As spontaneous protests over the suicide of young research scholar Rohith Vemula in the University of Hyderabad on Sunday spread across the country, the Human Resource Development Ministry under Smriti Irani had to step out and clarify that it had not applied pressure to expel the five Scheduled Caste students following a written complaint from Cabinet Minister Bandaru Dattatreya.
Ms. Irani left for poll-bound Assam on Monday after sending a two-member fact-finding committee to look into the case.
But her Ministry’s clarification has triggered several other questions.
Throughout Tuesday, as it emerged that the Ministry had sent five letters, including four reminders following Mr. Dattatreya’s letter dated August 17 last year — giving the impression that it had put pressure on the administration to expel the five students, four of whom were sons of agricultural labourers — officials said they were only following official protocol of acknowledging VIP letters. Curiously, Mr. Dattatreya’s letter to the Ministry had come despite a clean chit given to the students by the university administration.
In his defence, Mr. Dattatreya explained that he wrote after ABVP students from the campus had approached him.
While the HRD Ministry sought to douse the fires, Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot, it was learnt, was upset at the turn of events leading to the scholar’s suicide. The Social Justice Ministry too has sent a fact-finding committee.
Mr. Gehlot also met up with ICSSR chairman Sukhdeo Thorat on Monday who handed him a memorandum submitted by the expelled students. The memorandum was the last in the series of letters the students had sent out following their expulsion from the campus.
Eager to distance themselves from the situation, Ministry officials clarified that they had merely forwarded Mr. Dattatreya’s letter.
“It would be wrong to say that the Ministry put any pressure on Hyderabad University,” they said.
We went by the book, says HRD Ministry
As the HRD Ministry came under fire over the suicide, officials cited the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure.
According to the procedure, if there is a VIP reference (in this case Mr. Dattatreya’s letter), it has to be acknowledged in 15 days and another 15 days may be taken to reply to it.
“Since no response was coming from the University, the Ministry had to send reminders,” spokesperson Ghanshyam Goel said.
The Ministry was hard-pressed to explain why it chose to re-direct letters to the University of Hyderabad, marked anti-national as subject matter of correspondence — giving rise to suspicion that Ms. Irani’s office was taking the lead from Mr. Dattatreya’s complaint referring to the students as ‘anti-nationals.’ The university replied on January 7.