The death of Dalit PhD student, Rohith Vemula, has shown how the HRD ministry under the stewardship of Smriti Irani has interfered in minor student politics, leading to an inferno of anger and his death.
By Ajith Pillai
It is said that a burnt child dreads the fire. But this does not seem to hold true for the HRD ministry under the stewardship of Smriti Irani. This alone explains why two incidents of eerie similarity involving Dalit students were precipitated by the ministry within a matter of three months. Under the circumstances, one can only conclude that either collective memory was too short-lived or HRD officials and their bosses didn’t think history would repeat itself. If they only had sufficient hindsight and foresight, they could have spared themselves criticism and embarrassment a second time.
The Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), a student’s group in IIT-Madras was banned or “derecognized” for holding discussions on the Sangh Parivar’s ghar wapsi drive, labor reforms, the land acquisitions bill and beef ban. By doing so, the Circle was allegedly indulging in anti-government and anti-Modi activities, according to an anonymous complaint (reportedly sent by an ABVP sympathizer) to the HRD ministry on April 19.
A month later on May 21, an undersecretary in the ministry wrote a note to the IIT director asking him to respond with comments on the unsigned complaint. Within 24 hours, the institute’s management acted. The APSC was derecognized, leading to nationwide protests. Ambedkar Periyar Circles were formed overnight in several IITs across the country. However, in a matter of 17 days, a U-turn was affected to cool tempers—the ban on the APSC was formally revoked on June 7.
On August 10, 2015, a letter dashed off by Nandanam Diwakar, the vice-president of the BJP in Hyderabad to BJP MP and Union mi-nister of state for labor, Bandaru Dattatreya, set off another chain of unfortunate incidents at Hyderabad Central University (HCU).
Diwakar’s letter related to an alleged attack six days back on local ABVP president Susheel Kumar by Rohith Vemula, a PhD student of life sciences and four others of the Ambedkar Student’s Association (ASA) of HCU. Dattatreya was requested to urge the government to ensure that the university did not encourage “anti-national activities.”
The case against ASA was that it held a prayer meeting in the campus on the day the Mumbai blasts case convict, Yakub Memon, was executed and that when the ABVP protested this, its president, Susheel Kumar, was allegedly assaulted in his hostel room by ASA activists.
Dattatreya did the “needful” required of him. He wrote to Smriti Irani on August 17. His letter was subsequently forwarded in an email sent by Ramji Pandey, undersecretary in the ministry, to the registrar of the university on September 3, seeking comments.
It was followed up on October 6 by a note signed by Subodh Kumar Ghildiyal, deputy secretary, to the V-C of HCU urging a speedy response to the earlier communication.Four more reminders were sent by the ministry to the VC, including one signed by the joint secretary.
What happened in Hyderabad was similar, although more intense, to that in IIT-Madras. But the cause was the same—interference in student politics by the HRD ministry.
The five Dalit students, including Rohith Vemula, were suspended, although the initial enquiry did not indicate any injury caused to Susheel Kumar as alleged by him in a police complaint. This suspension was upheld in the last week of December by a newly constituted sub-committee of the executive council and confirmed on January 3. Although the students were now allowed to continue their studies, they were barred entry into the hostel and other public spaces. This, the ASA and other organizations alleged, amounted to social boycott.
The confirmation of the suspension was also seen by Vemula as a signal that he may not receive his monthly `25,000 stipend which was not being released by the university since last July. The distraught student hanged himself on January 17, a day before the students were to go to the High Court to contest the suspensions.
The suspension and the blocking of his stipend were the immediate triggers, altho-ugh his death, as Dalit activist Kancha Illaiah put it, also reflected a deeper sense of alienation and marginalization. “The rustication and stopping his fellowship only drove the final nail in. It was the culmination of discrimination that students like him face every day.” Crucially, within four days of Vemula’s death, the suspension and restrictions on the other four students was formally revoked by the university.
The HRD ministry chose to interfere and sent repeated reminders to the Hyderabad university to act. It clearly did so because the complaint was made by a minister on behalf of the ABVP.
What transpired in the HCU was similar, although more intense, to what happened in IIT-Madras. But the precipitating cause was the same—interference in student politics by the HRD ministry. The only difference was that this one ended tragically in death.
Ever since Vemula’s suicide hit national headlines, the Modi government has been in a bind. The tragedy struck at the most inappropriate time. The BJP-led government had only recently tided over the intolerance de-bate that followed the Dadri beef killing case. It had also gone out of its way to celebrate Constitution Day by a calling a special session of parliament ahead of the Winter Session to celebrate the legacy of BR Ambedkar, one of the principal architects of the constitution.
It was seen by many as an effort by the BJP to reach out to the Dalit community ahead of assembly polls in several states in 2016-2017, as well as identify the party with India’s freedom movement. Vemula’s death also came shortly before Narendra Modi’s UP visit on January 22. At his constituency in Varanasi and in Lucknow he had to face the wrath of Dalits protesting the suicide in Hyderabad. At the BR Ambedkar University convocation in Lucknow, it was an emotional prime minister who spoke: “I am proud that India is a nation of the youth, its dreams and resolve are young. But at the same time we get the news that a young son of this country, Rohith, was compelled to commit suicide. What must have his family gone through. Mother India lost a dear son. Reasons and politics aside, the truth is that a mother has lost a son. I can very well feel the agony.”
The speech did not go down well in many quarters. Apoorvanand, a Delhi University professor, in a signed article had this to say: “It is difficult not to see the deception in ‘elevating’ the status of Rohith by calling him the son of Maa Bharati. An erasure is being put on his identity which was the essential cause of his death. He died because of his dalitness and this needs to be said again and again even if it disturbs our universalist, nationalist human sensibility, just as Mohammed Akh-laq was killed because of his Muslimness. It is empty rhetoric to say that we should grieve for them because they were ‘Indians and human beings’ and not confine them in narrow identity frames.”
The opposition was equally critical. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala was quick to say to reporters at the party headquarters: “We all respect the Prime Minister. We hu-mbly want to say that shedding crocodile te-ars will not return Rohith Vemula or do justice. The Prime Minister has poured cold wa-ter on hopes of any concrete action by not sacking (Smriti) Irani and Dattatreya.”
BSP leader Mayawati demanded action against those responsible for the suicide: “The attitude of the ministers against Dalit student Rohith Vemula was grossly condemnable and undemocratic. The party demands strict legal action against two central ministers (Irani and Dattatreya) and the VC (Appa Rao), who forced Rohith to commit suicide.” Said Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar: “There is an environment of political intolerance in the country that resulted in the suicide by a Dalit student. It is a matter of serious concern that intolerance has increased in the country.” And RJD leader Lalu Yadav said: “Humiliation, mental torture and victimisation of a Dalit student has again exposed the real character of the BJP and the RSS in case of Dalits.”
The BJP has been highly critical of the politicization of the issue and opposition leaders like Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi rushing to Hyderabad. Union minister Venkaiah Naidu said it was “the Congress engaging in cheap politics and the opposition following a 4D policy of disruption, diversion, delay and defamation.”
But the truth of the matter lies elsewhere. The entire scuffle between two student groups could have been settled in the campus and did not require the intervention of central ministers.
Susheel Kumar, the ABVP president at the centre of the fight has said in an interview that it was a minor incident: “This was just student politics. I have engaged in many conversations with Rohith, though we al-ways disagreed.”
And yet the HRD ministry chose to interfere and sent repeated reminders to the university to act. It clearly did so because the complaint was made by a minister on behalf of the ABVP, which like other Sangh organizations, prides itself to be a privileged entity whenever the BJP is in power.
One can only hope that incidents like the death of Rohith Vemula are not repeated. If not, many more Rohith Vemulas might be forced to write to their VCs “to serve 10 mg of sodium azide to all Dalit students during admission and supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students…”