The Central government swung into damage control mode as the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula, research scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), became a raging political controversy on Wednesday. The government and in fact the BJP too appeared anxious to divorce the death from any caste angle, a politically precarious situation for the party.
Union Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD) Smriti Irani, whose Ministry sent at least four reminders to the Vice-Chancellor of UoH on the clash between five students of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) termed as “malicious” the attempt to “project it as a caste battle.”
“This is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue as being projected by some to ignite passion,” Ms. Irani told a press conference, while rejecting allegations that her Ministry had put pressure on UoH to suspend Vemula.
“The document which is being circulated as Rohith Vemula’s suicide note does not mention any name or MP or Minister,” she pointed out.
She said the warden of the hostel from where the students were suspended was also a Dalit and the Council that upheld the suspension was also headed by a Dalit.
“A group of students allegedly attacked another student; we have ascertained that this is not a Dalit vs non-Dalit confrontation,” she said.
Row undermines BJP drive to widen social base
Ms. Irani said she had only followed the official manual in responding to Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter to her asking for disciplinary action against the Dalit students over campus violence.
“The students challenged the order of suspension from hostel. HC refused to put a stay on the order,” she explained.
“I have responded similarly to letters written by Congress leaders too. Congress leader Hanumanth Rao had also written to me about incidents at UoH. The Congress wants to exploit this issue which is expected but unfortunate. The Congress MP says that this problem persisted for four years. If they [Congress] had fixed the problem four years ago, perhaps Rohith’s life could have been saved.”
Mr. Dattatreya too put out a clarification, saying that he had “only forwarded the representation of a student body, and would have happily forwarded representations of other student bodies as well.”
BJP general secretary Muralidhar Rao termed the deceased student as “psychologically disturbed” on the basis of his suicide note. Party insiders also pointed to news reports challenging the Dalit status of the deceased student.
The fire-fighting attempts show that Vemula’s suicide has become a tough political problem for the BJP that had worked hard in the last few years to broaden its social base to include both Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The party fears that the issue may affect its chances in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the coming year, when polls are due in these States.
“In both these States, the Dalit vote is crucial. In Uttar Pradesh in the last general elections, Dalits had voted for the BJP in large numbers. We fear this [suicide] will end all that,” said a senior office-bearer in the party.