Continuing Social Exclusion

Death of a Research Scholar

Sankara Narayanan

Pundits keep lecturing people that "Reservation is not the proper way to uplift the oppressed castes. Education and economic development alone can improve their lot". The latest incident at the University of Hyderabad on 17th Jan once again tells a different story.

Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar of the University of Hyderabad (UoH), allegedly hanged himself to death on Jan 17, days after he was expelled from his hostel along with four other researchers. The five Dalit students of 'Ambedkar Students Association' (ASA) had been on a sleep-in strike in the open on the campus ever since their expulsion.

Following his 15th nightout, Rohith had strayed away from the protestors' camp and spent his day in one of the rooms of New Research Scholar's hostel on Sunday. At 7.30 pm, he was found hanging in the same room. He hanged himself using the blue banner of ASA, a student outfit which has been fighting for Dalit rights on the campus.

In the five-page suicide note recovered from the room Rohith had mentioned how he always "looked at the stars and dreamt of being a writer" and an established academic. The research scholar hailed from Guntur district. His mother is a daily wage labourer with an agricultural background. His Junior Research Fellowship fund also used to support his family.

The victim was a second year research scholar of the science, technology and society studies department and also a UGC's JRF holder. The student is survived by his mother and a younger brother. In his suicide note, the student had also pointed out that for the past six months he had not got his JRF funds.

Long before taking the drastic step, the Dalit research scholar had sent warning signals. In a letter dated December 18, 2015 that bordered on a suicide note, he had asked the university authorities to offer "euthanasia" for him and other research scholars.

In the note, he described some possible modes of suicide. He asked the Vice-Chancellor to supply, "a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students through the chief warden... or serve 10 mg of sodium azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission." The letter was submitted along with a petition demanding that the university administration revoke their expulsion from hostels.

As per the order issued by the university on December 16, all five Dalit students—Rohith, Prashanth, Vijaya Kumar, Seshaiah and Sunkanna—were barred from contesting student union elections, apart from entering hostels, administrative buildings and other common places in groups. All students were part of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA).

The 'suspension' order allowed them to continue their studies in the university but denied them entry to the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups. It is difficult to imagine a more blatant exhibition of social boycott than such a punitive measure, directed at a group of students from a socially disadvantaged community. That this comes from the governing elite of a central university makes it even more appalling.

All the efforts by the RSS and BJP to appropriate the Dalit icon Dr B R Ambedkar as their own were brought to dust by the suicide of Vemula Rohith. His death is due to the general intolerant mind-set prevailing among the many caste Hindus. There is no point in blaming only the ABVP or Bandaru Dattatreya or the Vice-Chancellor. That is the way upper castes in general view the oppressed sections. When other parties were in power in Delhi also, similar incidents happened. And even before Independence.

As per Dr Ambedkar's proposals of 1943, SCs and STs were given preferential treatment in education in schools and employment in the state services. Unable to digest this social justice action, several caste Hindu leaders approached Mahatma Gandhi and complained that tradition and culture were sullied by allowing these privileges to the lower castes. Gandhi shot back at them, "Are you doing the same work your ancestors were doing?"

The country had witnessed enough of venom pouring, hatred, insult to OBCs and destruction of public property immediately after the Mandal Commission's recommendations were implemented by the V P Singh govt giving 27% of the jobs in public services to OBCs. Even though the Constitution sanctioned the move and later the apex court upheld the validity of the act, the upper castes' fuming and fretting continue till this day.

Mandal recommendations on 27% OBC Reservation in state and central services came into effect from 1993 after the nod from the Supreme Court. After two decades of implementation, OBCs occupy hardly 12% of the posts in A & B categories in the central services. The rest 15% is still occupied by the OCs. Yet there is a hue and cry that everything is lost.

UPA-I govt passed a bill giving 27% reservation for OBC students in institutions of higher learning like NIT, IIT, IlSc, AIIMSc and IIBM. Again all hell had broken out. But the apex court upheld the validity of the govt's move. During the agitation against the act, a few girl students were asked by the media (overwhelmingly dominated by the upper castes) why they were against this act. They had the racist audacity to say in public, "How can we get married if lower caste boys are allowed in these prestigious institutions?"

In last May, IIT-Madras had derecognised the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student association, following an anonymous complaint that it was instigating protests against the policies of the Centre and creating "hatred" against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Hindus. A prominent BJP leader from TN was in the forefront to pressurise the HRD ministry to ban the student association.

Earlier IIT-M's Director of Students told the students twice to change the name 'Ambedkar-Periyar' as it was polarising the student community. The cited official reasons for the ban were just bogus. Names of Periyar and Ambedkar were untouchable for TN's BJP and a few in IIT-M; and hence the ban. After a furore in the political, academic and social circles of TN, IIT-M management was forced to withdraw the unilateral ban. But the hatred against Dalit students remains intact.

Whenever an officer from the oppressed caste (civil service, university or judiciary) commits a mistake, the upper castes taunt them sarcastically: "What can you expect from a quota guy?" That is because the upper castes by and large just cannot digest Dalits.

An editorial in The Hindu 19th Jan rightly observes: "Rohith's death brings the Indian state face to face with its utter failure in addressing the social evil of caste and casteist discrimination. The Thorat Committee, constituted some years ago to investigate differential treatment of SC/ST students in just one institution, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, had come out with a damning indictment of the way Dalit students were treated. Forced into ghettoes in the hostel, discriminated against by teachers, denied access to sporting and cultural activities, SC/ST students in India's premier educational institutions walk into an environment that's virulently hostile to them".

Not surprisingly in the last four years 18 Dalit students chose to end their lives rather than continue to battle on in these dens of caste prejudice and social exclusion. The first step toward treating the rot of caste is to acknowledge it—after Vemula's tragic death. Not to do would be a crime.

Indian classes are not tired of lecturing the virtues of the American system. Here are two of that country's examples in realising its mistakes and taking remedial measures magnanimously.

A Vietnamese Buddhist monk immolated himself publicly as a mark of protest against the American occupation. The photographs of this immolation created such revulsion in the minds of Americans which ultimately forced the US govt to withdraw its troops from Vietnam.

After the historic triumph of civil rights movement led by the great Martin Luther King Jr, many white Americans reportedly expressed: "We the people owe a great deal to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A majority of us Americans were living with a sense of guilt, a sense of being rotten the way we treated our fellow men and women. His struggle has liberated us from such pain and has brought freedom to the oppressed Black men and women, we still have ways to go, but go we will".

People must appreciate the white majority to have stood up for what was right—and join King Jr on the steps of Lincoln Memorial to let the American administration know what was morally right needs to become the law of the land.

If Rohith Vemula's unfortunate death can create even a tiny ripple and change of heart among the upper caste men and women, his death will not go in vain.

Vol. 48, No. 34, Feb 28 - Mar 5, 2016