Breaking her silence on the suicide of a young research scholar at Hyderabad University last Sunday, HRD Minister Smriti Irani said Wednesday that the incident was being misrepresented with “malicious intent” as a “caste battle”.
“I am compelled to come out today because there has been a malicious attempt to present this as a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue to ignite passions. The student (ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar) who was attacked was himself an OBC student,” she said at a press conference, flanked by Social Justice Empowerment Minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot and Minister of State for Commerce Nirmala Sitharaman.
Dismissing allegations of influencing university authorities into suspending five research scholars, including Rohith Vemula who committed suicide, Irani pointed that the executive council of Hyderabad University which took the decision was made up of nominees of the previous government.
“I would also like to point out that the suicide note of the student does not mention any political organisation or MP except Ambedkar Student Association of which he was himself a member,” she said.
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Vemula’s suicide snowballed into a political controversy with agitating students and political parties targeting vice chancellor Appa Rao, MoS Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya and Irani.
Dattatreya had written to Irani in August last year, accusing the university of being a “mute spectator” after a group of Dalit students, including Vemula, clashed with ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar. The HRD Ministry had subsequently sent an email and four reminders to the institution to respond with comments/facts on the issues raised by Dattatreya so that a reply could be drafted by the government.
On being asked if her Ministry’s constant reminders were some form of tacit pressure on the university to act against the five students, Irani produced a letter written by Congress MP Hanumantha Rao on November 17, 2014, on suicides by students of marginalised background in Hyderabad University for which her officers had sent six reminders to the institution seeking comments.
“The standard operating procedure is the same for all. In fact in Mr Hanumantha Rao’s case, we sent one extra reminder in comparison to the letter written by Dattatreyaji,” she said.
“Congress wants to shoot on this issue which is expected but unfortunate… The Congress MP says that this problem persisted for four years. If they (Congress) had fixed the problem four years ago, perhaps Rohith’s life could have been saved,” she said.
She refrained from making any comments on Rao and whether he could have handled the situation better saying that the Ministry’s two-member fact finding committee which was sent to the university will return Wednesday night and file its report after which further details will be known in the case.
Asked if she would visit the university campus, she said, “I’m concerned that my presence there will be interpreted as interference.”