Rohith Vemula, one year on: Severe administrative failures still dot academic landscape

A student committed suicide last year and the incident brought severe administrative lapses to light. These lapses are yet to be remedied. The Ministry of Human Resources and Development has spent the better part of last year on spin management rather than focusing on fixing things on the ground. Whatever the nation might feel on the issue, suicide prevention on campus is something the nation ought to care deeply about.

It starts with how we view the role of our students on campus. Last year we saw students across the country take cognisance of issues that were happening off campus, from JNU in Delhi to the HCU in Hyderabad, students across India rallied in support and against issues of the day, as they have done in India before and after independence. If memory serves us correctly, student politics, is perhaps what has ushered in the current political class and was the movement that began breaking the emergency ushered in by Indira Gandhi. It is a very difficult proposition to tell a young adult that they must learn about how they are an integral part of the nation's political system in the classroom but must forget about the political happenings around them the minute they step outside. China tried to do this, but they finally had to crush their students with the might of tanks at Tienanmen in 1989.

Indian students however, being citizens of a free country, enjoy their right to freedom of speech. Vemula was one such student and therefore enjoyed the privilege of raising issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association. However, he found that doing this meant that his stipend was stopped and therefore he was faced with a financial crunch. The University Administration blamed the delay on paperwork and said that funds sometimes arrived late and therefore were disbursed in lump-sums.


Rohit Vemula. Photo courtesy: Twitter

Rohit Vemula. Photo courtesy: Twitter

Graduate scholars in India are paid a stipend by the central government to conduct their research work. They are expected to maintain themselves from these amounts as they commit themselves to research towards a doctorate instead of taking up full-time employment. However, at the first instance, even if we take the university at their word that the disbursements were delayed due to paper work issues, one year on, there has been no change in the system of disbursement of grants to PhD scholars at central universities. The system remains the same. There is no Aadhaar enabled system of direct transfer to their bank accounts. So today, if there was another Vemula, in the same position, the Ministry of Human Resources and Development could not assure anyone that the disbursements would be immune to any delays. The procedure is still the same. Somehow, the light of digital India is yet to hit the scholars of India's central universities.

The second incident that came to light was post the execution of Yakub Memon, the man convicted of being a conspirator in the 1993 Mumbai Bomb Blasts case. The Ambedkar Students Association had led a protest at the University of Hyderabad against the execution. One year on, the execution still remains a hot button issue across India and the issue of the death penalty is still one that divides the nation. It's a thin line for the public to perceive the opposition to the death penalty as being one that's a principled opposition to a form of punishment versus open support to a terrorist. This is further complicated by the fact that students often lack nuance in the manner they protest such issues, often finding themselves going into the case records trying to make a case for innocence at the same time as arguing against the punishment. Such issues on campus are bound to inflame passions on either side.

As The Indian Express reported, this results in a confrontational campus, after which it is alleged that an AVBP Member posted a comment on Facebook calling the members of the Ambedkar Students Association "goons" on Facebook. The Ambedkar Students Association apparently confronted the member in his hostel room and had him sign an "apology"  pursuant to which the AVBP filed a report with the local police. The AVBP then wrote to the local MP who escalated the matter with the Ministry of Human Resources and Development in Delhi which allegedly resulted in Vemula being suspended.

As a consequence of the suspension, he was barred from all social areas of the campus and the hostel rooms. This is where it gets increasingly problematic once more. The Hyderabad Central University is an organisation that comes under the ambit of the State and Vemula was living in the hostel room. Being suspended should not mean he loses the roof over his head till the final outcome of the proceedings against him and even if he was to be finally expelled he should have been given at least a week or two to vacate or make alternative arrangements instead of being forced to live on the streets of campus. This sort of behaviour on the part of the administration isn't something that is becoming of any institution, government or otherwise.

If one of our readers wards were treated this way by one of their colleges, this website would be receiving angry letters from parents incensed that this would happen to them. But Vemula was not from a privileged class of society. He was the sole bread winner and supported his family from his stipend. The stipend stopped and he was without a home. All this for exercising his privilege as an Indian Citizen to care about issues that are raised in a daily newspaper. A privilege every Indian citizen has, a privilege readers incensed by this article will exercise in the comment section below, a privilege that makes us a free republic.

But what perhaps is the greatest administrative failure that still remains is this, if Vemula wished to speak to someone about his predicament, the University of Hyderabad's  medical centre, would be ill equipped with mental health professionals to assist him as it lacks any. A year after his suicide there have been no moves to staff it with counsellors. No suicide prevention programs. If the ministry of human resources and development was serious that this was a case of suicide and a not a situation where a student had been driven to the edge, then the first step would have been to bring counsellors on campus. But as the website shows, there are no mental health professionals on campus. So the next Vemula, who is in that situation would still have no one to talk to about his predicament. No national students suicide prevention hotline, despite the fact that sucide is an issue across campuses in India.

One year on, caste remains a problem, administrative failures remain a problem and student suicides remain a problem. It seems as though nothing much has really changed when it comes to academia in India.

Published Date: Jan 17, 2017 12:04 PM | Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 12:09 PM

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