Even as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi joined the student protests over the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, the ruling BJP and the main opposition party spent most of the weekend levelling allegations against each other.
The BJP blew hot and cold on the issue on Saturday, alternating between accusing the Congress of playing politics over the death of a “courageous” student to questioning Vemula’s very identity as a Dalit. “The facts have come out in the case, and as per as my complete knowledge, that student (Rohith) was not a Dalit. By calling him a Dalit student, this whole case has been raised as a communal incident by some people,” ANI quoted external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj as saying.
Vemula, a PhD student with the University of Hyderabad, had committed suicide on January 17, 2016, after he and four others were suspended by institution authorities on charges of assaulting an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activist. The university had allegedly taken the action at the behest of Union ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya.
The protesters are demanding that vice-chancellor Appa Rao resign over the incident, and action be taken against everybody responsible for the incident.
During his second visit to the campus on Saturday, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “I am here today at the request of Rohith’s friends and family, to stand with them in their fight for justice… A young life full of dreams and aspirations was cut short.”
Likening Vemula to the Father of the Nation, whose death anniversary fell on Saturday, he said: “He (the Mahatma) lived like that and fought for that all his life. And he was eventually killed by the very forces that did not want him to speak aloud what the truth was. It’s exactly the same thing that has been done to Rohith.”
The BJP rejected Gandhi’s allegations and asked him to “stop playing politics on dead bodies”.
“Gandhi shuns his own responsibilities and gatecrashes into others’ protests,” party spokesperson Sambit Patra said, adding that the Congress vice-president was displaying a high degree of insensitivity.
BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, on the other hand, blamed the student protesters for Vemula’s suicide. “Rohith Vemula was not that weak to commit suicide… I think those people who are responsible for his suicide are the ones who are agitating to defame Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government (sic). Once the probe is complete, these people would get exposed,” he said at a function in Indore.
The party general secretary alleged it was highly unlikely that Vemula had committed suicide over something that he termed as a “small incident”. “The suicide is unfortunate. He was a courageous youth who had the zeal to swim against the tide. Though a probe is on in his death, I don’t believe he committed suicide just because of a small incident of his expulsion from the hostel,” he said.
Union minister for social justice and empowerment Thawar Chand Gehlot promised to provide justice to Vemula’s family, and insisted that Gandhi had visited Hyderabad to take advantage of a tragic situation. “Before this suicide, there were eight to nine students who had committed suicide on the campus. We were in Opposition then, but we did not politicise the matter,” Gehlot said.
However, the Congress rallied behind its vice-president. “Rahul Gandhi has always been the voice of the people, whether they are farmers, Dalits or safai karmacharis. He is the voice of the poor and the underprivileged in the country. He also joined the candlelight vigil at the University of Hyderabad last night (Friday),” Congress leader Ajay Maken told reporters.
Rejecting the BJP’s allegations, he said: “It is unfortunate that they condemned Rahul Gandhi’s participation in the candlelight march. Instead of probing the role of the vice chancellor and their own minister in the Dalit scholar’s death, they are blaming Rahul Gandhi for politicising the issue. It is very unfortunate.”