It doesn't matter whether Rohith Vemula was dalit or not. It doesn't matter the issue has been pecked upon by vulturous factions for political gains. What matters is that in a nation with a Constitution founded on the idea of social justice, the young research scholar's suicide is the proverbial tip of the prejudice iceberg.
Discrimination against lower castes runs deep on Indian campuses. In urban cases, it courses through in manners organised, systematic and sophisticated. Barely a week after Vemula's death, the dalit principal of a college in Kodagu in Karnataka committed suicide by consuming poison. His family alleged he was facing harassment at the workplace. Not long before that a dalit journalism student in Davangere, about 260km from Bengaluru, was assaulted by a group of men for his 'anti-Hindu' writings. In several government schools of south Tamil Nadu, students wear colour-coded wrist bands that indicate their caste.
“Despite progress in different spheres of life, dalit students face discrimination at various stages. College campuses have been saffronised these days and our voices are being strangulated. The college administration is responsible for this,” said Amerandra Kumar Arya, 24, who studies at Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow.
The discrimination affects every aspect of campus life. “It starts as soon as you enter college, from allocation of hostels and eating in the mess to getting a guide for research,” said Ram Karan, a law student who has studied at the University of Allahabad and Banaras Hindu University. At BBAU, some upper caste students bring their own utensils to the mess so that they don't have to share them with dalit students.
“Universities are extensions of society, hence discrimination exists here, too, which is even more systematic,” said Sripathi Ramudu, assistant professor at Hyderabad Central University, where Vemula was doing his research. “What is obvious in rural areas is done in subtler ways in this so-called 'sophisticated' environment.”
Dalit students found a support system in the Ambedkar Students Association, which was formed in 1994. “There was some relief,” said Ramudu. “Drop-outs lessened. Groups would question professors about marks or ask for revaluations.”
The interference of the sangh parivar organisations in the educational institutions is said to be a reason for the rising intolerance on campuses. Many people in HCU said vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile was a nominee of Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu. “It is shocking that the HRD ministry did not go into the antecedents of a person like Apparao when they made him VC. He had rusticated ten dalit students in 2002 [when he was chief warden]. It is another matter that these students went to court and came back to study,” said Ramudu.
Instead of bringing in a social balance on the campus with all castes, Podile appealed to the saffron groups. “There was an increasing role of politics in the university, whereas we are an autonomous body,” said Ramudu. It is said that Podile used his connections in the government to put an end to the ideological fight not because of “politics” but because “dalits were getting support.”
Unlike earlier, dalit students are not reluctant to raise a point. In 2008, the ill-feeling between dalit students and those from the Thevar community in Dr Ambedkar Government Law College in Chennai resulted in a physical fight between student groups. It started while printing posters for the birth anniversary celebrations of Muthuramalinga Thevar, a community leader. The fight broke following the omission of 'Dr Ambedkar' in the name of the college in some posters.
In fact, dalit activism has taken deep roots on campuses right from IIT to government schools. Protests broke out in IIT Madras last year when the student group Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was de-recognised. The ban was lifted a month later in June. In October, dalit organisations came together to force a private college management to call off interviews for the post of lecturer in Belagavi in Karnataka, citing violation of reservation rules.
“Not just Vemula's case, but the ethos of higher education institutions in the country seemed to have been made a mockery,” said Professor Y.S. Alone of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. “Caste is a psychotic perversion. The idiotic sense of meritocracy and elitism manifest from that. It denies humanity when the Constitution guarantees justice and fundamental rights to every citizen. What happened in Hyderabad was a denial of that.”
Are dalit groups getting radicalised because of that? “Dalits have always been radicalised—not with supporting the gun culture, but being radical in thought process,” said Alone. “It is unfortunate that many caste Hindus don't see untouchability as a problem but as normative behaviour.”
And, the right-wing assertion on campuses is more obvious than ever. “The orientation towards the hindutva idea is clear, which comes out in the Hyderabad case,” said Professor Ram Puniyani, an activist. He said the dalit students broadening their horizon was anathema to right-wing groups that were trying to appropriate Ambedkar.
Despite the sentiment on the ground, Nupur Sharma of the BJP, who had been a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, said politics and student groups should be kept apart. “The Central government had nothing to do with Vemula's suicide,” she said. “Why was [Congress vice president] Rahul Gandhi garlanded on stage when he joined the Hyderabad protest? You garland someone when there is a celebration. Vemula died of disillusionment with student groups. The crossed out paragraphs from his suicide letter must be examined.” Is the ABVP flexing its muscles on the campus? “If people think ABVP is becoming stronger, go fight them out in the polls,” she said.
CPI leader D. Raja, however, disagreed with the notion that campuses were getting depoliticised. “As long as you teach social sciences and history to students, you can't have depoliticisation of the campuses,” he said. “These institutions are public funded and must abide by the policy of the state. If reservation is a policy, it should be implemented. The question to ask in Vemula's case is, why was he denied the fellowship for several months?”
There is hope that Vemula's voice might have led to a chorus. “This incident is a setback to the RSS scheme of things,” said Puniyani. “More dalit voices will come forward now. The movement will pick up.”
In his suicide note, Vemula said he wanted to be like cosmologist Carl Sagan. Journalist Rajeev Ramachandran sought a response from Sagan's wife, Ann Druyan, on the issue. She wrote back, “Is it possible that the attention paid to Rohith’s story will lessen its chronic repetition?”
Perhaps it is time to tune in.
WITH LALITA IYER, AJAY UPRETY, PRATHIMA NANDAKUMAR AND LAKSHMI SUBRAMANIAN