The BJP-led central government launched a counteroffensive on Wednesday to blunt opposition attacks on two central ministers over a Dalit scholar’s suicide, as HRD minister Smriti Irani pointed towards a “malicious attempt” to project the issue as a caste battle.
Facing strong protests and demands for her resignation from opposition parties over Rohith Vemula’s death, Irani said this was being done to ignite passions for political gains, while labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya tried to distance himself from the controversy, saying he did not push the University of Hyderabad to suspend the student.
“This is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue as being projected by some to ignite passion and there is a deliberate attempt to provoke students across the country,” Irani said in Delhi while rejecting allegations that her ministry had put pressure on the university to suspend Vemula.
The Irani-led HRD ministry has been at the centre of a controversy after it emerged that it had written five letters to the university following Dattatreya’s complaint that the campus had turned into a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.
Irani, who addressed a press conference, read out from the research scholar’s suicide note as well as other documents to drive home her points.
“The document being circulated as Rohith Vemula’s suicide note does not mention any name of MP or minister,” said Irani in response to allegations that Dattatreya’s complaint and the ministry’s follow-up had led to his suspension along with four other students. “An MP wrote about certain observations and we merely followed rules. Dattatreya himself is a Yadav.”
Vemula ended his life on Sunday at the institution following his suspension after an alleged clash with a leader of the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). BJP leaders are concerned the nationwide outrage over the suicide may seriously dent its strategy for a slew of crucial state elections this year.
Political leaders continued to make a beeline for the campus a day after Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s trip, with the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien and YSR Congress party chief YS Jaganmohan Reddy among those who arrived on Wednesday.
“This is not abetment of suicide. It is straightforward murder,” Yechury told reporters.
Students at the university have been boycotting classes since the incident, while protests have erupted on college campuses in several parts of the country with clamorous demands for Irani, Dattatreya and the vice-chancellor to be removed from their posts.
Irani rubbished allegations that the BJP was trying to saffronise education and said the executive committee of the varsity was formed when the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre.
Countering allegations on the caste angle, she said the ABVP-affiliated students allegedly attacked by members of the Ambedkar Students Association, including Vemula, also belonged to the other backward classes (OBCs).
Irani said a two-member fact finding committee sent to the university by her ministry will return Wednesday night and file a report after which further details will be known.
The Hyderabad high court which is hearing two petitions related to the incident – one seeking protection for ABVP leader Susheel Kumar on campus and another filed by the suspended students against the university action — has reportedly posted the matter to January 25.
Accusing the Congress of trying to use the issue for political gains, Irani referred to a letter written to the ministry by the opposition party’s MP, Hanumantha Rao, in September 2014 where he talked about suicides by marginalised students in the university spread over four years. She said the ministry followed the same procedure in this case too and sent six reminders.
“In fact, we sent more reminders in his case,” said Irani. “The Congress MP says this problem persisted for four years. If they (Congress) had fixed the problem four years ago, perhaps Rohith’s life could have been saved.”