on the evening of Jan 17, Rohith was found hanging in one of the hostel rooms and students like me found ourselves guilty of not making it our business to have learned more about why a selected few research scholars had been put through such humiliation. Through their 12 days of non-violent protests, we ignored them like the Vice Chancellor did. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why hitherto “neutral” students clamoured for justice for Rohith in the aftermath of his suicide. We had failed him too. For the next two weeks, the chant of “We are more than five” became the collective sentiment of hundreds of students on campus who boycotted classes and urged the administration and the government to take action.

Kanhaiya Kumar, the President of the the JNUSU, was one of the speakers at the protest and his powerful speeches questioned the Brahminical influences in institutions of higher education and the misuse of political powers to curb the autonomy of central universities. He may not have anticipated that he was to soon fall prey to the “anti-national” rhetorics that needs no proof to pronounce someone guilty.

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As Rohith’s suicide completes a month, it seems no lessons have been learnt. Students, this time in JNU, are still being harassed for voicing their opinion, for holding non-violent protests and for asking questions. The night of Rohith’s death was a long one. We sat on the road leading up to the steps of the New Research Hostel raising slogans under the watch of the numerous policemen who had come to take the body. Refusing to hand it over was the only form of resistance available. Students and administrative staff sat in groups reading the suicide letter that was unlike anything anyone would have expected from a student who had been institutionally harassed to the point of suicide. Like Yogendra Yadav points out in his speech at the University, in his death, Rohith didn’t leave his fellow students with the message of hate but rather that of hope. His note talks of stars, of nature and the possibility of a man being assessed for his mind and not through his “immediate identity.”

Yet, the events playing out at JNU and the violence unleashed on journalists and students at Patiala House only humiliate his death further. What is the difference between the MHRD pressurising the University of Hyderabad to take action against Rohith and his friends and the Home Ministry sending in the Police to comb the JNU campus for “anti-nationals”? Are we so scared of a dozen students sloganeering against the idea of India that the government conducts a witch hunt that aims to brand every JNU student a traitor? In a few states in India, people have been demanding separation. Does that mean they are to be searched, caught and publicly beaten up? Is there no space left in the country to express dissatisfaction, no matter how unpalatable the slogans may be?

Anyone who has sat for the JNU Entrance, myself included, knows how difficult it is to crack it. Yet, we are treating the best of students from around the country worse than murderers and rapists. As the government, a section of the media and a mob of violent nationalists declares war against students even as there is no evidence to back up the sedition charges, do they not realise that they are paving way for many other Rohiths?

(The author is a student of Hyderabad University. Views expressed are personal.)

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