A lot of dust – more political and administrative than academic –has risen following the suicide of Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula. The death has serious social ramifications across educational institutions in India. This is having a debilitating effect on the academic atmosphere on the campus of Hyderabad Central University (HCU).
While the opprobrium against the University administration is one thing, Rohith’s suicide has brought to light a rotting system. Here are five symptoms of this rot-
-The Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), stood exposed, what with the five successive missives the MHRD has dashed off to the Vice-Chancellor seeking to know the follow-up on the letter addressed by Union Minister of State Bandaru Dattatreya. This is despite its minister Smriti Irani’s feeble argument that the University was established through an Act of Parliament and that she didn’t have any powers to intervene in its matters. If viewed on a larger canvas, the MHRD would have been surely poking its nose into several of the centrally-governed educational institutions and the case of HCU has seen the light of the day owing to the suicide of a research scholar.
-Rohith very specifically mentioned in his suicide note that he was expecting a sum of Rs. 1.75 lakh (excluding HRA) of stipend that was stopped by the university authorities for seven months. Though the university officials have been maintaining that the delay in payment was due to “paper work”, Prof. Lakshminarayana, head of a professors’ body, feels that it could have been due to the suspension of Rohith that the authorities stopped the release of the stipend which was Rs. 25,000 a month.
Rohith had to live in penury, given his financial background. Even if the stipend is held back owing to the suspension, the same rule of extending a subsistence allowance – given to any government employee under suspension – should have been applied to him. And, since no inquiry was ordered, whether the stipend would ever be paid to the poor students remains a Rs. 25,000-question month on month.
-Persecution on the basis of caste and religion on the campus of a centre of excellence like the HCU has been laid bare in its ugliest form. The suspension of five Dalit students after a complaint by ABVP activist N Susheel Kumar and the public interest litigation filed by his mother Vinaya in the High Court seeking protection to her son and also a direction to the university authorities to act against the students (opposed to her son), has clearly brought out the objective of certain influential sections on the campus.
This surely isn’t an isolated case. The committee led by Prof Vinod Pavarala, then Dean of Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, highlighted the numerous shortcomings and anomalies while evaluating the students in the Department of Physics soon after a PhD student, Senthil Kumar, committed suicide in 2008. The university authorities, wittingly or unwittingly, have given an impression that Dalit students are being discriminated against.
The very fact that as many as nine Dalit students committed suicide in 10 years on the campus shows how rotten the system is. The Government, no matter which party is in power, too appears to have eschewed its responsibility to step in to address the root cause of the problem. The fact that some faculty members are refusing to be guides to researchers shows that the university pursues an Orwellian maxim of “some are more equal than the others.”
-The very fact that the political leanings of the Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile are widely discussed, is reason enough to show him in poor light, overshadowing his academic excellence. Of course, Rao has tried to defend his stand alleging that it is a bid to cast a slur on him by labeling him as a BJP man. However, Dalit students have been alleging that Appa Rao has the blessings of a powerful union minister for a variety of reasons. This naturally has triggered a political reaction to the suicide of Rohith. It has provided a ready-made recipe for the opposition to curry favour from the aggrieved sections.
Right from Rahul Gandhi to Arvind Kejriwal to YS Jaganmohan Reddy, several politicians either reacted or visited the campus and expressed solidarity with the agitating Dalit students. Rahul Gandhi went to the extent of holding the V-C and (the) Bandaru Dattatreya responsible for Rohit’s suicide. Universities should allow free flow of political thought, but surely not let politics and politicians have their way or say.
-The letter written by Bandaru Dattatreya to the Union Minister for Human Resources Development projecting the Dalit students as “anti-national, extremist and casteist” groups is surely a case in point that needs a debate. If he has over-reacted to the representation given by ABVP activists and espoused their cause, that needs to be dealt with. At the most, Dattatreya may be charged with vicarious responsibility in the case of abetment to commit suicide. The systemic deficiency, however, lets anyone file a police case against anybody and the police are under an obligation to register a first information report.
These major issues apart, questions are being raised against the sudden media attention on the campus following the suicide, “blowing certain issues out of proportion”, and why the media has remained a mute spectator all these days when Rohith and four others were suspended and were agitating. Prof Lakshminarayana has sought to know why the earlier letter of Rohith to the Vice-Chancellor, which highlted the plight of Dalit students, was ignored.