Caste came up in 3 suicide probes at Hyderabad University

The HRD Ministry wants a judicial commission to probe the events that led to the suicide on January 17 of Vemula.

Written by Apurva | New Delhi | Updated: February 8, 2016 9:36 am
The room where Rohith killed himself . (Source: Express photo by Harsha Vadlamani) The room where Rohith killed himself . (Source: Express photo by Harsha Vadlamani)

The University of Hyderabad had all the warning it needed before Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula committed suicide last month. Three red flags, in the form of three suicides by Dalit students within six years. And three probes that arrived at the same conclusion: this was no campus for the marginalised.

The HRD Ministry wants a judicial commission to probe the events that led to the suicide on January 17 of Vemula, who was among five Dalits suspended by the university for allegedly assaulting an ABVP leader. But the findings of the three committees that probed the three suicides on campus between 2008 and 2014 were clear: the Dalit students faced a “sense of alienation” and “institutional discrimination” owing to “caste consideration”.

One of those committees, headed by retired Supreme Court judge Justice K Ramaswamy, stated in its report: “Because of the insensitivity towards problems faced by the students belonging to the aforesaid social groups, frequent occurrences of suicides are taking place.”

Senthil Kumar committed sucide in 2008 while P Raju and Madari Venkatesh killed themslves in 2013. The three suicides, like that of Rohith Vemula, happened inside the New Research Scholars (NRS) Hostel on campus.

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‘Was tense about supervisor’

2008: Prof V Pavarala committee report on Senthil Kumar’s suicide

On February 28, 2008, Kumar, a PhD student in Physics, consumed poison. The report noted, “Senthil Kumar came from a poor Dalit family from Tamil Nadu, probably a first-generation university student. According to his friends, he was also struggling to send some money home. Many of his friends remember him as a strong and brave person, often jovial in his mannerisms. He was interested in reading Tamil literature and would engage in discussions with friends in the Humanities on such topics as modernity and deconstruction.”

Senthil’s friends told the committee that he wished to explore options abroad or move to another university. “He was also apparently under some tension about the supervisor with whom he would have to eventually work for his PhD. Students reported that in the last week or so, leading up to his death, Senthil was considerably uneasy and found it difficult to sleep,” stated the report.

The report concluded that most students affected by “ambiguous procedures” in the university were SCs and STs. Among its 12 recommendations were:

* Every school/department must have a grievance redressal mechanism which the students can turn to without fear of reprisals.

* There is a need for all faculty members to internalise greater sensitivity about students belonging to the reserved categories.

* It is important to be pro-active in mentoring and advising students who come from less privileged backgrounds, both in the classroom and outside.

* It is imperative that a top-ranking central institution takes a lead in nurturing and promoting a corps of scientists from among the marginalised sections.

‘No grievance redressal system’

2013: V Krishna committee report on P Raju’s suicide.

On March 19, 2013, P Raju, a student of the Integrated Master of Arts (IMA) and an officebearer in the Dalit Students Federation (DSF), hanged himself. After performing well in the first three years, Raju failed in four papers. And according to rules, he would not have been allowed to appear for his eighth semester examinations unless he cleared at least two papers.

Raju wrote the exams in January 2013 and was awaiting his results when he committed suicide. When the results were declared, he had cleared only one paper. Raju’s friends told the committee that he had also developed “a crush” on a classmate who had helped him develop his English language skills but was “demoralised” when he realised that the feelings were not mutual.

“Some students… spoke of a sense of alienation — distinctly accentuated in the case of Dalit students — in coping with the demands of the regular MA programme. This was also corroborated by some teachers, although the explanation offered for variation in performance was that in the MA segment, the academic competition was more intense,” stated the report.

“While Raju’s personal setbacks may have left him distressed, his academic burdens seem to have only compounded the problem… neither his peer community at large nor his teachers showed the receptivity that could have addressed the seriousness of (his) plight,” it said.

The committee also observed that no grievance redressal mechanism was evident. “The Committee did not find any evidence of a grievance redressal mechanism in place in The Centre for Applied Linguistics and Translation Studies (CALTS)… Informal consultation with departments/ schools/ centres also revealed the absence of such a mechanism,” the report stated.

‘Antipathy clearly apparent’

2014: Justice K Ramaswamy committee report on Madari Venkatesh’s suicide.

On November 24, 2013, Madari Venkatesh, a postgraduate researcher in chemistry consumed poison. A committee, under Justice K Ramaswamy, found that Venkatesh was not allotted a supervisor since he joined the School of Chemistry despite several efforts, including a letter to then Vice-Chancellor Prof Ramakrishna Ramaswamy.

“No Doctoral Committee was constituted to supervise his research which is mandatory. Though six faculty members from School of Chemistry were available, none was willing to supervise his research. Whatever research he had done, it was only by his self effort… He was discriminated on the ground of caste consideration,” noted the committee.

Its report stated, “It is the consequence of institutional discrimination and systematic exercise of exclusive and oppressive behaviour of the Institution and the faculty of the School of Chemistry.”

It further observed, “The antagonism, antipathy and insensitive mindset of the faculty, in particular of the School of Chemistry… towards the student belonging to marginalized social groups is clearly apparent.”

Justice Ramaswamy also noted that the suggestions made by the V Pavarala and V Krishna committees were not implemented in full.