The untimely and tragic death of Rohith Vemula has evoked strong reaction from students, political parties and a large section of the public. The protests have spread to different corners of the country. In Lucknow, young Dalits compelled the PM to break his silence on the tragedy. “Reasons and politics aside, the truth is that a mother has lost a son. I can very well feel the agony.” No doubt, the loss of Rohith is enormous. But equally important are the “reasons and politics” that led to the social exclusion of five Dalit students and Rohith’s suicide.
On the night of August 3, 2015, Susheel Kumar, the president of the ABVP in the University of Hyderabad (UoH), was allegedly attacked by a group from the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). The ASA was reacting to a comment on Susheel’s Facebook page: “ASA goons are talking about hooliganism”. According to the ASA, Susheel was asked to remove the comment and apologise. On August 4, he filed a police case. The police and registrar reported in their affidavits to the high court that the injuries were minor and put it down as a scuffle between students.
However, the university’s proctorial board also conducted an inquiry. There are three different reports from this board: Two reports by the proctorial board (August 12 and 31) and a third by a subcommittee of the executive council (EC) on November 24. While the first report recommended warning both the parties, the second recommended permanent rustication of the five Dalit students from the university. The subcommittee endorsed the punishment recommended in the second report. And the EC chaired by Vice Chancellor P. Apparao decided to expel the five Dalit students from the hostel instead of rustication.
Several questions have been raised about the legal and moral legitimacy of the inquiry committees. The documents reveal that the inquiry was not conducted in a fair or just manner. All the parties concerned were not given a chance to represent their case, the terms of reference were not known, and the recommendations were not given to the five Dalit students. (They obtained these reports through an RTI application). Nowhere in the reports, or in the office orders of the university, are statutory provisions cited to support expulsion or rustication. The subcommittee had no mandate to conduct a fresh inquiry into the matter. The EC may discipline students, but based on certain rules and regulations.
In the UoH and elsewhere, hostel expulsion means cancellation of hostel admission and mess membership. In this case, the EC redefined hostel expulsion. The five students can only attend classes and use the library during office hours but “they are not permitted to participate in the students’ union elections, enter the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups.” The Dalit students quickly pointed out the similarity between this description of expulsion and social boycott as described in the SC/ST Act and began their protest in what they named the “velivada” (Dalit ghetto) in the campus. There is no statutory support for interpreting hostel expulsion to mean restrictions on accessing public spaces and interacting with people. Turning it into a curtailment of individual freedom and social interaction is nothing but social death of the student.
The record of the intervention of Central Minister Bandaru Dattatreya and the HRD ministry raises doubts about Apparao’s role in awarding the punishment. Appointed by the BJP government, he has a history of differences with the ASA. Instead of conducting a fresh inquiry as promised by the then VC in September 2015, Apparao rushed to punish the students. The university must ensure justice to all students but the process and procedures for justice should be seen as transparent and fair.
The process of producing “evidence” is not objective at all times. This is clear in this case of expulsion. The ideological battle between the ABVP and ASA is at the centre of these tragic events. And this is crucial to understand the conflict. The Facebook post and the charge of physical assault hinge on this ideological battle. The ASA organised an event opposing capital punishment. It supported the screening of a documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots, opposing the “ban” imposed by the ABVP. Followers of the ABVP say that the ASA conducted a prayer for a terrorist and vowed that killing one will produce thousands. Therefore, the ASA is anti-national. Rohith and other members of the ASA are insulted and humiliated by this false charge.
The ASA was established in 1993 and has worked successfully to extend moral and political support to marginalised students, “castes, communities and genders”. It has fought for more than two decades on issues such as the dropout rate of SCs and STs, discrimination, implementation of constitutional guarantees, achieving human dignity and social equality in the university. Following Ambedkar, a real democratic society is their goal.
The ABVP was established after 2004. It has never been a big force. Its activities include fighting anti-national forces like Islamic terrorists, Naxalites and what it describes as casteist forces. A BJP leader has said that the university does not allow students to take pride in being Hindu and Indian. The ASA and other organisations challenge the imposition of Hindu identity and suppression of plural identities.
With the BJP coming to power and state-led saffronisation of institutions, this ideological battle has turned violent and ugly. Universities have been centres of ideological battle, and they should be so. This is where the PM’s silence is worrying. Can we set the reasons and politics aside in this context? I wish we could.