Opposition parties and activists hit out on Thursday at Union minister Smriti Irani for allegedly distorting facts in the case of a Dalit scholar’s suicide even as the University of Hyderabad revoked a suspension on four of his fellow students amid swirling nationwide outrage.
While Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal demanded the human resource development minister’s resignation and criticised her for “playing caste politics” over the death of 26-year-old Rohith Vemula, about a dozen professors at the university quit their administrative posts, accusing Irani of making “fabricated statements”.
Vemula was among five students suspended by the institute following allegations of assault on a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an RSS-affiliated students’ body.
“Smriti Irani lied yesterday and tried to play dirty caste politics and tried to play with the emotions of the students,” Kejriwal told protesters at the university, referring to Irani’s remarks on Wednesday that there was a “malicious attempt” to project the issue as a caste battle. “We demand she seek an apology from the entire country for that. We appeal to the Prime Minister to remove Smriti Irani and Dattatreya from his Cabinet.”
The issue has snowballed into a massive political controversy with critics alleging that the HRD ministry pushed for the Dalit students to be punished by sending five reminders to the university’s vice-chancellor after labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya complained to Irani’s department.
The BJP, which has been hit by a rash of controversies since taking power at the Centre with several of its leaders being accused of stoking communal tensions, is trying to play down the issue which could hurt its chances in this year’s state polls and may dominate the Parliament’s budget session.
The SC/ST professors who quit said in a statement that they decided to step down following Irani’s “fabricated statements” and also rubbished her claim that a Dalit professor was among the members of the university’s body that suspended the students including Vemula.
“It is very wrong to say that the sub-committee (of the executive council) which expelled the students was headed by a Dalit. It was headed by professor (Vipin) Srivastav who is not a Dalit,” a professor who did not wish to be identified told HT.
Administrative posts are non-teaching jobs assigned to professors like the recruitment committee of student admission panel.
Amid spiralling protests, the university lifted the suspension of four Dalit students who were accused along with Vemula of assaulting an ABVP activist.
“The council after taking into account the extraordinary situation prevailing in the university, and after discussing the issue in detail, resolved to terminate the punishment imposed on the students concerned with immediate effect,” a statement by the institution said.
Following the decision, vice-chancellor Podile Appa Rao asked the Ambedkar Students’ Association, which is spearheading a campaign seeking his resignation, to resume classes and maintain harmony.
The revocation gave a fresh handle to the Congress to attack Irani and Dattatreya with the party demanding a probe by a sitting high court judge and an apology from Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the HRD minister’s “misconduct”.
“Regrettably, had this decision been taken prior to January 17, Rohith Vemula would have been alive today,” the party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said. “She (Irani) is lying through her teeth in a bid to protect the ABVP leader. It also establishes the completely illegal and unconstitutional pressure used by HRD ministry earlier leading to suspension of five Dalit scholars and consequent suicide of Rohith Vemula.”
The Congress has demanded the sacking of both Irani as well as Dattatreya who wrote to the HRD ministry last year alleging that the campus had turned into a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.
ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar, allegedly the victim of the assault, demanded a “fair” inquiry and rejected claims that he had lied about being attacked by Vemula and other members of the ASA.
Police have booked Kumar and another ABVP member apart from Dattatreya and the university vice-chancellor for abetting Vemula’s suicide.