HRD Minister Smriti Irani may maintain that the suicide of Rohith Vemula inside a hostel room of the University of Hyderabad on Sunday is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. But Dalit students insist that every facet of life on the campus that Rohith joined in 2012 is scarred by a caste divide — from availability of research guides to occupation of hostel rooms and eating in separate groups at the canteen.
According to a senior university official, a Dalit PhD student, Madari Venkatesh, committed suicide on campus in 2013 by consuming poison after being denied a guide for 18 months.
“We stick together, they stick together. Nobody asks us to do so, but it is understood,” said Velmula Sankanna, the research scholar who was among the five Dalits, including Rohith, suspended by the university last year following a clash with an ABVP leader.
“It is not that we are avoided or boycotted… They may talk with you or sit down at the same table but the notion that we are an inferior caste is always in their minds. A majority of the teachers and students display it subtly and covertly,” said Sankanna.
According to the university’s Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) chief Chintagada Ramji, “the most difficult part is academics”. “Allotment of guides and marks to Dalit PhD students is the main source of friction between professors and students,” alleged Ramji.
Speaking to The Indian Express, P Prakash Babu, Dean, Students Welfare, who has been accused by the ASA of siding with the management on the suspension, admitted that some professors shy away from taking on Dalit students under their wings.
“When asked to guide a Dalit student, many professors cite work pressure because they have other students to guide. They come up with excuses like they do not have enough space in labs. This happens mostly in the Science stream and mostly with Dalit students. Then, the requests of students to allot guides are not forwarded or processed. Students sometimes wait for months to get a guide,” said Babu.
Speaking on condition on anonymity because he was “about to submit my thesis”, a Dalit research scholar said, “My first guide told me ‘your research area is not my subject so I cannot help you. You should find another guide’. When I insisted, he said I may not be capable of doing the research. When I insisted again, he said ‘I know your background. I can understand whether you can do this research or not’.”
“It was only after discussions and arguments that I got him as my guide reluctantly,” said the scholar.
After the suicide of Venkatesh and based on repeated representations from ASA, the university last year introduced a new rule defining a timeframe to allot a supervisor to MPhil students.
“Now, students joining MPhil must be immediately told who their supervisor is. Earlier it used take several weeks, even months in case of Dalit students. Now, according to the rule, a supervisor should be allotted within a month. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about guides for PhD students,” said C Kavya, an MPhil student.
P Prajwal, a young advocate, says he was shocked by the response he got from a faculty member when he wanted to know why his sister P Priyanka, a student of MSc Health Psychology, had failed five times in one subject from 2011 to 2013. “Her supervisor said all of you reservation students are like that only.”