Why a Doctoral Student’s Suicide Is Provoking Protests across India

In a post to Quartz India, Vivekananda Nemana has reported on the suicide by hanging of Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula, a doctoral student at the University of Hyderabad, which is also known as the Hyderabad Central University.

Namana reports: “College students are up in arms across major Indian cities. Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Pune have witnessed massive demonstrations since [the suicide was reported].

Vemula was one of five students “banned from the hostel, libraries, and other common areas in the campus following a dispute with a rival students group.” The university has been investigating charges that he and the other students, part of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), had assaulted Nandanam Susheel Kumar, a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) student wing. Kumar has claimed that “the ASA members had attacked him in August after he criticized the group’s decision to protest the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings.”

But those protesting Vemula’s suicide have charged that “the university was pressured by the central government, led by prime minister Narendra Modi, into taking action against the ASA students”: specifically, “according to media reports, central labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya had written a letter to the Smriti Irani-led human resource development ministry about the ASA protest, in which Dattatreya termed the University of Hyderabad ‘a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics’ and the university administration a ‘mute spectator.’”

Although Vemula’s caste status has remained somewhat ambiguous, he came from a family of modest means and “he student union he belonged to—the ASA—takes up issues related mostly to Dalits—the former untouchable castes of India.”

The protest intensified after social-media postings “alleged that the police secretively cremated Vemula’s body, barring even his family members from attending the funeral.”

Munna Sannakki, another doctoral student at the university and member of the ASA, asserted: “’This is all because of political discrimination. . . . [The authorities] want to show their power. They don’t want [Dalits] to raise our voices.’ Sannakki described Vemula’s suspension a “’social boycott,’ referring to a medieval practice of ostracising those who had violated caste rules, and alleged that it was in retaliation to the students’ political outspokenness.”

Nemanna provides the following background information that is critical to understanding the story: “Many Dalit social movements in India describe themselves as ‘Ambedkarite’ after the venerated framer of the Indian constitution B.R. Ambedkar, a former ‘untouchable’ himself. Ambedkar saw education as essential for social progress, and many Dalit students turn to publically-funded universities to reverse centuries of discrimination in which people of the scheduled castes and tribes—as they are officially called—were denied access to education.

“Such students face various forms of discrimination at institutes of higher education even today.

“Even last year, hundreds of students had protested against the government’s decision to discontinue fellowships for humanities and social science research. The fellowships are especially important for students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds like Vemula, who often rely on such support to finance their education.

“’Besides, there is a lot of cultural shock at central universities,’ Ravichandran Bathran, a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies said. ‘Your dress isn’t suitable compared with the upper-class students, so the security guards keep stopping you at the gate. The faculty speaks in flowery English that you don’t even understand. And you always imagine you are inferior to them, which makes you think not to ask any questions.’”

“Coming from poor families, Dalit students also face enormous pressure to succeed.

This leads to disproportionately frequent suicides among such students. . . .

“The hopelessness of their condition was evocatively brought out in Vemula’s suicide note. ‘The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility,’ he wrote. ‘My birth is my fatal accident.’”


Nemana’s complete article is available at: http://qz.com/598397/rage-at-indian-universities-as-millennia-old-wounds-turn-raw-after-dalit-students-suicide/.

Other articles on these events include:

“Behind Rohit Vemula’s Suicide: How Hyderabad Central University Showed Him the Door”: http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/behind-dalit-student-suicide-how-his-university-campus-showed-him-the-door/.

“Dalit Student’s Suicide: HRD Ministry Sent 4 ‘Reminders’ to Hyderabad University on ‘VIP letter’”: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Dalit-students-suicide-HRD-ministry-sent-4-reminders-to-Hyderabad-University-on-VIP-letter/articleshow/50641383.cms.

“Expelled Dalit Scholar Commits Suicide in University of Hyderabad”: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Expelled-dalit-scholar-commits-suicide-in-University-of-Hyderabad/articleshow/50616421.cms.

“Student Protests Build, Politicians Refuse to Stay Away: 10 Developments”: http://www.ndtv.com/cheat-sheet/protests-outside-ministers-home-over-hyderabad-students-suicide-10-developments-1267405.



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