There seems to be a complete disconnect between Union Minister for Human Resources Development Smriti Zubin Irani and the Dalit teachers and students of the University of Hyderabad over the raging controversy that led to the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar.
The Dalit students, teachers and officers see an “evil design” behind Ms Irani’s carefully-worded statement. The student body – Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, University of Hyderabad – was more vociferous while concurring with its elders – the University of Hyderabad SC/ST Teachers and Officers’ Forum.
Peeved by Ms.Irani’s observations, Dalit staffers went hammer and tongs against the minister and they wanted to drive home the point that it was for sure an issue of persecution of Dalits. As a mark of protest, all of them– 12 in number – resigned from the administrative positions they are holding in the HCU.
Irani said on Wednesday: "An effort is on to instigate students all over the country. My appeal is: Please do not instigate students and communities deliberately...There has been a malicious attempt to ignite passions and present this as a caste battle which it is not. It is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit confrontation as have been the efforts of some to project it that way," she said repeatedly.
This naturally ignited the controversy and tempers rose high across the campus.
The Dalit staffers have taken a very strong objection to the Minister’s observation that it wasn’t a ‘Dalit versus non-Dalit’ confrontation. Dr Ravindra Kumar and S Sudhakar Babu, representatives of University of Hyderabad SC/ST Teachers and Officers’ Forum, “strongly condemned” her views on the suicide of Rohith and the circumstances leading to that.
They postulated their standpoints on the Minister’s observations and asserted that it was “unfortunate that the Union Minister misrepresented the facts of the case and said that the senior most Dalit professor actually headed the Executive Council (EC) sub-committee which took the decision to suspend the students.”
They said that the committee was indeed headed by an upper-caste professor Vipin Srivastava and there are no Dalit faculty in the sub-committee of the EC. The Dean of Students Welfare, Prof Prakash Babu, was nationally co-opted as an ex-officio member of the committee and that was incidental, the Dalit staffers pointed out. They went on to add that there was no Dalit on the EC ever since the HCU came into being. The student JAC highlighted that Prof Srivastava was the Dean and Head of Physics department 2008 when a research scholar Senthil Kumar had committed suicide.
The teachers and officers’ body alleged that the minister “distorted the facts,” suggesting that the wardens had suo motu powers to expel students. It was just a coincidence that the chief warden, who had simply implemented the orders of the higher authorities, happened to be a Dalit.
Sudhakar Babu and Ravindra Kumar said that the “baseless and misleading statements coming from the HRD Minister amounts to bringing down the morale of the Dalits holding administrative positions in the university” as well as other universities.
They alleged that by deflecting the issue, the HRD minister was absolving herself and her colleague Bandaru Dattatreya of being responsible for the death of Rohith Vemula.
The Dalit teachers and officers’ body has expressed its solidarity with the protesting students, who began an indefinite hunger strike on the campus, demanding action against the ministers, the Vice-Chancellor and Rs. 50 lakh ex gratia to Rohith’s family and a senior-level employment to one of the kin of the deceased. They also expressed support to the agitating students who are demanding the lifting of police cases filed against the Dalit students and the revocation of their suspension.
They took umbrage to the use of an expression of “lenient punishment” by the HRD Minister and asserted that the cases against the five Dalit students were fabricated and this led to their suspension from the university, expulsion from the hostels and imposing of a “social boycott” on them. They dubbed the social boycott as casteist, atrocious and compared it with “Dalit ghetto” practiced in caste-ridden village societies. The students observed that the so-called “lenient punishment” was against the rules and guidelines of the University Grants Commission on disciplinary action.
The crass-like observations of the Minister for HRD are only proving the point Rohith had made in his suicide note that a man was being reduce to his mere immediate identity by making this a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. “This is an issue of basic human rights, self respect and social justice,” asserted the student JAC adding that what happened on the campus was nothing but an issue of caste-discrimination and political interference.
While students belonging to Dalit and non-Dalit communities were coming together across the country against casteism, Brahminism and Hindutva, the HRD Minister choosing to brand this peaceful and egalitarian movement as “casteist” was highly irresponsible, they pointed out. The students insisted that the series of unsolicited interventions by her ministry for witch-hunting of a Dalit student at the behest of “an influential upper caste family with BJP links” must be seen as “blatant regime-backed casteism”.
The students felt that the minister was trying to convert the issue into a BJP versus Congress issue only to derive political advantage and absolving the party and its “complicit members” of any responsibility and crime by derailing the process of justice.
They pointed out that Rohith’s letter addressed to the Vice-Chancellor on 18 December, where he sarcastically urged the V-C to provide a ‘rope’ for Dalit students to kill themselves, was being used against him to portray the deceased scholar in a poor light.
The students, who delved deep into the statement of the minister, minced no words in delineating the difference between forwarding the letters written by Congress MP V Hanumantha Rao and the ones dashed off by Mr Dattatreya. They said it was an attempt to compare the specific directions by the ministry issued in respect of the letters by Dattatreya that led to the “systemic exclusion of the five Dalit students” and eventual suicide of Rohith, and the routine letters of the Congress MP.
When the police registered a case under the Prevention of Atrocities Act against Dattatreya, Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao and ABVP leader N Susheel Kumar and MLC N Ramachandra Rao, the student JAC sought to know how they were moving freely, as the case was non-bailable in nature.
The students gave an all-India protest call to burn the effigies of MHRD, BJP and the RSS against the injustice meted out to Rohith.
Against this background, Appa Rao remains stubborn and doesn’t want to step down as he claimed that he did no wrong. Dattatreya defends his stand suggesting that he just drew the attention of the MHRD following a representation by ABVP students.