Published: 17th January 2023
#WhatTheFAQ: Seven years since Dalit Scholar Rohith Vemula's death by suicide
In what was alleged to be an "institutional murder", the death by suicide of scholar Rohith Vemula sparked a nationwide awakening to the issues faced by Dalit students in India
Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula's death by suicide in 2016 sent shockwaves through the student community seven years ago and brought to the fore harassment and discrimination faced by Dalit scholars across educational institutions in the country. Today, his death anniversary is marked as Rohith Shahadat Din.
Who was Rohit Vemula?
Rohith Vemula was a PhD scholar of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad. He was a Dalit scholar and a member of the Ambedkar Students Association at UoH. On this date in 2016, Vemula died by suicide at the varsity. In his suicide note, he called his birth a "fatal accident."
What were the incidents leading up to his demise?
In 2015, the UoH administration suspended Vemula and stopped his stipend, including HRA. This was done in response to complaints lodged against the scholar after run-ins with the student body of the RSS, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP). ABVP protested against the screening of a documentary about the communal violence that broke out in Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh in 2013, and a seminar conducted by the ASA on the death penalty awarded to Yakub Menon, who was accused of the 1993 Bombay terror attacks. ABVP's university unit president, Nandanam Susheel Kumar lodged a complaint, claiming that Vemula had assaulted him, and wrote to BJP MP of Secunderabad and Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya that ASA was propagating "casteist and anti-national activities" on campus. This letter was forwarded to the UoH Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao, after which the university expelled Vemula and four other students. These students then launched a hunger strike on campus in protest. They were evicted from their hostels as well. On January 17, Rohith Vemula died by suicide in the room of a fellow student. In his suicide note, he wrote, "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust."
What was the fallout of Vemula's death?
While Vemula did not blame anyone in his note, Dalit scholars and activists, and Vemula's kin, have called his death an "institutional murder," calling out the casteist discrimination and harassment meted out to the scholar by the varsity's administration. The incident threw light upon the issue of anti-casteist sentiments persisting in educational institutions in India. Dalit scholars and activists have since observed January 17 as Rohith Shahadat Day, and have demanded a Rohith Act to eradicate casteist discrimination against Dalit students in Indian educational institutions.
How has the situation for Dalit students and scholars been in India?
Just days before Vemula's death anniversary this year, the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, opposed a petition that demanded the implementation of the reservation system in the institute. The lack of representation of Dalit scholars and lecturers in premier institutes such as IITs and IIMs have been highlighted ever since. In 2019, according to data shared by the central government, there were no Scheduled caste and Scheduled Tribe faculty members in 12 out of 20 Indian Institute of Management (IIMs). In fact, only 11 SC/ST faculty members were found to be working at these institutes across the country. A professor at IIT Madras, Vipin Veetil, who resigned from his post claiming casteist harassment, claimed that the institute was "sabotaging" a special drive to recruit faculty members from SC, ST and OBC communities. A Dalit scholar at Kerala's Mahatma Gandhi University, Deepa Mohanan, went on a hunger strike in 2021, claiming that the varsity was denying her degree.
How is Vemula being remembered in 2023?
The Ambedkar Students’ Association will organise a programme to honour Vemula on campus, which will be attended by Chandrashekhar Azad, National President of the Azad Samaj Party. At Lucknow University, two students were issued show-cause notices after they planned to organise a lecture to be delivered by Professor Ravi Kant on Rohith Vemula today.