To say that Vemula Rohith Chakravarthy, a 26-year-old PhD scholar in science and technology, had ended his life on 17 January on the University of Hyderabad (UoH) campus because of his suspension from the university hostel or because of a tiff with rival students from ABVP is an understatement. The tragedy could have been averted had the authorities woken up long ago.
The university, which came into being in 1974, has been a cauldron of simmering caste tensions between Dalits and forward castes for long. Add to that the ideological battles between the “extreme left” and “Hindutva” forces. Seven Dalit students have ended their lives since 2008 in this university, including Rohith.
CHAIN OF EVENTS
The immediate chain of events that led to Rohith’s suicide originates from the hanging of Mumbai blasts mastermind Yakub Memon on 30 July. On that night, Rohith along with several other Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) members, joined a candlelight vigil on the campus to protest the hanging. “Tum kitne Yakub ko maroge? Har ghar se ek Yakub niklega (How many Yakubs will you kill? Every home will give birth to a Yakub)” is stated to be a slogan raised at the protest.
This and other slogans, as well as the very conduct of the memorial meeting, were protested by the activists of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the students’ wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The ABVP unit at the campus also interrupted ASA’s screening of a controversial documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hain, made on the 2013 riots in Muzaffarnagar. These incidents raised temperatures between the Dalit students and the ABVP.
ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar’s Facebook post after the protest meeting, saying that the “ASA members acted like goons”, led to his beating up by around 30 members of ASA. He was forced to apologise for the post. After this, Susheel’s mother, Vinaya, a local resident, lodged a police complaint on the assault.
This further heightened tensions between the two groups. Gachibowli police visits to the hostel rooms became a regular affair to probe complaints from both sides against each other. Vinaya also filed a case in the High Court on 15 November, seeking action against ASA members for assaulting her son.
Meanwhile, BJP’s Member of the Legislative Council, Ramachander Rao visited the campus twice in August and led a delegation of ABVP members to the then Vice-Chancellor, R.P. Sharma, who assured them of action against the ASA members. A panel, constituted by the university executive council, ordered the suspension of four ASA members, that of Rohith, D. Prashant, P. Vijay Kumar and C.J. Seshaiah.
The present VC, Dr Appa Rao assumed office on 22 September 2015. Immediately, the issue flared up due to past problems between him and the Dalit students.
Efforts to revoke the suspension did not yield any results. As the issue reached the High Court, the VC preferred to wait and watch. All the suspended students were evicted from their hostel rooms on 3 January 2016.
After that, the suspended students along with several other Dalit students set up a makeshift tent on the campus and named it “Velivada” (exiled hamlet), symbolising the habitat of untouchables in a village. Rohith’s PhD scholarship from the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) was stopped from July 2015
Rohith was supposed to visit his mother, Radhika and younger brother, Raj Kumar on Sankranti festival, but he stayed back. At 7 pm last Sunday, Rohith entered his friend Sai’s room and hanged himself from the ceiling fan.
Though this appears to be a single case of suicide prompted by one disciplinary action by the university, enquiries made by this newspaper reveal that six more suicides by Dalit students took place in the university since 2008: Sentil Kumar (2008), M. Keshava Chary (2009), R. Balaraj (2009), Dheeravat Tejavath (2011), P. Raju (2013), M. Venkatesh (2013) and Rohith (2016).
According to Gachibowli police officers, a day never passed in the last six months without one clash or the other between ASA and ABVP activists. “Most of the issues could have been resolved through a little bit of effort, but there is no middle-ground here. There is a lot of bitterness and bad blood between the two groups,” said an ACP, preferring anonymity.
Since its inception, UoH has been populated by faculty and students from all over India. But the majority of local students are from coastal Andhra Pradesh. Most of the ASA members belong to Guntur and other coastal districts, just as the VC, Dr Rao, who is a renowned plant scientist from Guntur, but who belongs to the forward caste of Kamma.
“As the caste contradictions between Dalits and forward communities, especially Brahmins and Kammas, are acute in the coastal belt, the baggage is carried to the UoH,” said Dr K. Ramadas, a senior research scholar in the university.
Most of the Dalit students depend on scholarships and any slight disciplinary action will affect their financial source in the university. The UoH has been dominated by Dalit and forward caste student unions, except for a brief phase of radical Left groups until the late 1980s. Presently, ABVP is dominated by non-Dalits.
MATTER OF IDEOLOGY
The rivalry between ASA and ABVP has an ideological backdrop. The ASA, which comprises different Dalit student groups, has come to its present shape after many upheavals. The two major massacres of Dalits in the coastal Andhra—at Karamchedu and Chunduru—by the upper caste Kammas brought together the Dalits and Naxalites in seeking revenge. As many as six Dalits were killed in Karamchedu in July 1985 and 13 Dalits were killed in Chunduru in August 1991. Since then, most Dalit student organisations from coastal AP made common cause with the Naxalites.
Before ASA came into being, Dalit students rallied around the Progressive Students’ Forum, which also included those with extreme left ideologies. People like G.N. Saibaba, who was arrested in a Maoist case, used to mentor the forum activists, interpreting Ambedkar’s call for caste annihilation as annihilation of Hindutva.
The Naxalite groups were officially banned by the AP government in 1991, after which, a section of the extreme left took shelter among the Dalit groups. It may not be right to describe all Dalit students’ associations as extreme left, but some of them harboured ideologies that mixed “extreme left” and “radical” Dalit activism. In the process, these Dalit groups developed abhorrence towards Hindutva and the RSS.
Before ASA came into being in the early 2000s, Dalit students rallied around the Progressive Students’ Forum, which also included those with extreme left ideologies. People like Delhi University professor G.N. Saibaba, who was arrested in a Maoist case, used to mentor the forum activists. They interpret Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s call for caste annihilation as annihilation of Hindutva.
That was the reason why Rohith, in a video clip leaked by the ABVP, is seen expressing his hatred for the saffron in strong language, and admitting that he had torn a saffron flag on campus. That was also the reason why ASA was protesting the hanging of Yakub Memon.
MATTER OF ADMINISTRATION
The animosity between the ASA activists and the VC, Dr Appa Rao dates back to his days as the chief warden of the university between 2001 and 2004. At the time, when he tried to segregate the university dining hall into vegetarian and non-vegetarian sections, in 2002, the Dalit students attacked him, prompting the rustication of 12 of them for two years. Dr Appa Rao’s appointment as the VC only aggravated the situation on campus.
Recently, when a delegation of ASA students met the VC, he told them that a lot of pressure was put on him by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), following a letter from Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who, by the way, is an OBC. MHRD deputy secretary Surat Singh sent five reminders to the VC since 2 September, seeking action taken.
In his letter, Dattatreya has mentioned certain “anti-national” activities on the UoH campus and the way ABVP activists were beaten up. Dattatreya denied responsibility for Rohith’s suicide saying on Wednesday in Delhi that he merely forwarded two representations given to him by the local ABVP unit on 10 and 29 August.
Similarly, HRD Minister Smriti Irani too clarified that her ministry had nothing to do with the suicide as the ministry simply forwarded the letters by Dattatreya just like another letter from Congress MP V. Hanumanth Rao. “Had the previous UPA government taken action on the suicide of six Dalit students, Rohith would have been with us today,” she said in a media meet in Delhi.
Echoing her words, former teacher and MLC Chukka Ramaiah regretted that no effort was made to bring peace on campus. Ramaiah was a member of a fact finding team into the suicide of P. Raju, a UoH Dalit student who ended his life in 2013. The AP High Court that probed the tragic ending of Raju has made some suggestions to the UoH, the ministry of HRD and the government to prevent such incidents.
The suggestions include a grievances cell in the university to look into the complaints from Dalits and other marginalised sections and to take steps to instill confidence among Dalit students to pursue their studies on par with others, etc. Even three years after the HC guidelines there was no follow up action in the UoH.
NOTION OF DISCRIMINATION
More than any direct caste discrimination against Dalits in this university, the ideological notion of helplessness, the inability to cope with studies as most of these students are from the rural background and the past baggage of caste rivalries with upper castes in their native areas are playing a role in the suicides. The perceived notion of discrimination based on their past seems to be weighing them down.
Though other Dalit students who committed suicide in the past were poor in their studies, Rohith got the PhD seat in the open category and was a brilliant student. He got his CSIR scholarship on his merit, but he was always active in ASA activities and was in the forefront of fighting injustice to other Dalits.