Given the enormity of the circumstances leading to the tragic death of Rohit Vemula, a research scholar in a central university and the extraordinary events subsequent to his suicide, it was not completely surprising to see the Union Minister for Human Resource Development holding a press conference on Wednesday. This has been the biggest media headline for the past three days and has somehow snowballed into a politically sensitive -- Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. Add to this, all of BJP's political rivals—Congress, Left, AAP and TMC—have flocked together to launch a concerted attack on the party holding it responsible for the sad incident.
HRD Minister Smriti Irani's brief was clear. She was assigned the task of telling the world that it is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue as some quarters are desperately trying to project it as. Irani therefore repeatedly urged that there is no Dalit versus non-Dalit angle in the whole incident. "Why I have come out today is because a malicious attempt is being made to ignite passions.... It is easy to ignite passions and then regret at leisure. My attempt is an appeal that this is not a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue. Let us not encourage any rumour mongering that promotes casteism and provokes communities. I request let us be extremely responsible..."
Significantly, it is not the high-profile political tourism over Vemula's death that has turned Hyderabad into a tinderbox now, but the elections for Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation that are to take place on 2 February. While the national parties and the likes of AAP, TMC and Left have made their position clear, the views of the two regional parties, whose opinions perhaps would have mattered most—the TRS and the TDP—are not known to the wider world. Or perhaps no one, outside of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana cares about what they have to say, for Vemula's unfortunate death has become a national issue.
The government's decision to pitch Irani, known for her aggressive articulation, thus has been largely strategic. As HRD minister, the issue concerns her ministerial domain, but she took four days to come out and make the government's position known on the subject. Smriti's defence for the delay was that she was ascertaining facts and since she held a responsible constitutional position, she couldn't have spoken without adequate information, officially made available to her. A ministerial fact-finding team had been sent to the University of Hyderabad to get details from the institution and the local police. She however, held her media briefing hours before the fact finding team was to submit its report to her.
The key questions that agitated everyone's mind when she held that briefing was whether Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya was right in writing to her that the University of Hyderabad had become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics. The labour minister also sought action against Ambedkar Students Association activists and alleged that the university administration had become "mute spectators". The second question was if Irani's ministry was pressurising the University of Hyderabad by sending five reminders while seeking response on Dattatreya letter. An FIR has been filed against Dattatreya and the institution's vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile.
Smriti, one must admit, had come prepared with facts and perspective. She referred to a letter written by Congress' Rajya Sabha MP Hanumantha Rao on 17 November pertaining to sufferings of marginalised community members from the Telangana region in the university. According to an official circular on Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure issued by V Narayansamy, the then minister of personnel in the UPA government, if there is a VIP (MP) reference, it has to be acknowledged in 15 days and another 15 days may be taken to reply to it. Since no response was forthcoming from the university, the ministry had to send reminders. As per the procedure the ministry kept sending reminders to the university from September till late November. The university finally responded in the first week of January. Smriti said by sending reminders the ministry was not doing any special favours to Dattatreya or acting under his pressure but was simply following the procedure because the ministry had sent six reminders to university on Hanumatha Rao's letter.
While defending the government she also referred to the High Court, the executive council nominated by the UPA government, disciplinary committee, hostel warden while emphasizing that some of these officials were from the Dalit community. But what the HRD minister didn't seem to realise is that she took too much of time in ascertaining her facts. The issue has gone beyond the realm of administrative matter. It has become a social, political and a perception issue against her government and her party -- the BJP.