The >suicide of Rohith Vemula , a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, is yet another tragic testimony to the feudal passions of caste that roil India’s institutions of higher education, which are known to harbour delusions of being meritocracies. Vemula was one of five Dalit students, all belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), who had been suspended by the administration. The ‘suspension’ order allowed them to continue their studies in the university but denied them entry to the hostels, administration building and other common places in groups. It is difficult to imagine a more blatant exhibition of social boycott than such a punitive measure, directed at a group of students from a socially disadvantaged community. That this comes from the governing elite of a central university makes it even more appalling. The ostensible reason for the suspension of Vemula and the four others was an alleged clash between students belonging to the ASA and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), an affiliate of the right-wing Sangh Parivar. An inquiry by the university culminated in the suspension order. It was against this punitive measure that they had been protesting. On Sunday, the young scholar decided to cut short both his protest and his life. His suicide note, which was posted on social media, states categorically that no one is responsible for his act, a statement that should not be taken at face value.
The police have registered cases against Union Minister of State for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, the University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor P. Appa Rao, and two ABVP activists on charges of abetment to suicide, and violation of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Activists say the circumstances leading to Vemula’s death were sparked by a letter from Mr. Dattatreya to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani, charging the ASA with being “extremist” and “anti-national”. Trying to make sense of a death by suicide is an onerous, and frequently futile, exercise. But Vemula’s death demands it, not least because it is a national shaming. It brings the Indian state face to face with its utter failure in addressing the social evil of caste and casteist discrimination. The Thorat Committee, constituted some years ago to investigate differential treatment of SC/ST students in just one institution, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, had come out with a damning indictment of the way Dalit students were treated. Forced into ghettoes in the hostel, discriminated against by teachers, denied access to sporting and cultural activities, SC/ST students in India’s premier educational institutions walk into an environment that’s virulently hostile to them. Not surprisingly, according to one estimate, in the last four years 18 Dalit students chose to end their lives rather than continue to battle on in these dens of caste prejudice and social exclusion. The first step toward treating the rot of caste is to acknowledge it — after Vemula’s tragic death, it would be a crime not to.