The suicide of a Dalit student in the University of Hyderabad on Sunday is a shocking reminder of an India which, while stepping into state-of-the art science and technology, remains steeped in caste politics and prejudices.
The student, Rohith Vemula — who was pursuing a doctoral thesis and who belonged to a low caste, called Dalit in the Hindu religious hierarchy — had for long been facing social discrimination.
Once considered as “untouchable”, a Dalit, despite a quota or reservation system in education and government employment, has to still grapple with biases that are sometimes cleverly camouflaged. This kind of hostility in society is most seen and felt in rural India that makes up for about 60% of the country’s total area.
Vemula’s woes began last December when he and five of his fellow research scholars — all Dalits and who were part of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) — were suspended following an alleged brawl with students of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), part of the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules in New Delhi and under which the university falls.
A conflict between the two groups is said to have risen last July after a reported ASA protest over the execution of the terror accused, Yakub Memon.
However, a probe by the university’s proctorial board gave a clean chit to Vemula and the four others stating that there was no conclusive evidence to prove that the Dalits were involved in the brawl.
But the tide turned against the Dalits when the federal minister of state for labour and employment from the BJP Bandaru Dattatreya stepped in and wrote to the federal human resource development minister Smriti Irani (also from the same party).
Dattatreya’s letter said that the university had become a den of “casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. He accused the university of being a mute spectator to such anti-national activities as the protest over the Memon hanging.
Days after the letter, the same proctorial board found the five Dalit students, including Vemula, guilty and the university administration suspended them.
It was a strange sort of suspension which while allowing the Dalits to continue with their studies, barred them from hostels, the administrative buildings and other common areas on the university campus.
This was a social ostracism, most blatant against the five Dalits, a community that is socially and economically disadvantaged – in 21st century India!
In fact, Vemula comes from a very poor family which lives by rearing pigs. It was the dream of this Vemula, a good scholar and poet, that hung from a rope that Sunday.
Meena Kandasamy, a writer and poet, wrote in a column in The Hindu: “Vemula’s suicide lays bare the true state of our educational system: a vice-chancellor (Appa Rao) with a decades-old history of rusticating Dalit students, the involvement of Central ministers to settle scores on behalf of right-wing Hindu forces, the entire administrative machinery becoming a puppet of the ruling political forces, and the tragic consequences of social apathy.
“Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, discontinuation. In a society where students have waged massive struggles to ensure their right to access higher educational institutions through the protective, enabling concept of the reservation policy, no one has dared to shed light on how many of these students are allowed to leave these institutions with degrees, how many become dropouts, become permanent victims of depression, how many end up dead”.
(Police cases have been filed against Dattatreya and Appa Rao for abetment of Vemula’s suicide.)
Tragically, the caste system is still a potent force in India, where Dalits among other groups from the lowest rungs of Hinduism (divided into castes and sub-castes) face all kinds of discrimination — from being denied entry into some temples to the use of well water in villages.
Unfortunately, even in renowned institutions like the University of Hyderabad and many of the Indian Institutes of Technology, castes prejudices are seen, sometimes thinly disguised, sometimes blatantly exhibited. It is unimaginably shocking that professors, who have mastered physics and chemistry and quantum economics can harbour such narrow-minded parochialism. One writer calls this “caste terrorism”.
Such bias also takes the ominous form of murders committed on young lovers. Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s recent film, Chauranga talks about the murder of a young Dalit boy who is bludgeoned to death when his younger brother, a teenager, writes an innocent love letter to a schoolgirl from an upper caste. Her father, who is instrumental for the murder, has no compunction, though, about sleeping with the boys’ mother!
Such is the hypocrisy of a section of India that still and unashamedly feels a sense of casteist superiority, and what is most terrifying is that this group also includes the highly educated members of society — who sometimes egged on by reactionary forces push bright young men like Vemula to death.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.