Caste and Universities
‘My Birth is my fatal accident’ read the title of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide letter, who committed suicide following his protest against his University’s ‘anti- Dalit’ posturing. This allegation bears a serious charge. Rohith Vemula’s death on 17th January 2016, in Hyderabad Central University sent shockwaves across the country. Several months later more like him have ended their lives underlining the state and societal apathy that Rohith himself identified with. His suicide letter spoke about his inability to comprehend his Dalit identity and what it entailed, he sounded acutely nihilistic about his purpose in life. The fact that he belonged to the Dalit community and his life being wrought with the prejudice accompanying the community reflects the sad, unstated motive behind his suicide. The Hyderabad Central University had expelled Rohith and four other Dalit scholars on account of attacking the University’s student party president during the month of September 2015. The fact that his letter mentioned, the suspension of his due stipend of his scholarship of seven months overwhelmingly spoke about the university’s gross highhandedness. His letter emphasized that the due amount be paid to his parents. Although, Rohith chose not to blame anyone for his fatal step, his silence and inability to make sense of his circumstances reclaim a different reality.
The widespread student protests across various states and universities in the country triggering this incident was long due and justified. University authorities taking such stringent action against five Dalit students of its campus was baffling to say the least. Rohith and the other Dalit research scholars had been protesting against the prejudice that was being meted out to Dalit students. They had appealed to various political factions for support but to no avail. Rohith along with four other Dalit research scholars were expelled from the university following allegations of attacking a local student leader. The Joint Committee comprising the students of Hyderabad Central University further opine, that the university was pressurized by the MHRD following political interference. The media also reports that Rohith and the four other Dalit scholars were suspended from the hostel premises and that they had been camping outside the university gates ever since their suspension. Rohith’s only means of survival which included a monthly stipend of 25, 000 rupees was also withheld. This is not an isolated case of a Dalit student committing suicide, but symbolises the reality of the pan Dalit prejudice that is practiced in the country. It is so shameful and painful to bear witness to such injustice being carried out on a daily basis on socially marginalized groups. Caste prejudice is breaking the country and creating barriers within people, communities and institutions. Caste prejudice is so rampant, that it has become invisibilized inside our social fabric. One cannot comprehend the progress of a nation that believes in any prejudice being accorded to any community on any basis. The political class’ later attempts to align themselves with the students’ protests for equality signified more the garnering of political mileage than ensuring true justice for Rohith and countless others. Rohith was a free thinking individual with big dreams who was a research scholar and whose mentor was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The prejudice meted out to him was such that culminated in his suicide. Imagine the plight of millions of such individuals belonging to the same class and category who would be facing the reality of society that claims to adhere to an ideology where ‘FREE’, ‘EQUAL’ Indians can think and aspire to be a good citizen of this great nation. The ethics, ethos and the pursuit of education and knowledge which was conceived and practiced by the great educationist, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and the supreme architect of the of Constitution of India, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar lies defeated by the undercurrents of such incidents in many universities of the country. Immense frustration with the ‘brahmanical’ ethos of his university led Rohith to end his life. The Joint Committee of Students also state that nine other Dalit students were also institutionally murdered in the same university. Students from socially marginalized sections of the society have always have had to face social ostracisation and suppression of their voices. Dr. B.R Ambedkar saw a great vision for this nation. He deeply struggled towards the relinquishing of all kinds of prejudice. He, throughout his life championed the cause of equality for all. Dr. Ambedkar believed that equality will be the touchstone for students pursuing education irrespective of caste, creed or colour. The rights to the depressed classes were clearly enshrined in the constitution of India but it is an irony that incidents like Rohith Vemula’s case at Hyderabad university and similarly circumstanced cases depict the environment in the universities that falls far beyond the so called inclusive growth in the educational institutions. The injustice must stop, institutional murders of bright young minds should not happen. Students and teachers need to be empowered.
Rohith’s last letter spoke about his immense disconnect with his surroundings, with the elitist world ideologue. He talks about his immense loneliness and lack he experienced during his childhood and was still experiencing as an adult. Rohith’s letter also said, that he always wanted to become a writer, somewhat along the lines of Carl Sagan for he loved science, the stars and the cosmos.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at GDC, Samba)