Will shadow of Dalit scholar’s suicide loom over PM’s Lucknow visit?

  • Rajeev Mullick & Pawan Dixit, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 21, 2016 19:54 IST
Activist of a Dalit organization participate in a candle light vigil holding photographs of Indian student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. (AP)

At a time when Hyderabad is on the boil over the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University (BBAU) on Friday will be keenly observed by political pundits. Around 50% of the students at the Lucknow varsity belong to the Dalit community.

To prevent potential protests during the Prime Minister’s visit, only university staffers and 519 students who are to be given degrees and medals will be allowed to enter the venue. This step was taken in cognizance of certain students who have taken to the social media to voice their resentment over the Vemula episode.

Vemula, a second-year PhD student, had ended his life on January 17 after the University of Hyderabad initiated disciplinary action against him and a few colleagues for their involvement in student politics. The action was allegedly taken at the behest of Union ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya.

Shreyat Boudha, a Dalit student who claims that he was arbitrarily expelled by the university, has asked Modi in a tweet to revoke the action taken against him. Many of his college-mates have similar complaints.

Speaking to HT, Shreyat drew a parallel between his story and that of Vemula in Hyderabad. “We were expelled because we opposed the university’s move to name the library after Sardar Vallabhai Patel. We wanted it to be named after Dr Ambedkar. The university was looking for an opportunity to expel those who raise their voice against it, and it got one when an upper caste student passed a casteist remark against us. We objected, and were expelled,” he claimed.

However, the university administration rubbished the allegations. BBAU spokesperson Kamal Jaiswal said, “The university has not expelled anyone. Three of them were arrested for beating up an upper caste student after consuming liquor on the campus. We have only banned their entry into the campus until the internal inquiry has been completed. An internal committee is investigating the matter, and the final verdict is yet to come out.”

During his visit to the state capital on Friday, Modi will also visit the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Mahasabha in a move that’s being seen as a poll strategy to woo Dalits ahead of the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. He will become the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the memorial, where the iconic social reformer’s ashes have been preserved.

“This is part of a clear design to woo Dalit voters… two of the three events are related to Dr Ambedkar. Of the 3,500 students who study at Ambedkar University, 50% are from the Dalit community. The writing is on the wall. This exercise will not only set the tone for the assembly polls but also go down well with the RSS, helping it carry forward the state’s poll agenda,” said Sudhir Panwar, professor at Lucknow University.

At the memorial, community members will discuss atrocities committed against Dalits, including the Hyderabad scholar’s suicide, with Modi. “Several issues related to atrocities against Dalits across the country, which have come to the fore lately, will be taken up with the Prime Minister,” Dr Lalji Prasad Nirmal, president of the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Mahasabha, told HT.

Vemula’s suicide will also be taken up during the discussion, he said. “Dalit students are being victimised in all educational institutions across the country, not just the University of Hyderabad,” Dr Nirmal added.

According to the association president, lack of Dalit representation in the management committees of universities was the main cause for their victimisation.

This is the first time a Prime Minister would be visiting Lucknow in the last 13 years. Atal Behari Vajpayee was the last premier to come by, way back in 2003.

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