Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit PhD scholar at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), in his suicide note, blamed none, friend or foe, providing the feed to his killers to claim their innocence. An aspirant to write one day like Carl Sagan exploring the universe with his flight of imagination, he was driven to the depths of his inner self, the torn self of a Dalit, in this caste-ridden land, by his tormentors, to conclude the futility of existing. His death should make it clear that suicide is not the killing of oneself; it is death by situation, which comprises of traditions, customs and institutions, that provide cover to the murderers.
Rohith’s situation survives in the form of a makeshift tent erected in an open arena of his university campus, in which he lived for 12 days along with four of his comrades after having been expelled from the hostel, and their struggle for self-respect that outlives him. It is depicted by his stinging letter of December 18 to the vice chancellor of the university, his lament to his friends that he did not have any money to treat them on his 27th birthday, which was a few days away, never to dawn, and his last call to his mother, which was ominously cut by him abruptly. This is enough to tear the veils, expose the murderous situation and possibly the murderers.
The details of the case are by now in the public domain. The alleged assault on one Nandanam Susheel Kumar, the president of the HCU unit of the ABVP, for which the five Dalit students, including Rohith, were punished, was never established. Rather, all the official inquiries, doctor’s testimony and the witnesses confirmed that it did not take place. Still, the Dalit students were punished. The curious flip-flop of the university administration that followed clearly indicates the full play of caste prejudices and the influence of extraneous forces, apart from the utter ineptitude of the administration.
The big twist to the incident came from a letter written by Bandaru Dattatreya, the minister of state for labour and employment in the Narendra Modi government, to Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani, branding the HCU as “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” and demanding necessary action. In support, he wrote that the Ambedkar Students’ Association had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon. The office of Irani, the controversial HRD minister, who perhaps assumed HRD to be “Hindutva resource development”, suggestively wrote to the VC as it did in response to an anonymous complaint against the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) at IIT Madras, which had led to its ban, triggering nationwide outrage. The manner in which it was followed up by as many as four letters from under secretary to joint secretary indicates the amount of pressure exerted on the VC for taking action against the students. It is this express support from the minister to the inherently casteist administration that led to the punishment, which was no less than capital punishment in the university context. How on earth can research scholars possibly exist without accessing hostels, administrative buildings, public places or talking to their fellow students? It did mean death to them as research scholars.
After their expulsion, the students lived in the open in the biting cold of Hyderabad and still the VC did not realise the gravity of his misdeed. On December 18, Rohith had written a stinging letter to him, accusing him of taking an unusual personal interest in the clash between the Dalit students and the ABVP. He sarcastically hinted at the plight of Dalit students at the HCU, asking the VC to provide poison and a rope to all Dalit students at the time of admission, and also make available a facility for euthanasia for students like him. The letter was alarming enough for any responsible person to take serious note of the state of mind of the student, who was driven to his wits’ end on account of continuing harassment and penury, as his stipend, with which he partly supported his mother and younger brother back home in Guntur, was stopped in July.
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Curiously, on the one hand, the government is going gaga with the extravagant observation of the 125th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar in one-upmanship with the Congress to woo Dalit votes. On the other, it seeks to curb the radical voices of Dalits on what Ambedkar stood for. Ambedkar risked emphasising higher education over elementary education because he saw that only the former can create critical thinking in people and moral strength to stand up against the free play of caste prejudices of dominant elements. The government is crushing these potential torch-bearers of Ambedkar in every possible manner while singing paeans to him.
As dissenting Muslim youth are easily branded as terrorists the world-over, Dalit-Adivasi youth are being stamped as extremists, casteists and anti-nationals. Indian jails are filled with such innocent youth incarcerated for years under vague charges like sedition and unlawful activities, etc. The BJP’s aggressive drive to saffronise institutions, particularly higher education institutions, portends that many more Rohiths will follow in the coming years.
All those who have been mute spectators of these vile processes under way to decimate the pluralistic structure of our country and restore supremacist Brahmanic rule are responsible along with the dramatis personae directly involved in this case.