A year ago, on 18 December 2015, Rohith Vemula — Dalit PhD scholar from the University of Hyderabad — wrote a letter dripping with sarcasm to the vice-chancellor of the university, V Appa Rao Podile, about the discrimination being meted out to Dalit students.

He wrote, offering a ‘solution for the Dalit problem’:

1. Please serve 10mg Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission. With direction to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar.
2. Supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students from your companion, the great Chief Warden.

As we, the scholars, PhD students have already passed that stage and already members of Dalit Self-Respect movement unfortunately, we here are left with no easy exit, it seems. Hence, I request your highness to make preparations for the facility “EUTHANASIA” for students like me. And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever.”

A month later, on 17 January, 2016, Rohith Vemula committed suicide. The suicide rose to national importance as it shed light on a deeply disturbing, yet ignored facet of Indian universities: Caste discrimination. The February 2016 protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) sparked important and much needed debates on freedom of speech and the right to dissent. The two incidents awoke a new political consciousness among students — spreading across various universities and campuses, students took to the streets in the national capital demanding justice for the Dalit scholar and an adequate response to the JNU crisis.

A file photo of Rohith VemulaA file photo of Rohith Vemula

A file photo of Rohith Vemula

While the goal should have been to introspect, what was achieved was nothing material — it was probed whether Rohith Vemula was in fact a Dalit, his mother was questioned.

He was a Dalit.

Then, he was not.

Then again, he was — mere distractions from addressing the elephant in the room. Political mileage was gained, Vemula’s name was on the Opposition’s lips hoping to score brownie points and Vemula’s name probably occupied a larger corner in the minds of those running the government.

Why are we going over these tiresome details of case forgotten? Didn’t we move on to other news? The National Anthem directive, perhaps? (no, we seem to be over that one too). These tiresome boring details must be revisited to address the people who haven’t forgotten, those who feel wronged by a system that perhaps isn’t there to support them in the first place.

What has come out of the Vemula suicide and the subsequent political storm?

One, a 12-point recommendation from the Ministry of Human Resources and Development on how to prevent campus suicides. The HRD ministry added six points to Roopanwal Commission’s six recommendations to curb campus suicides. The measures suggested by the ministry include a “strong induction programme  for better acclimatisation and establishing a local guardian system for outstation students,” “grievances of students should be discussed and dispensed with on weekly basis and vice-chancellors should hold monthly meetings.”

Two, Appa Rao Podile’s continued tenure as the the vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad. On Sunday, Dontha Prashanth, Seshaiah Chemudagunta and Vijay Kumar (Pedapudi), Vemula’s friends, fellow Dalits and PhD students who were also suspended along with Vemula from the University of Hyderabad wrote a letter to the President of India, urging him to remove Podile as the vice-chancellor of the university. He was reinstated even while protests were in full-swing, just a few months after the suicide. If the idea was to allay the burgeoning anger amid students, why wasn’t a man with sub-par academic qualifications, especially one with a history of unethical academic practices such as plagiarism allowed to continue as the university’s vice-chancellor?

Students asking for Podile’s removal is not new, such demands have been made earlier by the student body of the University of Hyderabad. Prashanth, Chemudagunta, Pedapudi had earlier written an open letter to the Prime Minister of India in August this year:

What action was taken after a committee appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development brought out the institutional lapses that led to Rohith’s suicide? Why did you not speak, Mr Prime Minister, when Smriti Irani spoke utter lies in Parliament? What happened to the Judicial Commission appointed by HRD Ministry which was supposed to submit its report by 1 August, 2016?

The anger in the University of Hyderabad has been simmering for a long time. 189 academics had written a letter to the President of India, seeking his intervention in the Rohith Vemula, asking for the dismissal of the vice-chancellor. JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar and the face of the Indian student politics for well over a year wrote a dramatic letter to Smriti Irani about Vemula (and the state of Dalits in the country).

The three other students will perhaps continue writing letters because everything else has been done, yielding little to nothing. Simmering anger, growing resentment and disappointment make for powerful ink, but what if the system ends up being illiterate?

First Published On : Dec 20, 2016 10:20 IST

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Rohith Vemula aftermath: 12 recommendations from HRD ministry and Podile stays on as V-C