The death of a Dalit scholar

Rohith Vemula’s suicide in the University of Hyderabad brings into the open the deep-seated caste biases and discrimination against Dalit students, especially in institutions of higher education in the country.

Published : Feb 03, 2016 12:30 IST

At the memorial to Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad.

At the memorial to Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad.

THE suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar in the University of Hyderabad, is not an isolated incident but the culmination of the systemic failure to address the specific needs of first-generation students, who often come from crippling rural poverty but with a steely resolve to break free from the caste prejudices that blighted their childhoods. Rohith Vemula’s is a classic case. He wanted to be a science writer “like Carl Sagan”, as he says in his January 17 suicide note, his “first of a final letter”.

Rohith’s death marked the ninth suicide in a decade in the university, according to people in the institution, one of India’s renowned centres of higher learning. Six of them were Dalits, one was an Adivasi, one belonged to a Backward Caste and one to an upper caste. Five of the Dalit deaths were linked to discrepancies in coursework, lapses by the administration on issues ranging from allotting a PhD guide on time to constant undergrading, and squeezing of grants. In Rohith’s case the suicide was because of extreme punitive measures. The personal circumstances of these students were difficult enough. The university has a responsibility to be sensitive to such students’ needs in order to achieve its own higher-education goals, which reflect the ideals of inclusive growth.

It all began with what appear to have been skirmishes on campus relating to student politics, something which the authorities at a Central university of nearly 50 years’ standing ought to have been able to handle better. On the night of August 3-4, 2015, an hour past midnight, a few students affiliated to the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), a left-leaning Dalit group, decided to seek an “apology” from Nandaman Susheel Kumar, a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and a second year PhD student in applied linguistics. The apology was for his perceived derogatory remarks on Facebook. His profile status update on August 3 read: “ASA goons are talking about hooliganism, feeling funny.” This was in response to a condolence meeting held on the campus on the eve of the execution of Yakub Memon in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case on July 30. The meeting was organised by the ASA to protest against capital punishment. Some members also held up placards and raised slogans, in Hindi and Telugu, which loosely translated into “How many Yakubs will you kill? There will be one from every home.”

By his own admission to the television channel Zee News on January 21, Susheel did not witness this protest and only saw photographs of it on Facebook. He said in the interview that he was “extremely disturbed by this incident and immediately sent photographs of the meeting” on WhatsApp to Sub-Inspector Bhoopati at the Gachibowli police station. He wanted to bring to Bhoopati’s attention the “anti-national activities” within Hyderabad Central University (HCU), as the university is also known.

Susheel made this comment with such nonchalance that it gave away his ignorance of its import—that it validated the apprehension of the political opposition that ABVP activists were increasingly being used as informants to keep tabs on them. Months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the Ministry of Human Resource Development under Cabinet Minister Smriti Irani directed the University Grants Commission (UGC) to issue a circular recommending increased police patrolling of college campuses under its purview. The directive invited sharp criticism from the academic community.

Bhoopati happens to be the officer investigating the complaint filed following Rohith’s death, in which six persons are charged with abetment to suicide and under various Sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The revelation that he and Susheel knew each other could invite the charge of bias against the officer, given the fact that Rohith Vemula’s caste is crucial in the case. In fact, the case cannot be taken up under the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities Act) if it can be established that the victim is not a Dalit or an Adivasi. The first information report (FIR) that was filed subsequently named Bandaru Dattatreya, Union Minister of Labour and Employment; Naraparaju Ramachandra Rao, a Member of the Legislative Council of the BJP in Telangana; Susheel; Nandanam Diwakar, Susheel’s paternal uncle and a BJP functionary who was apparently instrumental in getting Bandaru Dattatreya to write to Smriti Irani; HCU Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile; and ABVP student activist and Susheel’s friend Krishna Chaitanya, who was a witness to the incident on the night of August 3-4.

The complaint was filed by Rohith’s friend Dontha Prashanth, a PhD student in the Economics Department. The sticking point in Susheel’s social media post was the word “goons”, which he described as an “eccentric word” in his interview with Zee News. He asked why he could not use it when his rivals called him “saffron terrorist and fascist”.

Apology and “assault”

Frontline spoke to the Duty Security Officer, Dalip Singh, to understand what actually happened on the night of August 3. He said that well past midnight he saw Susheel talking on the phone for “quite some time” in a corner of the bicycle stand outside his dorm room at the New Research Scholar building in the North Campus area. “Some members affiliated to the ASA were standing at a distance of some 50 feet [about 15 metres] and demanding that Susheel come to them to apologise for the comment he made [on Facebook],” said Dalip Singh, corroborating his statement to the fact-finding committee. “He then cut the call and came. The students asked him why he had posted something on the Internet, I don’t understand much about the Internet, but he refused to do something that the students asked him to do. Finally, he gave in and wrote a letter [of apology].”

Dalip Singh had arrived there with a colleague after he received a call from the Dean of Students Welfare, Prakash Babu, asking him to check on a tip-off about a likely confrontation. Dalip Singh reached there at 1:20 a.m. about 20 minutes into the “meeting” between the students.

Susheel said he placed a 100 call to the police and also tipped off another police officer, “SI Naveen”, whom he was in touch with. Two police teams arrived within minutes of each other, according to Susheel. He accused the ASA students of beating him and dragging him out of his room and claimed that he had witnesses to bear that out. He added that they asked him to upload his apology on his Facebook profile. Eager to ease tensions, the two security officers offered to let him use their computer terminal at the main gate. Prashanth and his friend insisted on going with Susheel in the security officers’ jeep. At this point, there seemed to have been some pushing and pulling, which resulted in Susheel’s shirt getting torn and his getting a bruise on his left shoulder.

After Susheel uploaded the letter, Dalip Singh asked him if he wanted to stay in the university guest house where he would be provided security for the night. The security officer said he also enquired from Susheel about any violence against him and if he had any injuries. Susheel said he was all right. The ASA students returned to theirs dorms, and Susheel waited for his brother, Vishnu, who arrived in a car a few minutes later, and they drove away.

All this happened in a matter of an hour. Susheel later deleted his comments and deactivated his Facebook profile temporarily, to the dismay of the ASA students. His Facebook page shows no public posts between August 3, when he last posted a comparison on the number of executions of Hindus as against Muslims in India, and August 15, when he updated his cover photo with an ABVP rally to celebrate Independence Day.

On August 4 morning, about 10 ASA activists were taken for questioning by the police. Susheel had got himself admitted in a private hospital near by and called the police to make a complaint of violence and intimidation against six ASA members. These were also the six persons he named in his subsequent deposition to the Proctorial Board. On August 7, he underwent an operation in the hospital for appendicitis. His discharge summary, which Susheel shared with the media after Rohith’s death, gives a diagnosis of “blunt trauma abdomen with acute appendicitis”. He claimed that it was caused by the blows he received from the ASA activists.

“Some scratches”

This contradicted the observations made by Dr Anupama Rao, the resident medical officer appointed by the Proctorial Board to provide inputs on the basis of her meeting with the doctors who treated Susheel. Her report mentioned “some scratches on his left shoulder”. Speaking to Frontline , she said, “I only conveyed to the fact-finding team what the doctor who operated upon Susheel Kumar conveyed to me, which was that a laparoscopy was done when Susheel came in complaining of pain in the abdomen region, which he apprehended to be caused by the alleged assault. No internal injury was observed. To further rule out internal trauma, his abdomen was drained [a procedure to determine internal injury] to be doubly sure that there was no internal injury. The doctors confirmed that other than a bruise on the left shoulder there were no other marks of exterior physical injury caused by the alleged assault.”

The HCU medical centre is considered to be one of the best primary health centres run on university campuses anywhere in the country. It is open 24/7, and according to protocol it is the first line of treatment for any resident student. Dr Anupama Rao said, “I asked Susheel why he did not go there straight. He claimed that the ASA students did not allow him to return to the campus and that he feared he might be assaulted again. He believes that he developed appendicitis because of the extreme stress caused by the alleged assault.”

Dr Santosh Enaganti, a Hyderabad-based surgical gastroenterologist, ruled out the possibility of physical “trauma” causing an “infective aetiology”, in laymen terms something that is caused by an infection. Speaking to Frontline , he said, “Rarely with extreme physical injury, where it is deep enough and is very visible, like when there is a motor vehicle accident, can the injury manifest itself into appendicitis. But an external punch or direct contact does not reach the appendix. An external injury can at best unmask a pre-existing condition.”

RSS loyalists Susheel was unavailable for comment. His family, including his brother, Vishnu (29), who is a BJP youth wing leader, and mother, Vinaya Karunakar, resides at Chandanagar located in the vicinity of HCU, where Susheel lives in the hostel. The family has had a long association with the RSS, and Vinaya, 47, is a BJP member. She was given the party ticket to contest in the February 2 Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation election from her locality. After the incident and the events in its aftermath, Vishnu said, she chose to withdraw her nomination to be able to attend to Susheel’s health. But party sources said that allowing her to contest or campaign would be the equivalent of the party committing political suicide.

The day after the “apology incident”, BJP MLC Ramachandra Rao visited the acting Vice–Chancellor, R.P. Sharma, in his office along with Susheel’s mother. Speaking to Frontline , he said, “My role is confined to the visit to that boy in hospital, and the same day I went to console his mother, who was then with the Vice-Chancellor. At our meeting, the Registrar and the Dean of Students Welfare (DSW) were also present. I told the Vice-Chancellor that such type of activities was not good for student life on campus.” The visits raised eyebrows, but Ramachandra Rao did not see his actions as exerting pressure on the university administration. He has been quoted in the media as saying: “Some action should be taken against them [ASA]. Otherwise outsiders will teach [them] how to behave in this country.”

Fact-finding report The Proctorial Board, a fact-finding committee set up as part of the internal regulatory mechanism of the university, submitted its report, authored by Chief Proctor Alok Pandey, a professor in the Hindi Department, on August 12. He said the report was “incomplete” because the deposition and medical report of the main complainant, Susheel Kumar, were unavailable, and he criticised Sharma for asking “for its submission in three-four days”. A decision was reached on the basis of the deposition of Krishna Chaitanya, whom Susheel deputed on his behalf with a letter to support his case. The Board noted that Krishna Chaitanya himself was unable to provide any “hard evidence” of physical assault. The report recommended that a “strong warning” be issued to both parties, which was approved by the Vice-Chancellor, but this was asked to be kept confidential, along with an order to seek further deposition by Susheel at the “earliest possible opportunity”. This has been widely viewed as Sharma succumbing to political pressure from Susheel’s family to act against the ASA students.

Meanwhile, the two faculty members invited to the Board wrote a letter of dissent to the Vice-Chancellor complaining of arbitrariness in the conduct of the proceedings. The August 12 letter by University of Hyderabad Teachers Association (UHTA) general secretary Deepa Srinivas and then president K. Laxminarayana, a copy of which is with Frontline , alleged that midway through the proceedings they were told that they would not have voting rights on the final recommendations and that they were only “special invitees”. “The inclusion of representatives of elected bodies (teachers, students and non-teaching staff) in committees should be substantive rather than for the sake of formal membership. It defeats the very purpose of such a committee if decisions are dependent on voting rights rather than the consensus reached by all the members after careful consideration of the facts of the matter,” said the letter.

More pertinently, the letter also “raises the question as to how the university allowed the police to enter the campus, while the campus has its own internal security mechanism. Why was the police allowed to pick up students from within the campus, and how could the police detain them for an entire day?” The UHTA represents over half the teaching faculty of 406 filled positions out of the 556 prescribed by the UGC. It refused to participate in any further proceedings without voting rights, which meant that the initial Proctorial Board, a statutory body, stood dissolved. Despite this, a new fact-finding committee continued with further depositions.

On August 17, Bandaru Dattatreya, who is the MP from Secunderabad, wrote to Smriti Irani stating his concern for the “casteist, extremist, anti-national” political climate on the campus. He claimed that Susheel Kumar was “manhandled” by members of the ASA, “leading to his hospitalisation”, and that the university administration was a “mute spectator” to this incident. This letter was forwarded to the Registrar of HCU on September 3 by an Under Secretary in the Ministry. Five reminders were sent, one every two weeks, initially to the Registrar and then directly to the Vice-Chancellor. By the time the second reminder was sent, Professor Appa Rao Podile had replaced Sharma as the Vice-Chancellor, filling the post that was vacant for almost a year since Ramakrishna Ramaswamy’s resignation. The fourth reminder, dated October 20, 2015, even had a handwritten salutation to “Prof Podile” by Joint Secretary Sukhbir Singh Sandhu in the MHRD. It said: “I would appreciate if you could kindly look into the matter personally and get the facts provided at the earliest to enable the Ministry to submit a reply to the MoS.” Smriti Irani defended these communications as “routine” whenever the Ministry received any communication from a “VIP”.

Mother goes to court As if all this did not constitute enough pressure, Susheel’s mother, Vinaya, filed a case in the Hyderabad High Court on August 26, the day Susheel deposed before the extended Proctorial Board investigations, seeking “protection for her son” as she feared for his life at HCU. In the petition, she accused the university administration, security, faculty, as well as the police of being in collusion with ASA activists. Paragraph four of the petition accused the Dean, Students’ Welfare (DSW), who happens to be a Dalit, of being “rude”. Vinaya says in the petition: “I was shocked at the attitude of the DSW Prakash Babu, whom I am arraying as respondent herein. I learnt that he guided the attackers. The Facebook posting by the attackers declared that they went to the room of my son in midnight after informing him! My son appeared before the Proctoral Board Committee on 26-8-2015. I went with him to campus and met some staff. They are cold, unsympathetic. I felt uneasiness. The Hon’ble court is the only hope.”

Suspension and protests

On August 31 the Proctorial Board recommended that the five students whom Susheel named as having participated actively in this incident be suspended immediately from all classes and the hostel for the rest of the semester. The order came on September 8, and the students who were informed were Prashant; Rohith; Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, a political science PhD student; Seshaiah Chemudugunta, a PhD student at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy; and Velpula Sunkanna, a PhD student in the Philosophy Department.

Massive protests broke out on the campus, led by the ASA and supported by a broad Left coalition of student groups. They had the tacit support of several faculty members and administrative staff. The suspension was revoked three days later on the condition that a new committee would be formed to look into the entire incident and that the students would comply with its orders, whatever they might be.

There followed a delay of nearly three months for a report of the “sub-committee of the Executive Council”, which was formed arbitrarily by flouting the university’s own statutes. The University of Hyderabad Act of 1974 stipulates the formation of a Tribunal of Arbitration to hear appeals of students against any disciplinary decisions by the administration. The Act states that the tribunal must consist of a representative of the complainant student, a member appointed by the Executive Council, and an “umpire” appointed by the Visitor, who is the President of India. This was not followed in the case of the appeal, made by way of a letter by the general secretary of the striking ASA students, against the Proctorial Board’s decision of suspension, which the UHTA refused to be a party to. Instead, the ad hoc six-member subcommittee, constituted under the leadership of the seniormost faculty member, Professor Vipin Srivastava of the Physics Department, simply concurred with the Proctorial Board’s decision.

The Vice-Chancellor, who has the final say on all university decisions, decided to reduce the punishment to not allowing the suspended students access to dorms, messes, common facilities and participation in student elections for the remainder of their coursework. This was conveyed to the five students on December 16, an entire month before Rohith committed suicide. Between then and January 14, no one from the administration attempted to reach out to these students.

Were the students in the wrong in the way they went about extracting an “apology” from Susheel? Yes. But did it require such harsh punitive measures? The administration under Appa Rao feels that it did. He, in fact, called them “mild”. Several faculty members Frontline spoke to agreed that Appa Rao’s decision was influenced largely by political pressure.

The appointment of a Vice-Chancellor is almost always a political decision, and Appa Rao’s case appears to be no different. A faculty member with over two decades of service said: “He [Appa Rao] is not senior enough on the campus. He could have got support from the BJP/TDP [Telugu Desam Party] combine [in Andhra Pradesh]. He is believed to be known to [Union Minister for Urban Development] M. Venkaiah Naidu and [TDP MP and Minister of State for Science and Technology] ‘Srujana’ Chowdhary. Besides, Appa Rao belongs to the powerful Kamma community, which is dominant in coastal Andhra Pradesh. And as the TDP is an ally at the Centre, this could have influenced their decision.”

Both Appa Rao, who has since gone on indefinite leave, and Vipin Srivastava, who took over as acting Vice-Chancellor (he, too, went on leave subsequently), have had allegations of caste prejudice levelled against them. They have refuted the allegations, but they cannot be brushed off so easily. Appa Rao’s case relates to a 2002 incident when as Chief Warden he attempted to initiate “reforms” to end alleged corruption in the procurement of provisions for the student-managed hostel messes. The manager, appointed on a rotational basis, was a Dalit student when the idea of a Central Purchasing Committee was introduced. As feared by the students, this resulted in an increase in their food expenses. On January 10 that year, a group of 10 Dalit students approached Appa Rao with a set of complaints on the increase, but he refused to budge. Those privy to the incident said there was a minor scuffle. Appa Rao claimed that he was beaten up severely, and this led to the rustication of the 10 students. Years later, some of them were able to obtain their degrees from HCU, and one even became a professor in the university.

A Dalit student from Tamil Nadu, Senthil Kumar, was admitted into the PhD course in physics when Vipin Srivastava was the Dean of the department. The confirmation of a PhD is through a written test and an oral examination. In Senthil Kumar’s case, an extra test was added without any explanation, and this delayed his confirmation by close to two years. He lost his scholarship in the process and began to lose hope of confirmation. He committed suicide on February 24, 2008 (story on page 19).

An internal committee report authored by Professor Vinod Pavarala of the School of Mass Communication states: “Although this committee has not found any deliberate or systematic discrimination practised by the department against reserved category students, it is a fact that most of the students affected by the inconsistencies and ambiguities in procedures were S.C./S.T. students, leading to the building up of a perception of discrimination among students belonging to these communities. All the physics students that this committee could meet have reported their sense that the department was acting against the interests of the S.C./S.T. students.”

The “vellivada” protest In Rohith’s case, the five students initially accepted the order and stayed with friends in their rooms. But university dorms are small and generally overcrowded with little room to manoeuvre. The feeling of injustice had been festering, and the decision to make this an issue was taken in late December. All the five suspended students decided to camp out in the cold at one of the university common areas, the shopping complex located at the entrance of the north campus. They called it “vellivada”, the “outside area” where the Dalit neighbourhood is usually located in a village. The symbolism was not lost on anyone.

All the suspended students, including Rohith, were among the brightest in their departments. All had crushing stories of discrimination and poverty to tell of their growing-up years. They were all first-generation graduates in their families. Seshaiah Chemudugunta, 27, is from a village in Nellore district. His late parents were agricultural workers and also worked as domestic help for the Reddy landlords of his village. An early memory that later formed a part of his an understanding of caste bias was of the private tuitions he attended— but not for very long because his parents could not afford the Rs.20 a month for three hours of after-school classes. Seshu, as he is called, would often be the class pupil leader at school, where almost all students were Dalits or from other lower castes; Reddy parents sent their kids to private schools. The class pupil leader position went beyond the school and into the private tuitions, which were run by the teachers at the government school. But there he had the upper-caste kids for company, who would ask him not to touch them when he attempted to shepherd them to the teacher when they misbehaved.

Seshu and the other suspended students worked hard to get to universities like HCU. Dalit students of the earlier generation that benefited from reservation were role models to several of them. Seshu recollected one of the earliest marriages he attended after moving to HCU. He was invited by a senior at HCU to a civil union of a Dalit couple, where the men were “tall and well dressed in suits and ties” and yet they were active in the Dalit empowerment movement. “You normally find people like me or others who don’t speak good English and come from villages in organisations like ASA,” Seshu said, but this experience was something completely different. “It gave me hope that it is possible to overcome our social status through education,” he said, reflecting the ideals of his organisation and several other Dalit groups that have flourished on college campuses in the post-reservation era.

Tragic as Rohith’s death may be, it marks the coming of age of this movement, with increasing and expanding spaces in the cultural and intellectual life on campuses. The ASA has, in fact, been one of the dominant students unions at HCU, winning the past three successive elections in alliance with the Students Federation of India.

Segregation in classrooms But this has not meant the end of discrimination. Prabhakar, a PhD student of Ancient Indian History, said: “Initially you are all excited to meet new people. There is also a sense of being liberated and being an adult. But within a month of classes, the classroom gets automatically segregated. You realise where you belong, who your friends are and whom you can relate to.” Prabhakar has been struggling to finish his PhD for years now. He was one of the first to go on a hunger strike following Rohith’s death demanding that the Vice-Chancellor, Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani resign.

“The professors are from Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard. They speak high-flown English in class and don’t pay attention to simplifying it for students who may not understand. You also have posh, urban students who look down on you for not following at their pace,” said Prabhakar. Remedial coaching was introduced as a coping mechanism following the suggestion of a committee that looked into the death of a student in 2008. But the administration has failed to evolve a comprehensive coaching mechanism that caters to the specific needs of students.

A city like Hyderabad is also not only physically separated owing to its location on the outskirts but is also out of bounds for the lean wallets of poor students. Once students cultivate friends from similar backgrounds, the campus becomes a comfort zone, but it also quickly begins to define their entire life. A sense of isolation quickly sets in. Not doing well academically only adds to the pressure.

All this has posed new challenges to college administrations to work towards greater integration and attend to the specific needs of students from marginalised communities. This is something the authorities have been chronically late in realising because of deep-seated prejudices within the administration, which has also begun to divide teaching and non-teaching staff on caste lines.

In 2013, reacting to news reports, the Andhra Pradesh High Court took up the issue of suicides on college campuses suo motu and recommended a slew of measures, including academic grievance redress committees; sensitisation of counsellors on the specific needs of women and Dalit and Adivasi students; and a comprehensive review of rules and regulations that govern the conduct of PhD courses.

Sukhadeo Thorat, a former UGC Chairman known for his proactive approach in setting up interdisciplinary courses to increase inclusion, says every institution is expected to have an equal opportunity officer, an external ombusdman whom students who feel discriminated against could go to.

Rohith’s campus experience was no different from that of other students of Dalit background. He was exceptionally good at his course work and was a budding leader. He had set his eyes on the “stars, from the shadows” as he said in his suicide note.

To echo a line from the protest meeting that led to this tragic incident, the dramatic change in the student composition on college campuses and on academic and cultural life in colleges nationwide ensures one thing: for every Rohith killed, there will be another who will rise in every home.

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