Why Is Rohith Vemula’s Caste And “Nationalism” Being Questioned?

Is discrimination limited to one caste?

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, hanged himself in a hostel room. (Photo: Twitter)

Rohith Vemula’s death has created a political storm. Students have erupted in protest, demanding the resignation of HRD Minister Smriti Irani and state BJP leaders. Opposition leaders, most notably Rahul Gandhi, have joined the protest. The issue has become one of the rights of Dalit students and the discrimination they face.

Rohith Vemula’s mother is a tailor and his father was a security guard. Rohith was a doctoral candidate, a scholar, at one of the best central universities in the country. On January 17, Rohith hanged himself in a friend’s hostel room 15 days after he was suspended by the University of Hyderabad for his political activism, along with four other colleagues who also belonged to the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA).

The BJP and the HRD Minister insist that the issue is not a Dalit rights one. Smriti Irani has said that “The issue is not a Dalit vs non-Dalit one... crucial facts have been misinterpreted in a malicious attempt to create caste tensions.” State BJP leaders insist that the reason for the ASA members’ suspension and their conflict with the ABVP was “their support of terrorism”.

So is the protest about caste discrimination and justice for a young man who was pushed beyond the brink? Or is it an issue of freedom and students rights? Or is just a chance to gain political mileage out of an issue that’s in the news?

Not a Dalit, But Does That Mean There’s No Discrimination?

Despite what the headlines have been saying, Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit. His caste, Vadara or Vaddera is a non-Dalit backward caste.

Smriti Irani is right. The issue is not a Dalit vs non-Dalit one. In fact, no one would agree more than the members of the ASA. Their Dalit-Bahujan politics aims at uniting Dalits, STs, Other Backwards Classes (OBCs) and minorities. So, if there was indeed a systemic discrimination against certain students, it is a Dalit issue and an issue for everyone else.

Students staging a protest over the death of Rohith Vemula, a doctorate student at the Hyderabad Central University who was found hanging in a hostel room, in Hyderabad on Monday. (Photo: PTI)
Students staging a protest over the death of Rohith Vemula, a doctorate student at the Hyderabad Central University who was found hanging in a hostel room, in Hyderabad on Monday. (Photo: PTI)

The fact that Rohith was an OBC does not necessarily mean that he could not be discriminated against. The protesters demanding action after Rohith’s death claim that the conflict between the ABVP and the ASA and the subsequent suspension was because of their political activities, as much as their social background. In fact, the nature of the ‘suspension’ mirrors caste oppression argues Shajaudeen, a research scholar and member of the Joint Action Committee against Rohith Vemula’s death.

Bandaru Dattatreya, Minister of State for Labour and employment wrote to the University asking that action be taken against Rohith and the others who were involved.

It is just like having Dalitwadas, demarcated spaces for Dalits out of which they can’t exist. Restricting Dalit students’ access in the university, which should be an inclusive and enabling space, is analogous to creating Dalitwadas within an educational institution.

Shajaudeen, research scholar and member of Joint Action Committee against Rohit Vemula’s death

Rohith was barred from the hostel and his stipend was taken away. The money he received from the university also helped support his family, who are not well off. If the suspension pushed him into taking his own life and if it was done because of his political activities or social background, whether or not he is a Dalit should not matter.

The point is whether there is an institutional discrimination against students belonging to certain communities. And those protesting against Hyderabad University and the HRD Ministry believe there is.

Till date, 15 Dalit students have committed suicide in this university. In 2013, a High Court judge analysed data related to all these incidents and submitted a report. We refuse to just term this as a suicide. It is institutional murder. The conditions which led him to take such action were created.

Shajaudeen, research scholar and member of Joint Action Committee against Rohit Vemula’s death

Anti-Death Penalty = Anti-National?

Rohith Vemula speaking at a public meeting. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="https://www.facebook.com/rohith352/media_set?set=a.1570023619026.2084527.1488562725&amp;type=3">Facebook/rohith352</a>)
Rohith Vemula speaking at a public meeting. (Photo Courtesy: Facebook/rohith352)

The conflict between the Ambedkar Student’s Association and the ABVP began when the former decided to screen Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a controversial documentary on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. ABVP activists had disrupted screenings of the film at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University as well.

The ASU and Rohith also protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon and the death penalty. It is this protest that the state BJP leadership in Telangana is calling “anti-national”.

The context of the clash between student groups was Rohith’s stand in support of terrorism, including that against the hanging of Yakub Memon.

BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao to Indian Express

Yakub Memon’s hanging was a hotly debated subject, with many leading columnists, intellectuals, politicians speaking out against it. It is doubtful that the BJP would like to call all of them anti-national.

Rohith Vemula’s suicide has become a national issue. Whether or not his death was indeed a result of the actions against him, or even whether those actions were justified can and should be a matter of sensitive, intelligent debate. But to diminish his suffering and the demands of those protesting on the basis that he wasn’t Dalit enough, or that his political views make him anti-national, is more than just insensitive. It’s bad politics.

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