It is often said that age is on India’s side. But what is often brushed under the carpet until it becomes a big ‘story’ like the suicide of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula is the churn that is happening within India’s much talked about ‘demographic dividend’. On the one hand, there is the ongoing ‘Occupy UGC movement’, which started last October in response to a recommendation for scrapping the non-NET fellowship, and the protests against the authorities at Jadavpur University in Kolkata for not holding students’ elections.On the other are Vemula’s two letters, one of them a suicide note, which point towards severe caste discrimination by the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) authorities. Vemula, who committed suicide on Sunday, was one among the five research scholars suspended by the HCU in 2015 for assaulting an ABVP student leader during the protests and counter-protests over the screening of a controversial documentary and the funeral prayer for Yakub Memon. Though an earlier committee led by the vice-chancellor absolved the five of any wrong-doing, a second panel set up by the V-C to investigate the matter again led to the police registering a case and the five Dalit students being suspended. The second panel was set up after the intervention of a BJP Member of the Legislative Council and a letter from Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya to Union HRD minister Smriti Irani. On Monday, Dattatreya, HCU vice-chancellor Appa Rao and two others were booked for abetting the suicide of the scholar. Following violence on the campus, Section 144 has been imposed in the university.
While his eloquent yet painful ‘suicide note’ spoke of his ambitions and how they have been stymied by events that forced him to take his life, his earlier letter, to the V-C, talks about the reasons behind his angst: In it he makes a ‘modest proposal’ that the ‘solution to the Dalit problem’ could lie in the university providing ropes in every room for Dalit students to commit suicide, or ‘10 mg of sodium azide’ to them at the time of admission. In 2008, Senthil Kumar, a Dalit pursuing his PhD in physics at HCU, had committed suicide.
Vemula’s death has now become a platform for political jousting. The intervention by the central authorities is only leading to institutional paralysis when the matter should have been solved at the university level. Leaders and academics must try to find ways to end institutional discrimination against students and ensure that they don’t lose faith in the internal appeal process in the way Vemula seemed to have had.