Call it an indirect admission of caste-based discrimination in universities or a knee-jerk reaction by a government caught on the wrong foot.
Within days of Dalit student-activist Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad, which triggered countrywide outrage, the Union human resource development (HRD) ministry has decided to conduct workshops in central universities to “sensitise” administrators about issues concerning socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged students.
The ministry had absolved itself of any wrongdoing after being accused of putting pressure on the university administration to suspend Vemula, considered the main cause of his suicide. It contended that it was following procedures by sending five reminders to the university about labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter in which he termed the Ambedkar Students’ Association as anti-national. Vemula was part of this Dalit association at the university.
The ministry will now organise workshops to sensitise administrators, starting from Assam University on February 1 followed by similar workshops at the Hyderabad university on February 8.
A special module has been prepared for this programme, which will also be held in Delhi University, Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha, and the University of Bihar.
“That they have agreed upon this workshop or training is an acknowledgment of the fact that there is discrimination on campuses. The training should be seen as a first step but strict implementation of the prevention of atrocities act is required. At the same time, they need to put in place a platform within the universities where Dalits can speak openly without fear,” said Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).
Academic administrators, including vice-chancellor, deans of student welfare, registrars and hostel wardens, will attend these workshops.
“An effort should be made to integrate rather than segregate. The fact that they are conducting this workshop is an admission of discrimination,” said PL Punia, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
BJP MP and Dalit leader Udit Raj supported the move, saying there was an immediate need for such workshops because of discrimination on campuses across the country.
“Concerns of Dalit students need to be addressed. I was depressed during my university days as I came from a rural background and there was a huge divide in terms of language, status. My professors were unable to realise this. So it is good that the ministry is planning to do this,” Raj said.
Subhash from the Kranti Yuva Sangthan, a student association, said more needs to be done by the government, including reviving the equal opportunity cell, to ensure Dalit and poor students could learn English — a language that often creates social divisions on campuses.
A fact-finding committee set up by the ministry had pointed out that lack of dialogue between the Hyderabad university administration and the students proved fatal. “VCs and other senior functionaries have to engage with students. They also need to understand how to reach out to them, especially the socially and economically disadvantaged students,” a senior HRD official said.