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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Hyderabad University suicide case divides politics in India - Live Mint

Last Modified: Thu, Jan 21 2016. 12 06 PM IST

Rohith Vemula’s suicide case not a confrontation between Dalit and non-Dalit, says Smriti Irani


Photo: PTI

New Delhi: Even as politicians including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal throng the Hyderababd Central University (HCU), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government on Wednesday said the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula had nothing to do with caste and instead accused its opponents of playing caste politics.

Without naming anyone, human resource development (HRD) minister Smriti Irani said an attempt is being made to project the death as a “Dalit versus non-Dalit issue to ignite passions for political reasons”.

At least 10 SC/ST teachers of HCU have resigned from their administrative roles, protesting Irani’s remarks that Dalit faculty members were also part of the probe that expelled research scholar Rohith Vemula and four others.

According to The Times of India , Prakash Babu, Dean of Students Welfare and member of SC/ST Teachers and Officers Forum, said, “The minister is misleading the nation. We will not work under the administration as there has been no representation from the Dalits in the executive council since the university’s inception.”

At least 20 SC/ST teachers wanted to quit their jobs, before faculty members realised that in that event, students will have no support. It was then decided that teachers will quit from administrative positions, but continue to teach. “It is only by staying in system that we can build pressure on the administration,” added Babu.

Noting that the suicide of Vemula might well be a “turning point” in India’s history, Dalit scholars on Wednesday laid out nine demands and asked the central government to meet them immediately.

They demanded Rs.5 crore compensation for Vemula’s family, a government job for his kin, a home for his family, revocation of suspension of the four Dalit scholars and initiation of criminal proceedings against Hyderabad Central University V-C P Appa Rao, Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya and others who are already facing an FIR under SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

They demanded the removal of Dattatreya from the cabinet, of BJP legislator Ramachandra Rao from the legislative council, and removal of V-C Appa Rao and professor Pandu Reddy from the university.

The suicide of Vemula and the national outrage that has followed has also attracted global condemnation. In an open letter to HCU vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile, professors and scholars from universities across the globe have appealed that “justice be done in the most recent case of caste discrimination in Indian higher education.” The letter has been signed by 196 academicians, including Christophe Jafferlot, a French political scientist specialising in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, at the CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris.

“To me, Rohith Vemula’s suicide is the result of the social milieu which persists in the university system or, rather, on the higher education campuses,” said Sukhadeo Thorat, counted among the country’s most accomplished Dalits. The economist is currently the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and was previously the chairman of the University Grants Commission, was quoted in an interview with Scroll.in.

With Dalit leaders speaking up and BJP’s attempt to highlight Dalit student Rohith Vemula as someone who “supported terrorism” finding few echoes, the party on Wednesday went into damage control mode.

Sources said the growing protests from the student community and the anguish expressed by Dalit leaders, including the party’s own MPs, came up for informal discussions at the Cabinet meeting. Party sources said it was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who suggested that Union ministers Irani, Thaawarchand Gehlot and Nirmala Sitharaman should address a press conference clarifying the government’s stand on the matter.

The incident also casts a wider question on the state of student politics in the country.

In recent times, a pattern is emerging in how the Centre has been reacting to student “unrest” or assertion, writes The Indian Express . Panchajanya’s denouncement of Jawaharlal Nehru University as an “anti-national den” last year was not an isolated comment. The bullying by the HRD ministry of the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Chennai and, now, the repeated hectoring of the University of Hyderabad to “take action” against “casteist, extreme and anti-national” elements, to quote a letter by a Central minister, is not innocuous. It is at the heart of the government’s strategy to suppress those who protest, speak, argue and dissent. It is also an acknowledgement of their power as nodes of action that could influence thought. The FTII has been an issue that continues to simmer because it is important for the government to assert itself in creative areas, which are disruptive by definition, and perhaps in this government’s world view, need special handling and a strong shot of mediocrity to snuff life out.

However, Rohith’s suicide was as much about caste as it was about political dissent on campuses. That his final letter is silent about caste or politics has been falsely billed as corroboration that neither killed him. On the contrary, it reflected a depressed and defeated man attempting to clutch at other attributes that defined his persona.

The words used for Vemula indicate how his death has divided politics in the country. “Caste battle”, “confrontation”, “deep shock”, and “unpleasant treatment”, were among terms used on Wednesday by a range of politicians speaking on the scholar’s death.

Finally, though, the question must be posed in terms outside the strict purview of ‘secular-communal’, with its ramifications beyond the immediate politics over the death of Vemula. 

Can a son of a private security guard and a seamstress from a Dalit background dream of writing like Carl Sagan and practice radical Ambedkarite politics within a university campus in India without worrying about his life or liberty or running out of his accommodation and scholarship? Up there, Sagan and Ambedkar must be happy to have Vemula for company.