December 2017 saw the birth of another Rohith Vemula, nearly 23 months after University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula chose to end his life, pointing to the “fatal accident of my birth” in his suicide note. The ‘new’ Rohith is the infant born to the late Rohith Vemula’s brother Raja and his wife Fathima.
But in the time between the two ‘Rohiths’, not much has changed. Step into the University of Hyderabad two years after Vemula decided to embrace the noose and you sense that the institution is still divided.
Dalit Professor Trolled On Facebook
Sample the latest flashpoint over Karan Palsaniya, a PhD student of history and ABVP leader, abusing Dalit professor K Laxminarayana on Facebook. The trigger was an exam paper set by the professor in which he included two questions that seemed critical of the NDA government's policies including one on the ‘saffronisation of education’.
“Ba****d Laxminarayana is now preaching what ‘saffronisation’ is. He doesn’t even know the basics of Economics and now he’s preaching about ‘saffronisation’. He has become a professor only because of his blackmailing tricks,’’ reads the abusive post.
The University has summoned Palsaniya to explain himself on 17 January, which is ironically the second death anniversary of Rohith Vemula. While the ABVP is not defending the language used in the post, it wants Laxminarayana to apologise for politicising the academic process.
The professor questions the right of the student from another stream abusing him when no one from the faculty has raised objections. Laxminarayana incidentally was at the forefront of the Rohith Vemula agitation, which was largely anti-ABVP in nature.
What the ugly episode did was underline how the politics in the University had got mixed with caste to inject poisonous hate.
The Fault Lines
But those in the administration say they have been trying hard in the last two years to paper over the cracks. They admit that the fault lines that made themselves visible to the world after Rohith's suicide left the University feeling embarrassed.
No one is saying this is a perfect institution. But we felt offended by the portrayal in the media as a casteist space. On the contrary, the active Dalit mobilisation is proof that there has been a desire to provide egalitarian social spaces.Professor Vinod Pavarala, School of Communication Studies, University of Hyderabad
A grievance redressal mechanism has been put in place in order to bridge the trust deficit between students and the authorities. A mentoring system is seen as a safety valve of sorts under which every student has been assigned a faculty member as a mentor to whom he or she can turn to, to address any issue.
PR Gimmick or System of Redressal?
“That system is not working, it is more of a PR gimmick,'” says Shahal, a student of mass communication. “The University is unable to understand that the larger problem of a trust deficit cannot be solved by setting up a mentorship system.”
The argument is that most of the faculty members are bothered only about classroom lectures and do not have the bandwidth or empathy to understand the deep-rooted problems many Dalit students, or those from the Northeast, face.
Dontha Prashanth, who, along with Rohith, was also suspended from the hostel in December 2015, prompting them to sleep in the open, says the University in the last two years has only become intolerant to protests of any kind.
“Surveillance has increased on campus, there is an attempt to intimidate,” says Prashanth. Unnimaya, an MA (Economics) student, points out that there is even a ban on graffiti, making it seem like the University administration is in ‘revenge-mode’.
'Caste Is Not Footwear You Leave Outside'
For those who participated in the protests, there surely is a sense of disappointment that no concrete result came out of it. The life of a student activist has become harder in the University. But the movement was successful in bringing up the discussions on caste atrocities in higher education.Unnimaya, MA (Economics) student, University of Hyderabad
Students agree that the discourse on caste is very dominant on campus but say not everyone is comfortable with just about every development in the University being seen through the prism of caste.
The argument is that it makes the discourse too narrow, reducing everyone’s identity only to their caste.
What is obvious is that two years is too short a time frame for the wounds to heal. While there is increased awareness of the divide, the process of sensitisation among faculty members will take a long time. Professor Pavarala recounts how a scientist at the University boasted about how inside his lab, every student is equal.
“Caste is not footwear that you leave outside the lab,” says Pavarala. “Given the difficult backgrounds many Dalit students come from, you cannot apply equal standards to every student. If someone is getting poor grades or unable to cope, the faculty has to provide for a support system.”
Hopefully, this new empathetic attitude will be able to spark a change. Two years ago, the University failed the ‘Rohith Vemula exam’. But in life after Rohith Vemula, the University faces its toughest paper.
(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.)
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Also Read: Rohith Vemula’s Suicide: Beyond Identity in Campuses
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