Rohith Vemula Draws The Battlelines
A poster at a protest
NEW DELHI: Rohith Vemula had a tough life. The son of a daily wage mother, a security guard father, he broke from discrimination---the special kind reserved in this country for Dalits---and poverty to find his feet in the academic world. A voracious reader, a boy well liked for his easy, pleasing generosity, a son who sent home money from the little stipend (that was stopped since last September) he was getting as a PhD scholar every month for his family, a student who inspired respect, Rohith found “peace” when he reached Hyderabad Central University.
The Citizen has taken reports of interviews with Vemula’s friends, teachers and family to piece together the following narrative, that brings home the scholar as a person, his politics, his death. And focuses attention on the role of the government and the University authorities.
Vemula was clearly very happy with his admission in HCU and spoke of it as being a “nice” place, and of looking forward to making friends. Not very political in his younger years, he started acquiring a political worldview in the University that was further honed as the months went by. He was very active in the Ambedkar Students Association, and moved from as he himself put in in a Facebook post along the way from Marx to Ambedkar. He was a voracious reader, and friends recall that both these thinkers were a big favourite.
Significantly, Vemula got the Phd Seat without using his SC status. But despite this was subjected to constant discrimination, and as his friends have said in interviews this was evident in his earlier letter to the Vice Chancellor where he speaks of a rope, of Euthanasia, for Dalit students. The VC and the University authorities ignored this letter altogether, not intervening at any level to address the problems the Dalit students were facing. As Vemula wrote: “Not speaking about caste cannot eradicate the caste…. It just makes the discrimination nameless!!! And our activisms are not Identity politics, they are struggles for recognition.”
The ABVP activists attacked the ASA students when they protested against the Yakub Memon hanging. It is clear from all the students who have spoken out since that the protests were not specific to the Memon case, but arising also from the larger opposition to capital punishment. But was not seen as that with the ABVP posting derogatory words about the ASA students calling them “goons.” The students objected, there was an altercation and in the process ABVP leader Susheel Kumar was beaten up. He underwent a surgery later, but while there have been attempts by him and his colleagues to link the two, the initial enquiry reports and medical records have seen no such links. In fact, stated the opposite.
Vemula left word that Rs 40,000 should be paid back to a friend from whom he had been borrowing money every month to send back home to his family. This is the life of struggle and hardship this scholar led, with the University’s decision to stop the stipend leading to incalculable difficulty not just for him but for the family he was supporting with the small stipend, and seeing himself through college. This was then followed by an enquiry that threw him and his colleagues outside the hostel, without even a roof over their heads. The very fact that this was being pushed by no less than a Minister in government, by the Human Resource Development Ministry at the top most level, cut into whatever faith Vemula had left in the system.
His letter to the VC speaking of euthanasia was a cry out for help, but clearly the insensitive, compromised and under-pressure authorities had little time for the Dalit scholars, even as they bowed to the will of the Ministers in government. The death has so shocked the students that the four other Dalit scholars who had been suspended with him are under medical counselling for visible depression.
Against this what has been the governments response from the beginning:
1. Minister Bandaru Dattatreya writes to the HRD Ministry for action against the Dalit students to protect the ABVP;
2. HRD Ministry writes to University authorities, not once, but four times for action against the students, again to protect the ABVP;
3. The University throws five Dalit students out, stopping their access to all facilities except classes;
4. There is satisfaction all around, reflected in the silence of the government and the authorities, until Vemula kills himself in despair;
5. The authorities rush to cover up the case, and cremate Vemula ‘in secret’;
6. Rumours are spread by those in government and authority: a) Vemula is not a Dalit; b) Vemula was violent. A character assassination appears on the social media. This is challenged by the students who by then are holding demonstrations in Hyderabad and other cities; the anger spreads;
7. Finally realising that the damage is not being controlled with the allegations and the falsehoods, HRD Minister Smriti Irani calls the family five days later to offer condolences; and holds a press conference to maintain that all possible action has been taken;
8. PM Modi rushes to visit Ambedkar institutions in Lucknow and refers for the first time in days to Vemula’s death, calling him ‘beta’ but again very deliberately leaving a question mark hanging over the sequence of events that led to the suicide;
9. The government offers Rs eight lakhs to the bereaved family;
10. The family rejects the money. And retains its freedom to speak out for justice for the dead scholar.
“The Prime Minister says he (Rohith) was a son of Mother India. I am not big enough to talk about him (PM). Why he did not speak for five days?" Vemula’s father Raju tells the media. Rohith's mother, Radhika, said, "(Union Education Minister) Smriti Irani called up after five days. Why did it take five days? You are also a woman, you are also a mother and it took five days (to call up the family and condole the death)."
"I want to know why he died. Was he killed or did he die? Why was he suspended? Those responsible should be arrested and punished. That's the only thing I want," she said.
In the midst of this, the not so veiled attack on Vemula and the ASA continues. ABVPs Kumar is made to hold a press conference linking his surgery with the alleged assault. Other BJP leaders question the ASA, with a loud whisper campaign launched against the students. Demands are made to dissolve the Association, and to take action against faculty members promoting “anti national” activities in the campus. It might be recalled that several teachers resigned in protest, and others did not as a strategic decision to stay in harness to protect the remaining students.The focus is sought to be shifted from the discrimination and the death to the altercation in which Kumar was hit, witnesses are produced and the possibility of a ‘crackdown’ on dissenters within the University hinted at.
The battlelines are drawn. And the government seems to be on the other side of the fence on the issue of freedom, liberty and equality.