It was on September 11, 2015 that the process of what Dalit activists are now calling ‘institutional murder’ was set in motion for 25-year-old Rohith Vemula Chakravarthi, a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad.
Vemula and four fellow Dalit research scholars were suspended by the university for an alleged attack on an ABVP student leader in August 2015. The proctorial board which investigated the event cleared the five students in its first report. A subsequent report recorded a U-turn in the statements by witnesses. All five students were suspended. The suspension was subsequently revoked when students protested the decision, calling attention to the initial proctorial board recommendations which clearly stated that no such attack had taken place.
On November 27, 2015, however, the executive council (EC) of the university decided to ratify what its own sub-committee had recommended – that these students be allowed to continue with their studies but in effect also be ostracised from regular academic life. This is the decision recorded in the minutes of the November 27 meeting of the EC which UoH Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile chaired:
“c) To consider the recommendations of the Sub-Committee of the Executive Council on the findings of the Proctorial Board on the incident that took place around the midnight of August 3-4, 2015 on the campus of the University:
The Vice-Chancellor briefed the Council of the incident that took place around the midnight of August 3-4, 2015 on the campus of the University. The Council was further informed of the reply to be given by the University in response to communication from the Ministry of HRD and the counter-affidavit to be filed at the Hon’ble High Court.
The Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Executive Council narrated in brief the incident and the recommendations of the Sub-Committee. After going through the recommendations of the Sub-Committee, the Council took a lenient view and resolved the following:
1) Not to allow the following students to stay in hostels at the University till they complete their respective courses/programmes at the University:
1. Mr. Dontha Prasanth (13SEPH14), Ph.D., Economics.
2. Mr. Chakravarthi Rohit Vemula (14SKPK01), Science, Technology and Society Studies.
3. Mr. Pedapudi Vijay Kumar (13SPPH03), Ph.D., Political Science.
4. Mr. Sheshaiah Chemudugunta (14SIPH04), Ph.D. Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy.
5. Mr. Velpula Sunkanna (former student of Ph.D. in the Department of Philosophy) .
2) The above students are permitted to be seen only In the respective Schools/Departments/Centres, the Library, and academic seminars/conferences/workshops of their subject. They are not permitted to participate in the students’ union elections, enter the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups.
3) Violation of (2), stated above, will attract punishment recommended by the Proctorial Board.
Further, it was resolved that this decision of the Council was subject to the verdict in the case filed vide W.P. No. 28073 of 2015 and the case registered in the Gachibowli Police Station vide FIR No. 296/2015 U/S 448,341,506,323 R/W 147 IPC.”
Since then, all five Dalit scholars had been living in makeshift tents outside the university campus, unable to afford private accommodation. “We didn’t have any place to stay so we stayed in an open space,” Dontha Prashanth, another student who was expelled along with Rohith Vemula told The Wire. “We cannot afford any of the accommodation outside. But though we were sitting in protest for past 15 days, the Vice Chancellor did not even come to address the issue, administration did not come to talk to us. No justice has been rendered,” he said.
Dontha Prashanth himself hails from a poor Dalit family from rural Andhra Pradesh. His father works as a driver and his mother as an agricultural labourer; the combined income of both parents barely crosses Rs 2 lakhs per annum. “All of us receive about Rs 8000 as monthly stipend and that is sufficient only for our books and study materials,” said Prashant. “This is Hyderabad, it is an expensive place.”
Rohith Vemula, in particular, was deeply affected by this humiliating turn of events, said Prashant, “He was very agitated about it and he felt the injustice very deeply,” he told The Wire.
Following Vemula’s suicide and a poignant note left behind speaking of broken dreams and discrimination, student groups began protests across the country, asking for justice for Rohith Vemula. “Yesterday after the post mortem, police informed us that the body would be buried at Uppal,” said Susheel Kumar, a protesting student in Hyderabad. “Students were planning to go in buses to pay their last respects to Rohith. Then we got information that the body had been cremated in Amberpet. The Hyderabad police misinformed and misled us about the burial deliberately – he was supposed to be buried but they cremated the body. Workers told us that only his mother was there, no other family members were there,” he told The Wire. Cyberabad police sources said that the cremation was conducted quickly and quietly so as to prevent law and order issues. A case was subsequently filed against Union minister of state for labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya and UoH Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile under the Prevention of Atrocities Against SCs and STs Act and Abetment to Suicide.
“This is not a suicide but a murder,” said a member of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle group in IIT Madras, a student group readying to join the protests demanding justice for Vemula. “Who pushed Rohith to this brink? Who created this situation? How many more students are going to die like this? It is a warning to us, not a mere death. We need to fight more effectively against politicization of academics and institutions,” he said. The Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was caught in a controversy last year when the IIT Madras management sought to shut down its activities due to intervention from the Ministry of Human Resource Development, sparking protests across the country.
Dalit activists though say that the University of Hyderabad, in particular, has a chequered history with respect to discrimination against students belonging to the Scheduled Castes.
R Ravikumar, an alumnus who studied at the UoH between 1987-1989, recounted how he, along with other SC students were denied fellowships by dint of their caste. “Discrimination has been blatant since 1987-89 when I studied there,” said Ravikumar, who is also the secretary of the National Dalit Forum. “When the National Eligibility Test (NET) was introduced in 1989, many of us cleared the NET but we were not qualified to avail of the fellowship because our overall percentage was below 55%. This was done blatantly only to Scheduled Caste students. Out of 127 students who cleared NET but could not avail of fellowship for want of 55% in their Masters – 68 were from University of Hyderabad,” he stated.
Ravi Kumar, who was part of a fact finding team that prepared a report on Rohith Vemula’s suicide, said that the issue began about seven months ago with a false claim by the ABVP that the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA, of which Vemula was a member) had protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon. “ASA and other Dalit groups were against capital punishment in connection with a proposed amendment to the SC/ST Act,” said Ravikumar. “The ABVP framed it as being in support of terrorists. It was not about Yakub Memon at all, it was a small protest against capital punishment.”
Dalit activists feel let down by political parties who, they say, have now come to usurp the limelight only after the tragic death of a young student. “None of the Dalit groups or leaders had gone to Rohith’s help,” said Ravikumar. “I feel he must have felt isolated and lost hope. No MLA or MP came to help these Dalit boys, while the ABVP had an MLC and MP to write letters to the Ministry. Now all political parties want to show their presence after he is dead,” he added.