Updated: January 20, 2016 12:00:14 am
The system failed Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula. The Central University of Hyderabad abdicated its role of providing a safe and nurturing home for the Dalit student who dreamt of being a writer of science, like Carl Sagan. The vice chancellor failed him by allowing himself to be pressured into “taking action” against him by the Union HRD ministry and a Union minister. The minister had labelled as “anti-national” the August 2015 protests by Rohith and four other students against the hanging of Mumbai blasts convict Yakub Memon and the ABVP’s attack in Delhi University on the screening of the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. Rohith’s alleged suicide on campus, after months of isolation leading to suspension, also speaks of the wider failures of a society that looks on unseeingly as universities that should be bastions of freedom and protest and subversion become staging grounds for the repressive spectacle of discipline and punishment. A spectacle that culminates, as on the Hyderabad University campus now, in the show of police force and the imposition of curfew under Section 144.
After Rohith, we need to ask questions of Minister Bandaru Dattatreya and the HRD ministry that so relentlessly tried to criminalise dissent on the campus and the university authorities who so unresistingly succumbed to their hectoring. But we also need to question a higher education system that so readily turns against its own students, especially the most disprivileged among them. We need to ask why, for Dalit students, the policy of reservations has only ended up opening the doors to a hostile space, where the curricula, textbooks, fellow students, teachers and evaluators continue to deny any real access. In May 2007, a government-appointed, high-profile three-member panel, headed by Sukhadeo Thorat, came out with its report on caste discrimination in the classrooms and laboratories and hostels of the premier AIIMS in New Delhi, which confirmed a disturbing story. Nearly 84 per cent of SC/ ST students it spoke to mentioned the need for, and absence of, remedial coaching in English language and basic courses; about 69 per cent said they did not get adequate support and mentoring from teachers; about one-third gave caste background as reason; about 72 per cent mentioned some kind of discrimination faced in teaching sessions. In its report, the committee spoke of forms of avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, discouragement and differential treatment by teachers towards SC/ ST students. It found segregation in the allocation of rooms in hostels, in sharing dining facilities, and participation in cultural events and games.
The death of Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula must impel us to look again at the university — and to reflect on the urgent need to remake it into a more open, free and equal space.
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