No one killed Rohith Vemula: How ASA, ABVP trapped a bright student in murky world of student politics

Nineteen months after he committed suicide, a judicial commission has reported that "no one killed Rohith Vemula". He killed himself, unable to come to terms with frustrations in his personal life, it has ruled, and nobody — neither any Union minister nor officials at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) — played any role in pushing the young research scholar to take the extreme step.

What's more, Vemula has been officially stripped of his 'Dalit' identity as well. The Justice Roopanwal report devotes four pages to demolish the claim that he was a Dalit, by going into great detail about how Radhika Vemula, Rohith's mother, who is a Backward Class by birth and by marriage, acquired a Dalit caste certificate.

This punctures the rhetoric of the opposition parties, which had gone to town branding BJP as an anti-Dalit party which pushed a young Dalit research scholar to death.

The report is, of course, great news for the Right-wing ABVP, whose skirmish with the Ambedkar Students' Association in August 2015 over a prayer meeting for Yakub Memon, everybody presumed, set off a chain of events that culminated in Vemula's suicide. But now, it transpires, none of what happened at HCU, including his expulsion from the hostel, had any role in Vemula's death. If one is to go by the Roopanwal report, it was loneliness and frustration led Vemula to kill himself.

No one killed Rohith Vemula: How ASA, ABVP trapped a bright student in murky world of student politics

File image of Rohith Vemula. Courtesy: Facebook

However, I wish Justice Roopanwal had spoken to psychologists and psychiatrists to ascertain whether a major upheaval in the last few months played a part in pushing a weak mind towards suicide. The commission jumps to the conclusion that the
punishment meted out by the university was pending in court, so it could not be the reason for Vemula's suicide. Instead, for reasons best known to Justice Roopanwal, he concludes that Vemula was "an unappreciated man" since childhood, and points out that he did not blame anyone for his decision in his suicide note.

It is surprising how the judge brushes aside the rather stinging note written by Vemula to the vice-chancellor on 18 December, 2016, in which he suggested that a nice rope be supplied to the rooms of all Dalit students. In a letter dripping with anguish and sarcasm, he also asked for 10 mg of sodium azide to be served to all Dalit students at the time of admission. He asked "your highness" (referring to the VC) to make preparations for euthanasia for students like him. "And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever," he wrote in a letter that carried the subject line 'Solution for Dalit Problem'.

If this is not the cry of a man thinking only of death, not once, not twice but three times, what else is it? Justice Roopanwal also argues Vemula committed suicide one month after writing this note, and therefore it does not count. Since when did killing oneself become as robotic as pushing an elevator button. Letter written, press zero, and down you go.

The second thing apparent is that irrespective of the reality of his caste, Rohith was brought up by his single mother as a Dalit and that shaped his outlook. It must however be pointed out that he got admission on merit, not on SC quota, to HCU.

Vemula to my mind was a victim of the system, of the circumstances that pushed him to his death. In search of an identity for himself, he had become part of the Ambedkar Students Association, that pursued an aggressive posture against the powers-that-be at the University. "It is a Brahminical agraharam," an ASA member had said to me during the agitation last year, the contempt for the upper castes, apparent. It is this poison that was being injected into a young mind which is why after his death, the entire non-Dalit teaching faculty at HCU was tarred as 'Killers of Rohith'.

Not that there isn't any merit in the allegation. The Vinod Pavarala committee report that investigated the circumstances that led to the suicide by Senthil Kumar, a Dalit PhD scholar in 2008, pointed out that there were instances of teachers shifting goalposts to trouble the Dalit students. For instance, the pass mark would be changed at the last minute to ensure Dalit students fail. It has been a huge challenge for Dalit research scholars to find guides.

What is needed is for the system to rectify these anomalies, and also the casteist divide that exists between students and the ghettoisation it leads to. Giving everyone a clean chit would serve the immediate purpose of ending the debate over Vemula's death but how many suicides would be blamed on the frustrations of childhood?

One would assume that student bodies in universities play a proactive role in moulding young minds, to formulate their ideas about the politics of the country, and use healthy debates as a tool to resolve disputes. But what bodies like ASA and ABVP did was to make hate the dominant emotion and sucked the likes of Rohith Vemula into their clashes. He was trapped, like an Abhimanyu, knowing no escape route. He wanted to write like Carl Sagan, all he did was to pour his emotions into a suicide note.

For example, if ABVP backed the decision to stop consumption of beef at the annual university festival 'Sukoon', the Dalit students hit back by saying, "We do not want to do research on your Ram, Sita and Ganesh."

If the university decided to observe 'Vivekananda Jayanti', students including Rohith Vemula objected to it, calling Vivekananda an "apologist of the caste system, a misogynist, a fake intellectual and an overrated, half-witted person who has no scientific references to his rants".

Rohith Vemula was without doubt a bright student. Unfortunately, he surrounded himself with people who encouraged him to see the world as dark, the glass as empty, and wearing victimhood as a badge of honour.

I see his decision to use the ASA banner as a noose as a telling point. The platform he thought would elevate him in life, finally became the vehicle to his death.

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Updated Date: Aug 17, 2017 07:42:48 IST

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