How a student's suicide has reignited a debate over caste in India

One day last week, Rohith Vemula was protesting his suspension from Hyderabad Center University in southern India.

The next day, the 26-year-old PhD student hanged himself, leaving behind a suicide note that read, “My birth is my fatal accident.”

Vemula’s death Sunday has sparked an outcry and renewed a nationwide debate over the treatment of Dalits, the lowliest members of India’s ancient, stratified caste system, at the country’s institutions of higher education.

Vemula and other Dalit student activists at the publicly funded university had clashed for months with a rival group, the student wing of India’s conservative Hindu governing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.

The Dalit students had held events promoting social liberalism and opposing the death penalty for a convicted terrorist. Word reached some BJP government officials, one of whom complained to the federal education ministry that the campus had turned into “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.”

In September, following the letter, administrators suspended Vemula and four other Dalit students. Last month, after the suspension was upheld, the students were kicked out of their dormitory and launched a hunger strike. Vemula wrote to the university vice chancellor, asking to be reinstated, but in vain.

“Rohith and four other scholars were sleeping and bathing in the open, like outcasts,” said Kolagani Ashok Kumar, Vemula’s roommate. The university on Thursday canceled the suspensions of the other four students.

Although caste lines are slowly fading in modern India, Dalits – who were once so looked down upon they were known as “untouchables” – say they continue to face discrimination and abuse at Indian universities.

A survey of first-year students at the Mumbai campus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in 2014 found that 56% felt discriminated against in some manner. While official statistics are not kept, students say at least 20 Dalit students at top-flight universities have committed suicide over the past decade, often following complaints of mistreatment.

At the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where 300 students boycotted classes following Vemula’s death, student Yashwant Zagade, who is of a lower caste, said he and others are “looked down upon” and verbally hazed by classmates.

“Even teachers taunt us,” he said.

Most Dalit students come from poor families with little educational background, many having been taught in vernacular languages. A complex quota system has dramatically improved the chances of the best students to gain enrollment in universities, although they often struggle in English-language classes.

There is “no effort to make them feel comfortable in our educational institutions,” Zagade said. When Dalit activists demand their rights, they are branded as subversive, he said.

Indian universities tend to be bastions of the establishment, with public institutions often falling under the sway of political appointees. Last year, students at the country’s most venerable cinema school held a months-long strike to protest the selection of right-wingers with dubious filmmaking credentials to head the school’s governing body.

Friends of Vemula, a second-year PhD student in life sciences, said that last July, following complaints over his activism by the BJP-aligned student group, the university stopped paying his monthly stipend of roughly $400, his main source of income. The school blamed administrative delays.

The clash escalated following the letter by a BJP government minister, Bandaru Dattatraya, who objected in particular to Vemula’s stand against the hanging of Yakub Memon, who was convicted in a series of deadly bomb blasts in Mumbai in 1993.

Education Minister Smriti Irani said this week that Vemula’s death was not a caste issue. But opponents have questioned why BJP leaders had gotten involved in student politics at a relatively obscure university.

After administrators opened an inquiry against Vemula and four other Dalit student activists for allegedly assaulting a member of the BJP student wing in August, senior government officials in New Delhi made multiple inquiries over months to demand the university punish them, according to media reports.

Kancha Ilaiah, an author and Dalit activist, said caste-based discrimination persists because many upper-caste Indians cannot accept a Dalit as a scholar. He added that the system of political leaders appointing university administrators makes it less likely that student complaints are given a proper hearing.

“How can the vice chancellor work autonomously when the ruling party has made him in charge of the university?” Ilaiah said.

In the  dorm room where Vemula hanged himself, police found a long, lofty and sometimes confusing suicide note that hinted at deep psychological torment.

“I am not hurt at this moment,” the note read. “I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.”

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Bengali reported from Chittagong, Bangladesh. 

Follow @SBengali on Twitter for more news from South Asia

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