The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad on Sunday is not an isolated episode.
Rohith who hanged himself to death in his hostel room, is one of the five Dalit students suspended from the University last year for allegedly attacking another student in August. He was doing his PhD in Science Technology and Society Studies for the past two years. The incident sparked protests across the country and the demand for an inquiry into the circumstances that led to his suicide has intensified. The Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) activists including Rohith are victims of the escalating elite intolerance in the campuses. The five students were barred from entering the administrative building, hostels, libraries, mess and other common areas, leading to massive protests by students. They had been sleeping in the open for the past few weeks demanding reinstatement. The Dalit students were expelled in August last year on charges of assaulting Susheel Kumar, the leader of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP. But the activists said that the allegations were fabricated as part of political vendetta against ASA. The reality is that there are political and ideological reasons behind the clashes between the two parties. Escalating intolerance is the root cause of the issues. Student activism that addresses the country’s common issues and organizes healthy debates and discourses on matters are not unknown to the University. ABVP had stalled the attempts to screen a documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hain’ in Delhi University campus which throws light on the role of BJP leaders in Muzaffarnagar riots. The ASA, Ambedkar Reading Group at the University of Delhi, Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras, and the ASA at the TATA Institute, Mumbai issued a joint statement condemning the attack. The documentary was screened at the University of Hyderabad campus.
Following derogatory remarks by the ABVP against ASA students on Facebook page, an apology was demanded. The local BJP and RSS activists then began false propaganda pressurizing the Vice Chancellor of the University to expel the ASA leaders. Susheel Kumar accused the ASA members of assaulting him .The University ordered an inquiry following which the proctorial board decided to suspend Rohith along with four others. Despite the University Security Officer’s statements before the proctorial committee that no physical assaults have been made, a Union Minister and the University authorities reportedly, propagated lies. The proctorial committee had to withdraw the suspension of the five students and another unbiased committee was entrusted with the inquiry. The findings of the committee rejected the allegations raised. The committee said that there was no evidence of Susheel Kumar getting physically assaulted and that the statements of the witnesses and the medical report proved contradictory. The BJP and RSS leaders had met with the Vice Chancellor after which the disciplinary committee under the new VC backed the allegations. This system of suppressing the voices of dissent and freedom of expression in campuses is not new or uncommon. Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, the newly appointed University vice chancellor and the BJP leaders all unanimously intervening into the matter sends a clear message. The Union Human Resource and Development Ministry has asked the University to inquire about the ‘anti-national activities’ of the ASA activists. The warning that anti-casteism , opposition to death sentence and fighting for freedom of expression comes under anti-national activities is not just for the students or campuses. If the History Research Council, National Book Trust, Film Institute, museums and Universities are brought under a particular class of people, the democracy and plurality would either commit suicide or would be crushed to the core.