On January 17th 2016, an expelled PhD student from Hyderabad Central University (HCU) committed suicide. According to speculation, the suicide was due to alleged caste-discrimination against him by the university. This incident sparked protests and became the subject of a national political debate. However, a large part of the story is based on unverified facts, biased decisions and is hampered by the media. Even though they are unverified, they are important in the understanding of what’s happening.
Here is all you need to know about the Rohith Vemula suicide case:
1. The clash between students and right-wing members
In the first week of August 2015, five Ambedkar Students Union (ASA) members, including Rohith Vemula, were protesting against the hanging of 1993 Mumbai-blasts accused Yakub Memon. The members of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) called their actions anti-national and the ABVP Unit President, N. Susheel Kumar, called the ASA members “goons” on social media. Two days later, on August 7th, Susheel, along with his brother Vishnu, who is a member of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, was admitted to a private hospital alleging that ASA students, including Rohith, had assaulted him in his hostel room.
Unverified: According to some hospital reports, Susheel Kumar had been admitted for ‘acute appendicitis’ and not assault.
Read more about India’s Anti-National Debate here.
2. The suspension of 5 Dalit students
Coincidently, a month prior to this attack (ie: in July 2015), HCU had stopped paying Rohith his monthly stipend of Rs 25,000. His friends alleged that this decision was due to the growing tension between ABVP and ASA. After the clash in August, the university set up an inquiry against Rohith and the four other ASA members allegedly involved in the stand-off. At first, the five PhD students, supposedly all Dalits, were banned from entering common areas on campus and were restricted from participating in Students’ Union elections. By September, the penalty had increased to total suspension from the university. This was when the five of them set up a tent inside the campus and began a hunger protest.
Unverified: HCU have justified it the denied salary because of a delay in Rohith’s paperwork, and not because of the hostility between the ASA and the ABVP.
3. Rohith Vemula commits suicide
On 17th January 2016, Rohith Vemula committed suicide by hanging himself with an ASA banner in the hostel room he was staying in after his expulsion from HCU. His body was found the next day, along with a suicide note, in which he did not blame anyone for his death. A group of students took it upon themselves to demand legal action. In response, the Hyderabad Police filed abetment of suicide cases against Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, HCU Vice Chancellor Appa Rao, ABVP Unit President Susheel Kumar and his brother Vishnu. The suicide triggered massive protests by students from Hyderabad to New Delhi.
4. The back-and-forth between the HRD Ministry and the University
Backtrack back to August 17th 2015, Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya had written to HRD Minister Smriti Irani, urging action against certain Dalit students, claiming that recent incidents at the Hyderabad University were extremist and anti-national and alleging that the university had been a silent spectator in all of this.
Following his letter, HRD Minister Irani asked the Vice Chancellor Appa Rao to appoint a committee to verify the complaints and take action against the students who were responsible for the activities. In the course of time, the same committee that found Rohith and other ASA members not culpable in the incident in August, reversed their findings so as to find him punishable in December.
Unverified: HCU students claim that it was Dattatreya’s letter that changed the committee’s stand towards Rohith Vemula, the BJP Government has maintained that the letter was part of standard procedure when any such student protest is held.
5. The national debate on caste-based discrimination is spurred
The suicide of Rohith Vemula has given rise to a nationwide debate on caste, especially in elite educational institutions where caste-based discrimination against students is allegedly rampant. While activists, academicians, artists and civil society organisations have held marches in protest, the issue has also taken a political turn as Opposition members like Rahul Gandhi and political parties like Aam Admi Party have joined in the protests.
PM Modi has been accused by his opponents of ostracizing Dalits and a probe has been demanded by them into the involvement of Union Ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani. Meanwhile, Rohith’s father, Manikumar, has demanded a judicial inquiry into his son’s death, alleging that it was not a suicide.
Unverified: There has been great confusion about whether Rohith was a Dalit at all. While his mother says that she raised Rohith to identify as Dalit and has certificates to establish the same, his father claims that they are from the Vaddera community, which is a backward community and not Dalit.
On the one hand, the uproar may render redundant if the issue has been wrongly classified as a Dalit one. On the other, a student suicide still warrants action and answers from the Government. The inquiry into this case is still ongoing, with fault lines in the story under the microscope.