Campus rising

Rohith Vemula’s suicide has led to an unprecedented political mobilisation of students. The ASA and other student organisations at the University of Hyderabad are spearheading what has become a nationwide movement for an urgent overhaul of India’s higher education system.

Published : Feb 17, 2016 12:30 IST

Rohith Vemula.

Rohith Vemula.

THE Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), of which Rohith Vemula was the vice president before his death, was formed in the crucible of reservation politics—on April 14, 1994, the 103rd birth anniversary of India’s first Law Minister, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. The early 1990s were tumultuous years, not only because India had embarked on the path of economic liberalisation but also because it was witness to a burst of pro- and anti-affirmative action groups in the country’s colleges. At that time, Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s government was attempting to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations on reservation in government jobs and higher education for discriminated communities almost a decade after they had been made.

Atrocities against Dalits

There were successive incidents of atrocities against Dalits in Andhra Pradesh and loud anti-reservation campaigns led by affluent dominant-caste students. The Dalit counter to this was initially weak but gained momentum in later years. At the UoH, or Hyderabad Central University (HCU, as the institution is popularly known), a vociferous movement opposing affirmative action began with the formation of the Anti-Reservation Commission Forum. Riots broke out on Hyderabad’s streets, public transport was vandalised and the city shut down for days. Upper-caste students would polish shoes on the roadside and sweep public areas, meaning to portray how they felt that identity as a marker and not just “merit” would make a mockery of the education system. In response to this, a small group of Dalit students formed the Progressive Students Forum (PSF) in 1990. The precursor to the ASA, it was formed at a time when virtually no student politics other than politics relating to reservation existed on HCU’s campus.

Keshav Kumar, one of the founding members of the PSF who is now a professor of philosophy in Delhi University, said: “Even talking about caste was militancy then because it was never discussed openly. Dalit students would not even secure 50 marks after enrolling. They would be compelled to leave the course within the first semester. The biggest problem was the psychological trauma of not having the cultural language to deal with other students. English was the biggest barrier. There was no money for food.” Evaluation was a serious problem: deliberate under-scoring by teachers was high. After the intervention of the PSF, things began changing. “We took up all issues collectively. We would approach the administration as a group; there was no vertical leadership. That’s what democratised the students’ spaces on campus,” said Kumar.

But as Andhra Pradesh was on the edge following a slew of atrocities against Dalits, the idea began gaining ground that there was a need to have a more organised association with its own political and theoretical voice that would go beyond just celebrating Ambedkar’s birthday to responding effectively on issues. The 1985 Karamchedu and the 1991 Tsunduru Dalit massacres were still open wounds.

At Karamchedu in Prakasam district, close to the district headquarters of Ongole, eight Dalit men fleeing a marauding Kamma mob were hacked to death on July 17, 1985, because a young boy from the community had “committed the indiscretion” of talking back. In Tsunduru in Guntur district, 13 men were killed on August 6, 1991, for an incident at a cinema theatre in which a Dalit boy refused to apologise when his feet touched a Reddy man sitting in the seat in front of him.

Formation of the ASA

The large-scale arrest of HCU’s Dalit students soon after the killing of the police officer Kota Srinivas Vyas in January 1993 was the final trigger for the formation of the ASA. Vyas founded the Greyhounds police force, whose purpose was to rid Andhra Pradesh of naxalism. The Greyhounds gained notoriety for staging encounter killings of naxal leaders across the State. On January 27, 1993, a naxal activist gunned down Vyas during his routine jog at Hyderabad’s Lal Bahadur Stadium. The police picked up several students of HCU—which was then known for its left-wing student politics—including Dalits who had never been part of any political movement.

Galla Venkata Ratnakar, a Mala Dalit who saw some of his friends getting picked up, decided along with nine others that something needed to be done to stop the arrests. He invited to HCU a lawyer/activist professor from Guntur, Kathi Padma Rao, who had gained prominence for aiding the Dalits of Karamchedu. On April 14, 1994, at a meeting on the HCU campus, the ASA was born. Ratnakar is now a professor in the Hindi Department at the Hyderabad-based Maulana Azad National Urdu University.

Ratnakar said that after Rohith’s death the issue had gained international recognition, but there was a problem of a different dimension: “While the English media have powerfully backed us, the regional Telugu media is against us. So the fight should be more local than international.” But most Indian Central universities by virtue of their funding patterns, course curriculum and admission process, and even their geographic location, tend to be cut off from local politics. For example, HCU is located at the north-western tip of Hyderabad on a massive 800-hectare compound.

However, the political acuity the members of the ASA have shown despite their troubles—from using the Right to Information Act to obtain copies of the letter Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to Minister of Human Resource Development Smriti Irani and the latter’s five reminders to the university on action taken, to the formation of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) for Social Justice—has been a transformation they themselves did not see coming.

The ASA and 14 other student organisations at HCU are leading what has become a nationwide movement for an urgent overhaul of India’s higher education system to make it more representative of the country’s diversity, not just in numbers on college campuses but to go beyond that and recognise the myriad insidious ways in which caste discrimination manifests itself and to address them effectively. It has prompted global academics to write an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding justice for Rohith’s family and a reversal of the budget cuts made in the higher education sector. This single issue has united national opposition leaders ranging from Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal.

Overnight after Rohith’s death, the symbolic “vellivada” (which means outside area in Telugu), the shopping complex at HCU where Rohith and the four other Dalit students who were suspended were camping out, became a political campaign office. A makeshift tombstone that had been erected to memorialise Rohith gave way to a permanent structure the day after his death. Seating arrangements, a help desk with printouts of everyday events, and a donation box (all the expenses were being borne by the ASA and the other student organisations), all appeared within a matter of four days.

For days, indeed weeks after Rohith’s death, the shopping complex resembled the Speakers’ Corner at London’s Hyde Park. One dignitary after another from every walk of life —lawyers, bureaucrats, writers, artists, politicians and academics —some who had been invited by the JAC for Social Justice and others who had come on their own, visited HCU to lend their support to the students who went on strike after Rohith’s suicide. Rahul Gandhi even sat on a day-long hunger strike on January 30 to commemorate Rohith’s 27th birthday.

The unity of the students and their constantly changing tactics to push their demands have ensured that at every turn, those who confronted them, right from Smriti Irani in New Delhi to the HCU management, have been on the defensive, their oft-repeated defence being that Rohith’s death is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. But this defence does not ring true and has instead exposed the government’s counter strategy of portraying the ASA as “anti-national”, in particular, the group’s position on the hanging of the 1993 Mumbai serial blast convict Yakub Memon.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development also tried in vain to create divisions within the main faculty union, the University of Hyderabad Teachers Association (UHTA). Prompted by Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile, a non-office bearer called meetings to press teachers to recommence classes and thereby weaken the UHTA’s support for striking students. This was swiftly countered by the majority of the faculty, who felt that the students were justified in their demands.

Modi’s government has also been working hard to malign Rohith’s family. Their caste credentials have repeatedly been called into question.

The Central government is keenly aware that Rohith’s suicide like nothing else that has occurred before in Modi’s tenure—the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the murders of rationalists and the return of state-conferred awards by writers and academics that followed —has touched the ruling party’s soft underbelly when it comes to support from the oppressed castes.

Moreover, it cannot deny the letters sent to HCU, which Smriti Irani characterised as routine treatment of “VIP” requests. All this has dealt a body blow to the Sangh Parivar’s Dalit outreach initiatives spelt out on December 11 last year, when the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh asked all its members in its 52,000 shakha s (daily gatherings) across the country to “adopt a Dalit family, socialise with them, which would include meals and reciprocal home visits”.

None of these attempts has been able to deflect attention from the fact that once in power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the Centre has repeatedly made questionable faculty and administrative appointments in higher educational institutions, such as the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune and the English and Foreign Languages University and HCU in Hyderabad.

Besides, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the BJP’s student wing, has felt emboldened to flex its muscles nationwide, as in the case of its protests at the Hyderabad-based Osmania University against Dalit students’ annual beef festival or through the levers of power, as at HCU. The striking students at HCU have so far achieved the “indefinite leave” of Appa Rao Podile and of his replacement, acting Vice-Chancellor Vipin Srivastava, and are in no mood to relent.

March to Parliament

After over two weeks of lockdown following Rohith’s suicide on January 17, HCU finally reopened, but the issue has gone much beyond that. His suicide has led to an unprecedented political mobilisation of students nationwide.

From the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai to the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and universities in Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Punjab, hectic preparations are on to mobilise support for a nationwide event across colleges on February 20, which is to be observed as International Day of Social Justice.

Then there is to be a march to Parliament before the end of this year’s Budget session, which begins on February 23, to press for the reversal of fund cuts in higher education and an expansion of the term “discrimination” in the modern context to include, but not be limited to, caste, women and sexual and religious minorities. The issue has already become the Modi government’s biggest political hurdle, which it will find hard to cross.

The credit for the political acumen, organisational coherence and preparedness, and clear tactical positioning with social groups and other movements needed for such a student mobilisation goes to untiring and passionate leaders like Rohith. Rohith would have liked to have witnessed this political flurry.

His friends miss him, for he had the ability to unite divergent groups, such as the transgender community, on a wide range of issues.

Karthik Bittu, a PhD scholar and a transman at the Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences, said: “Rohith, once he noticed injustice, could not unsee it or ignore it. For him, the personal was very much the political.”

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