Dalit Identity Continues to Haunt Rohith Vemula Even After Death

On Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary, TS Sudhir writes how the questions about Dalit identity continue to haunt him.

5 min read

“We are all Rohiths, kill us” was among the hundreds of posters that were put up at the University of Hyderabad campus last year. On the evening of 17 January 2016, the body of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar, was found hanging from a ceiling in a room at one of the university hostels. He was among the five research scholars who had been expelled from the hostel on disciplinary grounds. That set off a chain of events making Rohith Vemula – a Dalit student as per the University records but now disputed after a subsequent probe by the TDP government in Andhra Pradesh – the face of dissent in the country.

The university is quieter now. But only on the surface. The underlying rumblings of anger and anguish, stemming from a strong emotion of being wronged will not escape your notice. It is a campus divided fiercely along caste and political lines. Outsiders are no longer allowed entry into the campus, in an attempt to artificially create an oasis of calm. The new normal. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Also Read: ‘I Am a Dalit,’ Says Rohith Vemula in a Video Days Before Suicide


Not Much has Changed

To mark Rohith's first death anniversary on Tuesday, his mother Radhika Vemula, victims from Una in Gujarat, Mohammed Akhlaq's brother from Dadri, and the family of JNU student Najeeb, that continues to search for him, will assemble at the Velivada (a so-called Dalit ghetto on campus), which was the ground zero of the protests after Rohith's suicide last year.

Their meeting on campus looks unlikely, given that the outsiders – seen as anti-BJP from a political prism – may not be allowed entry by the university authorities. That itself will end up focusing on how little has changed in a year and to make the point that if anything, things have only got worse.

Also Read: Roopanwal Commission Report: Rohith Vemula’s Ghost Resurfaces

On Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary, TS Sudhir writes how the questions about Dalit identity continue to haunt him.
Rahul Gandhi at the Hyderabad University with the protesting students, 30 January 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Political Dividends

A year ago, the non-BJP political leadership – from Rahul Gandhi to Arvind Kejriwal to Sitaram Yechury to Derek O'Brien – flew to Hyderabad to make Rohith the poster boy of their anti-Narendra Modi protest. A couple of weeks after that, when most realised there wasn't any political capital to be made, the protests lost momentum.

Sources within the Congress say they are funding the travel arrangements for the university’s programme on Tuesday even though the party won’t officially own up to it. The party leadership in Delhi hopes to make Rohith an issue in the Uttar Pradesh elections but not many within the party are convinced it will have any electoral traction.

Protesters Versus University Authorities

The protesters lost the battle within two months when Vice Chancellor P Appa Rao, accused by Rohith's friends of having played an instrumental role in pushing him to embrace death, was brought back as head of the troubled university. It displayed a deliberate disregard for the voices of revolt against him, a blunt refusal to apply the healing touch.

It was followed by a brutal lathi-charge on the students in March last year when protests broke out. Cases were booked against 40-odd students and two faculty members. The message was loud and clear: This far and no further and that the university can suppress you if you cross the line.

The events leading to Rohith's death had their genesis in intra-University student politics, with the ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, and Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) at loggerheads with each other. ABVP leader Susheel Kumar had objected to a prayer meeting organised for terrorist Yakub Memon who had been sentenced to death for the 1993 Mumbai blasts.

ASA students, including Rohith, allegedly retaliated by bullying and manhandling Susheel. Union minister of state Bandaru Dattatreya stepped in, complaining to then HRD minister Smriti Irani, accusing the ASA of activities reducing the university to a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.

Within days of that letter, the five scholars were suspended. Dattatreya and Irani too have been accused of behaving in a manner that pushed Rohith to take the extreme step.

Also Read: 4 Times Smriti Irani Misled the Parliament on Rohith Vemula


Issue of Dalit Identity

Rohith's Dalit identity has been a running theme right through his suspension and in the last one year. In December 2015, a month before he died, he wrote a stinging letter to the VC, dipping with anguish and sarcasm. In it, he suggested that a nice rope be supplied to the rooms of all the Dalit students. Rohith also asked for 10 mg of sodium azide to be served to all the Dalit students at the time of admission.

He asked “your highness” (referring to the VC) to make preparations for euthanasia for students like him. It was a painful cry but clothed in the cloak of the Dalit victimhood. The underlying insinuation was that at the behest of “Hindu upper caste” BJP-ABVP, the interests of the Dalit students were being butchered.

Ironic that a year later, the subject of the 17 January meeting is to “reject victimhood and reclaim resistance”.


Wrangled in Caste Identity

While the university authorities say the policing of the campus is necessary because they cannot allow a few people to hold the educational institution to ransom and thereby adversely impact students, friends of Rohith Vemula say they have systemically worked towards proving him to be a cheat and a liar. They say that he was discriminated against on campus because of his Dalit identity but when he died, the powers-that-be went out of their way to prove he was not a Dalit. They say the fact that the word of Rohith's Vaddera backward caste father, who had given up on them long back, had been trusted over the version of Radhika Vemula, displayed a patriarchal mindset.

Rohith, who was in fact one of Appa Rao's students, wanted to be a writer. “A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write,” he had lamented in his suicide note.

He had used a banner of the Ambedkar Students Association as a noose to hang to death. Wrangled in a caste identity that was his political lifeline when alive and continues to be embroiled in controversy after his life is no more.

Rohith also wrote in his suicide note : “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.''

That is what happened to Rohith Vemula in life, and after his death.


(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

Also Read: Rohith Vemula’s Suicide: Beyond Identity in Campuses

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