Rohith Vemula: Foregrounding Caste Oppression in Indian Higher Education Institutions

In April 2021, a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology verbally abused students belonging to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. The incident brought to the fore conversations around caste and education. One is instantly reminded of how five years before this incident, in 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, died by suicide. Between 2016 and 2021 itself, India lost several students belonging to Dalit and Bahujan communities to suicide as a result of caste-based discrimination. That elite Indian higher education institutions practise caste-based discrimination is nothing new. But Vemula’s death sparked a political movement. This reading list attempts to understand how and why this came to be.

“Rohith Vemula’s dream,” Anand Teltumbde wrote, “of becoming a science writer like his idol, Carl Sagan, ended abruptly at the altar of caste.”

On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad (UoH), took his own life. 

Vemula’s death, an EPW editorial noted, came after months of “political and administrative persecution” by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Janata Party-led union government, and the UoH administration’s “opportunist pandering” of the union government.

Two months and 1,000 kilometres away, in Delhi, another Dalit student in yet another elite higher education institution (HEI) died by suicide. Muthukrishnan, a Dalit research scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, took his own life on 13 March 2017. On the controversy surrounding Muthukrishnan’s death, P Thirumal and Carmel Christy wrote that elite institutions in India openly display a “Brahminical form of embodiment” that keeps others from inhibiting the university’s space.

Dalit–Bahujans, as relatively new entrants to this body that has been largely composed of savarna aesthetics and taste, are constantly made to feel alienated and discriminated.

In May 2019, Payal Tadvi, a second-year medical student pursuing her master’s degree in Mumbai, was driven to suicide after facing repeated caste-based discrimination, harassment and threats from her senior colleagues. In their letter calling for justice for Tadvi’s death, members of the Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA) and Medico Friend Circle (MFC) noted that there is “rampant ingrained casteism” in higher education institutions which must be acknowledged and addressed. 

Ramdas Rupavath, reflecting on Rohith’s suicide, wrote that, “most Dalit students in universities encounter everyday humiliation by the official administration on the one hand and elite academicians on the other.”

Drishadwati Bargi observed that harassment is a “potent tool” for humiliation as it often cannot be proved. Besides, Bargi wrote, the “Hindu” mind’s hostility to reservations makes it reluctant in sharing a common space with Avarnas.

For instance, the simplest, everyday practices of communication between the Savarna teachers and the Dalit students in the university space are often characterised with unrecognised power dynamic and prejudice; incidents that cannot be mapped easily. This is not because they are mystical but because their normalised status makes them unquestionable.

In light of the violence against marginalised students by an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur professor over a video call in April 2021, P Thirumal made a similar observation, that caste discrimination in elite Indian HEIs has taken a more “prosaic mode” with teachers from privileged castes actively withdrawing from interacting with marginalised students.

Undeniably, India’s elite HEIs are systemically casteist in nature. JSA and MFC’s letter also observed that Dalit and Adivasi students are known to drop out of pursuing and completing their higher education due to this systemic casteism. 

To put this institutional casteism in perspective, it must be remembered that Vemula was not the first UoH student belonging to the Dalit community to die by suicide. As Rupavath noted, since its inception in the 1970s, 12 Dalit students from the UoH have taken their own lives.

It must also be mentioned that the “institutional murders” of the three Dalit students mentioned here occurred within the last five years and in HEIs in Indian cities. That caste is a thing of the past and is experienced only in rural India is simply untrue. As recently as July 2021, when Other Backward Class reservations for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) was announced, debates followed on social media opposing the same.

Vemula’s suicide, and his suicide note, sparked a political movement of resistance. His death exposed the “criminality” that stemmed from the inherently casteist nature of HEIs in India. 

This reading list revisits the events that led up to Vemula’s suicide, the government’s response to his death, the institutional casteism practised in India’s HEIs, and the impact of Vemula’s death on the future of Indian politics.

 

Rohith Vemula’s Death

 

In February 2016, Anand Teltumbde wrote that Vemula’s death was not just a “stray case of caste prejudice” but the result of a larger pattern of the upsurge of Brahminical and “Hindutva forces” in India. As mentioned before, 12 Dalit students have died by suicide in UoH since 1970, but nine of them took their own lives within the last 10 years. 

While the saga of crimes against Dalits is an ancient one, the roots of the current episode lie in the false police complaint lodged by the president of ABVP’s Hyderabad Central University (HCU) unit, N Susheel Kumar—who is also the organisation’s state committee member—alleging that 30 Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) members had beaten him up. Kumar alleged that the Dalit students had resorted to such violence to demand an apology for his remarks on Facebook, describing ASA members as “goons.”

A day after Kumar gave his written apology, “he got himself admitted to a hospital, got photographed and filed a police complaint saying he was assaulted.” While the proctorial board of the UoH did not find evidence of assault, they remained suspicious of Vemula and his friends, D Prashanth, P Vijay Kumar, C Sheshaiah and V Sunkanna, for a whole semester. Then, Bandaru Dattatreya, BJP member of Parliament (MP) from Secunderabad, wrote to the then Union Human Resources Development Minister (HRD), Smriti Irani, alleging that the UoH had become the centre of “casteist, extremist and anti-national” activities of the ASA. Irani then wrote to the university’s vice chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, asking him to take action against the students, and as a result,  on 16 December 2015, Vemula and his four friends were suspended for a semester.

An EPW editorial called the administration’s orders “outlandish” and “strange.” 

Four of the students (as one was a former student) were barred from staying in the hostel till the completion of their course—two of them enrolled in 2013, and the other two enrolled in 2014—which could mean that for at least two to three years they would have to live in expensive rented accommodation outside. The administration also said that these students can be “seen” only in their departments, the library, in academic activities relevant to their respective disciplines, and that they must not “enter” the administrative block and “common places” in groups. 

As a form of protest, Vemula and his friends slept in a public space near the university’s shopping complex. It was in the midst of this protest that Vemula took the tragic step of dying by suicide.

 

Questioning Rohith Vemula’s Dalit Identity 

 

Teltumbde noted that when Vemula died, the police filed a first information report (FIR) under the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Podile, Dattatreya, and Kumar for abetting Vemula’s suicide. The Act warrants that the perpetrators are to be arrested immediately, but the police did not make any arrests. Instead, the BJP raked up a controversy around Vemula’s caste so that no such arrests could be made. 

Smriti Irani’s one-member judicial commission—former Allahabad High Court judge, A K Roopanwal—who probed into the circumstances leading to Vemula’s death, observed that Vemula was not a Dalit. But Guntur district collector, Kantilal Dande, had already confirmed in his report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) that Vemula was a Dalit. In the case of inter-caste marriages, the caste of the child is decided based on the circumstances of their upbringing. On defining the rights of children born out of inter-caste marriages, the Supreme Court bench held that a child can claim their mother’s caste if they were brought up by the mother as a member of that caste. 

In Rohith’s case his mother belongs to the Mala community (a Dalit sub-caste), had separated from her husband who is a Vadera (Other Backward Classes–OBC) and brought up her children in a Dalit colony. The fact that Rohith grew up with Dalit consciousness, lived, suffered and even died as a Dalit, exemplarily confirmed to the circumstances the Court depicted.

Teltumbde noted that the ​​fact-finding committee of the Indian People’s Tribunal indicted Podile for ignoring a letter Vemula wrote to him roughly a month before he took his own life. Then, a Joint Action Committee for Social Justice (JAC), formed to fight for justice for Vemula, demanded the dismissal and arrest of Podile. At this point, the vice chancellor fled the scene. But the HRD ministry sent Podile back to the UoH campus, promising to repress any resistance with “brute force.”  

When news of Podile’s return spread through the campus, protests broke out and the police lathi-charged students and faculty alike, rounding up 24 students and two faculty members and charging them under 11 sections of different laws.

It is telling that the perpetrators of atrocities on Dalits—in this case, Appa Rao, Bandaru Dattatreya and N Susheel Kumar—who were charged by the police under the SC/ST Atrocity Act for abetting the murder of Rohith Vemula, roam free while the ones who struggle for justice for the victim, the 25 students and two faculty members are arrested and punished. 

However, this was nothing new. This skewed approach of ensuring justice in cases of caste-based atrocities has always been tilted against Dalits. Teltumbde recounts the Kilvenmani massacre of 1968, where Dalits were burnt alive by landlords for standing up to them. When demands for better wages resulted in a struggle that led to the death of one of the landlords’ men, the landlords burnt 44 Dalits—mostly women, children and senior members—alive.  For the death of the landlords’ agent, the court convicted eight Dalits, with one man getting life imprisonment. However, for the massacre of 44 Dalits, of the 23 accused, only eight were convicted (none for life) by the lower court, and their sentence was later quashed by the high court as it “observed that the rich Mirasdars could not have committed such a ghastly crime.”

In Rohith’s case, they even stooped to the level of questioning his caste in order to avoid the application of the SC/ST Atrocity Act. This seemed to suggest that if he had not been a Dalit, the crime would be no crime and if he had been a Dalit, he would really get justice. There are thousands of cases registered under the SC/ST Atrocity Act but the conviction rate is abysmal. Fortunately all their tricks have failed and Rohith’s Dalitness has been established. The question is, when will he get justice?

 

Indian HEIs and Discrimination 

 

Rohith Vemula’s death triggered the debate on caste-based discrimination in Indian HEIs and demands to enact the Rohith Act to overcome this rampant discrimination were raised.

Ramratan V Dhumal looked at how discrimination in universities can be addressed and pointed out that the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or the Atrocities Act, had its “limitations” when it came to protection against caste discrimination in HEIs. 

The remedial measures against caste discrimination in higher education appear completely insufficient and impotent. This is explicit when we compare the legal safeguards enumerated in the caste discrimination regulations of 2012 with the anti-ragging regulations of 2009. Post-2009, a tremendous decline has been witnessed in incidents of ragging, which is a positive outcome (NDTV 2014). This successful achievement is significant and a noteworthy standard to apply to caste discrimination. And there arises a pertinent question: Why did the outcomes of the regulations of 2012 not match the outcomes of the anti-ragging regulations? Ragging regulations offer effective solutions as compared to the caste discrimination regulations and the absence of an effective framework suggests a clear bias in framing caste discrimination regulations.

Sthabir Khora also questioned how universities can be made non-discriminatory spaces, noting that the “stringent” image that the Atrocities Act carried was “unfounded.” 

It is true that by introducing a presumption vide Section 8 (c) it removes the difficulty of proving caste motive in instances of violence. But the amendment does not remove the burden and standard of proof, which would still need to be “beyond reasonable doubt,” on the complainant. Legally stringent laws are those which shift the burden of proof to the accused and follow a standard of “preponderance of evidence” than “beyond reasonable doubt.” 

In his article, Dhumal dissects the provisions of the University Grants Commission (UGC) (Promotion of Equity in Higher Educational Institutions) Regulations, 2012. For SC and ST students, the UGC regulations prohibit discrimination in the admission process, prohibit authorities from harassing students, prohibit discrimination in the evaluation process and in providing fellowships, and prohibit segregating students. Further, it directs institutions to set up an equal opportunity cell and appoint an anti-discrimination officer and should take a decision on a complaint within 60 days of its submission. The institution should also sensitise the educational fraternity on caste-based discrimination and should implement strict preventative measures to safeguard SC and ST students. 

While the provisions seem comprehensive, Dhumal notes that compared to the UGC’s anti-ragging provisions, the anti-discrimination provisions fall short on several accounts. 

[P]ositive aspects of the anti-ragging regulations with its wider outreach through publicity and participation of governmental and non-governmental actors, assignment of substantive rights, penal liability to the culprits, establishment of administrative machinery and accountability of the administrative machineries, the regulations curbed the ragging menace effectively. These positive aspects are completely missing in the 2012 regulations.

Besides, Khora pointed out that most universities may not be practising “crude discriminatory practices” such as segregating students. Thus, isolating and raising issues concerning “indirect discrimination” before the law may be difficult. 

Without a law on indirect discrimination, discrimination can always recur in changed forms. This seems to be what is happening. While law mandates for a certain percentage of Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST) student intake, which the higher education institutions cannot disobey, the SC/ST students suffer in multifarious ways after admission for which the Atrocities Act has very little answer.

 

The Dawn of a New Dalit Politics

 

Teltumbde believes that the rise in atrocities against Dalits have intensified with the rise of Hindutva forces. “Caste affiliation,” he wrote, “is now flaunted and justified.” Besides, the Hindutva forces accuse all those who oppose it as “anti-national.” In 2016, Teltumbde wrote how they had accused Vemula and his friends of being “anti-national,” and then accused students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University of being “anti-national.”

Close on the heels of the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula has come another attack by the Hindutva forces; this time on the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Earlier, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras was banned—the ban on the organisation was lifted after students protested. A clear pattern is discernible in these episodes. Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) accuses students of anti-national activities, following which a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister bullies the institutional machinery, which then crawls in compliance. 

But who is the real “anti-national”?

Ramdas Rupavath answers:

In India, everything is based on the caste system of varna/jati laid out by Manu. The caste system in fact is anti-social and anti-national in the first place because it advocates separatism in communities. It is also anti-national because it generates jealousy and hatred between and within castes. We must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality.

According to B Rajeevan, “Rohith Vemula’s suicide is a cry of war against the conservative cultural and political forces that dictate and perpetuate this predicament of Indian society.” Rajeevan believes that a “new politics” is developing in India, a subaltern force that will mutate and grow in the coming years. 

The student protests from Hyderabad and Delhi send a strong statement from the downtrodden minority to India’s contemporary politics. Indian universities that have been producing elite westernised intellectuals are now resounding with the cries of the millions living in our forests and villages through the voice of Rohith Vemula. It also marks a new direction in Indian Dalit politics. Dalit identity politics was so far enslaved by the politics of civil society; Dalits and the Adivasis were confined to the limitations of the civil rights proffered by the state.

 

 

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