The death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student pursuing a PhD at the Hyderabad Central University, is yet another instance of the slow genocide of Dalit minds that has been taking place in the institutions of higher education in India.
Dalits minds are under assault by forces that can best be described as ‘Brahmanical’. Rohith ended his life by committing suicide after experiencing severe mental pressure, which was the result of the intervention by the university administration, the human resource development (HRD) ministry, and a member of parliament – all of whom were acting on the behalf of ABVP, the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Rohith’s suicide is a reminder to society of how the deep-rooted structures of caste continue to affect the life of Dalit students in institutions of higher education in India. It is important to remember that this suicide is not an isolated incident. In Hyderabad Central University itself, about eight Dalit students have committed suicide in the last ten years. There have also been incidents of Dalit students committing suicide in India’s elite institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences because of caste discrimination by faculty members, administration as well as fellow students. This has been very well documented.
Rohith’s suicide note informs us of the kind of trauma Dalit students experience across Indian universities and research institutes. He was denied his fellowship for seven months in a row. The delay in the payment of scholarship funds to Dalit students is the norm and not an exception. Most Dalit students entering institutes of higher education come from economically weaker sections. Any delay in payment forces them to rely on friends if they are in a position to offer help. In Rohith’s case, he had acquired a debt of 40,000 rupees as mentioned in his suicide note. Financial pressures due to delays in scholarship payment have a serious negative effect on the education of Dalit students and other poorer students too. In many cases faculty members who are supervising Dalit students also contribute to the delay in getting Dalit students their scholarship money. This is also the case in institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University.
Institutions of higher education are supposed to be spaces for the cultivation of critical minds. However, faculty members plagued by caste prejudice not only often fail to impart knowledge to Dalit students but also sometimes engage in everyday discrimination which further contributes to their emotional problems. It is precisely for this reason that Rohith wrote in his suicide note that there is a growing gap between his soul and his body.
Across the country, Dalit students undergo similar experiences, and this has been the case for a long time. Faculty members, university administrators as well as fellow students contribute to isolation, depression and frustration among them. The ideology of Brahmanism is very much present in our educational institutions and must be opposed.
Rohith’s death has sparked off massive political agitation by students across country. It is also quite heartening to see that the global academic community has stood in solidarity with the Dalit students whose plight this tragic incident has highlighted. However, some people are trying to frame the incident as being merely the result of right-wing politics led by the BJP and RSS. There is absolutely no disagreement that in this incident, the current BJP-led government played an important role in pressuring Rohith to the extent that he decided to end his life. For this reason, it is important to condemn and criticise the ruling BJP government. However, limiting the blame for this incident to the BJP or RSS will result in treating Rohith’s suicide as an exceptional incident. Only when we accept the fact that the slow genocide of Dalit minds has been taking place across the country for decades will we be able to confront the problem squarely. The genocide of minds goes on, no matter who is in power.
For this reason we urgently require robust institutional mechanisms to deal with the problems of caste discrimination faced by Dalit students. For instance, the financial security of Dalit students could be brought under the purview of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in some way in order to stop the harassment inflicted by university administrations and faculty members.
Secondly, Dalit students feel the need to organise in separate political fora because mainstream political outfits never address their issues. Those currently standing in solidarity with Rohith must remember his last words and not reduce the problems of the Dalit students merely ‘to a vote, to a number’ and ‘to a thing.’ They must work towards developing proper institutional mechanisms which will address their problems. This will be a fitting, and necessary, tribute to Rohith.
Sumeet Mhaskar is Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow, University of Göttingen