Anger over the suicide of Hyderabad University PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, which has spread like wildfire over the country in the past couple of days, is singeing Mumbai too. Protests in the campuses of TISS and IIT have begun to find an echo in various colleges of Mumbai University, including those considered “elitist” – whether in SoBo or in the suburbs -- for any kind of activism.
That stereotype of Mumbai students, of course, is true only in perception. Traditionally, the city’s student community has been far less demonstrative compared to those from say Bengal, Bihar, Andhra to name a few states. But that is largely because of the ethos of the city which says “let’s solve the issue quickly and get on with it”, so to speak. This does not mean that Mumbai’s student community is apathetic. The awareness of issues – sociological, economic and political – is no less. Or the bonding with students from elsewhere in the country. The Emergency in 1975, for instance, was imposed in the middle of my undergraduate studies, and I remember long hours spent in the canteen, in hostel rooms and several other ‘addas’ where the primary discussion, as prodded by students from up north was of the ‘tyranny of the state’.
The speed of communication is a zillion times quicker today. The Internet and mobile phones link people and groups instantaneously. The impact of this is not just immediate, but can become a tsunami in no time, as the government at the Centre is beginning to slowly comprehend.
Make no mistake, the country is raging because a precious young life has been lost; the student community even more so because, all said and done, Rohith Vemula was one of them.
That there were two groups of students in Hyderabad University ideologically ranged against each other is beyond doubt. But such difference of opinion should not have been the problem that is being made out, rather how badly this was handled.
At a university, students come to a wider understanding of the world, including their own identity, ideology and belief systems. They will be pulled in different directions and often be at odds among themselves. There is not only nothing wrong with this, in fact it is healthy.
Dissent can open up minds, lead to breakthroughs in various spheres. Indeed, differences between groups could be so stark as to find no ideological reconciliation. Yet this cannot be allowed to degenerate into a situation of such violence – physical or psychological – that it leads to death or suicide. The manner in which this conflict has played out, the complicity of the vice-chancellor with a BJP MP in taking sides, the suspension that precipitated Rohith’s suicide and finally that the suspension of others associated with him has been revoked adds up to a ghastly story.
As it emerges, the HRD ministry played a crucial and – sadly irresponsible – role in the affair. Add to this, several other prior instances of needless meddling in academia and other universities and it throws up a disturbing thrust at the highest level.
Instead of accepting that she may have erred in heeding to her party’s MP and was slow in understanding the real crisis, Smriti Irani (and her party chose) to berate the opposition to rationalise their own blunders. The fact, however, is people voted for change. By reiterating that they are no different the ruling dispensation, I am afraid, could be cutting the ground from under its own feet.
It was disingenuous of the HRD minister (and her party) to contest whether Rohith was from a scheduled caste or not. For the ministry, surely every student is equally important, irrespective of caste and political affiliation.
But, as is more likely, Rohith was from an underprivileged background and whose mother stitches clothes to run her household, was a Dalit, it compounds the issue manifold. It shows the face of a country still chained to its obnoxious, caste-ridden past. Not quite the Incredible India we all want it to be.