Students from Jawaharlal Nehru University demand justice for Rohith Vemula — a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad who hanged himself to death after he was expelled from his hostel. (Image: IANS)
The suicide of a university research student last year in southern India continues to move the country as victims of caste and sectarian hate came together to observe his first death anniversary.
Rohith Vemula was found hanging in his hostel room at the University of Hyderabad on Jan. 17, 2016 leading to nationwide demonstrations with protesters saying that his death showed the discrimination Dalits and other social minorities suffer in India's academic spaces.
Alleging Vemula to be a victim of caste discrimination, hundreds of people who claimed to be victims of caste and sectarian attacks from various parts of India came together on Jan. 17 at the university.
The research student, a Dalit from an economically poor background, committed suicide after he was suspended from the university and ousted from the college hostel. Vemula was a member of a Dalit student organization called Ambedkar Students Association, which was at loggerheads with the right-wing student group Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
Protesters allege that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which runs the country and the university administration, colluded with their student group to arbitrarily suspend five Dalit students, including Vemula. His suicide followed a month later. The BJP, which came to power in New Delhi two years ago, has been accused of remaking India for the benefit of high-caste Hindus and ignoring the rights of Dalit, tribal people and religious minorities.
During the rally, police detained Vemula's mother and brother and blocked them from attending a commemoration event at the university campus in Hyderabad. At another anniversary rally on the same day in New Delhi, police also detained two journalists and several students.
The coming together of victims of caste and sectarian atrocities is significant in the face of growing criticism that the BJP uses administrative systems and student groups to support upper-caste Hindu hegemony.
The gathering in Hyderabad included the young Dalit men who were publicly flogged by upper-caste Hindus in Gujarat in July 2016 for skinning a dead cow as part of their work at a tannery. Also present was the brother of Mohammad Aklakh, a Muslim who was lynched in a village in Uttar Pradesh near New Delhi when a right-wing mob attacked him on the suspicion he was keeping beef. Most Hindus consider the cow as a sacred animal.
The university administration had earlier declined permission for the protesters, including Vemula's mother, Radhika Vemula to visit her son's memorial on the campus.
At the rally, she accused the vice chancellor of the university of being responsible for her son's death and warned that "If such incidents continue, all the Dalits in the country will unite to teach the state a lesson."
"If Dalits and other minorities unite, they will have the power to destabilize the entire state. Better not provoke them to take that step," she said in a charged speech to hundreds of students and media at the university entrance where she was blocked by the police.
The mother, along with student supporters, have been pressing for action against the university vice chancellor. They blame him for failing to take action on previous complaints by Vemula to the university.
Activists stage a demonstration to demand justice for Rohith Vemula in Nagpur, central India on Jan. 17. (Photo: IANS)
Vemula's suicide note said that he was taking such an extreme step because of caste discrimination.
Rahul Sonpimple, a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi said a five-year analysis study at the university proved that minority students were continuously marked down. Low caste and tribal students passed examinations "with flying colors" but often fail interviews and this "is indicative of latent caste discrimination on the part of college authorities and teachers," the report said, quoted in the Hindustan Times.
Dontha Prasanth, a post-graduate research student at the University of Hyderabad, and one of the five students to get suspended along with Vemula, said that the movement that has grown after his friend's death is now demanding that new legislation be passed to eradicate caste prejudice from universities.
Indian society comprises the high castes — Brahmins (priests, teachers), Kshatriyas (kings, warriors) and Vaishyas (merchants, artisans). The Sudras (laborers, peasants) make up the lowest caste.
Those not born into these four castes were the outcasts, formerly called untouchables, who are now called Dalits, a Sanskrit term meaning "trampled upon."
The dalits have long been the target of disempowerment, oppression and persecution even though the Indian Constitution abolished caste discrimination and made "untouchability" because of religious sanction a punishable offence.
Dalits and tribal people make up 70 percent of India's 27 million Christians.