On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a political science PhD student at Hyderabad Central University (HCU), in southern India, went to his room at the university, wrote a six-page letter in English incriminating a system with which he no longer identified, tied a rope around his neck and took his life.
Rohith Vemula was also a far-left activist and a Dalit, an ’untouchable’, who publicly protested against the acts of discrimination and exclusion repeatedly suffered by members of low castes and minorities within universities.
Within hours, his suicide gave rise to an unprecedented crisis on the Hyderabad campus, followed by other Indian universities, as the news spread across social networks.
#JusticeForRohith and #ChaloHCU (HCU, Let’s go!) soon took hold of Twitter and Facebook, rallying support across the country and as far as London, Berlin and New York.
The Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, made up of students and activists, is demanding the resignation of the minister in charge of education as well as that of the university’s vice chancellor, Appa Rao, accused of being responsible for what many term an “institutional murder”.
The movement, together with various unions, including the powerful National Students’ Union of India (NSUI, close to the Indian National Congress opposition party) is calling on the central government to promulgate a ’Rohith Act’, to bring an end to the injustices endured by disadvantaged minorities in the education system in India.
Mockery, harassment, refusal to publish and promote teachers, non-allotment of grants or tutors to students and systematic references to caste, are some of the examples listed in The Hindu.
In December 2015, five PhD students, including Rohith Vemula, members of the Ambedkar Student Association, were wrongly accused – as shown by a police inquiry – of having attacked a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student union, close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The five students had been suspended from the university campus.
“The atmosphere has been extremely tense since this incident. Rohith’s suicide has brought to light the very serious problem weighing on the university system and Indian society: the denial of justice and judgement by caste. It is also manifested in the contempt shown for the positive discrimination programmes in place,” explains Mohib Ali, a student at Hyderabad University, in an interview with Equal Times.
The Indian constitution protects and promotes people from ’Scheduled Castes’, ’Scheduled Tribes’ and ’Other Backward Castes’ (SC/OBC) through a quota system to facilitate their access to the education system. These quotas, whilst succeeding in bringing greater diversity into the student population in higher education, have not succeeded in ending discrimination.
According to the economist Sukhadeo Thorat, 23 out of the 25 students who committed suicide in various higher education institutions were Dalits.
“It is almost as if we have become immune to these frequent instances of suicide mainly by Dalit students,” says Thorat.
Anthropologist Dalel Benbabaali of the London School of Economics, specialising in low castes and adivasi (tribal minorities) in the Hyderabad region, points out that social mobility fails for several reasons:
“The quota system has never really been accepted by the high castes, in the sense that it encroaches on their territory and the exclusivity of their privileges. Students benefiting from quotas are constantly maligned as advantage takers who do not really deserve their place in higher education.”
Such remarks are often interiorised by the members of low castes.
“Many Dalits do not use the quota system for fear of being labelled the ’quota student’ of the group. The word ’quota’ itself has become an insult. That is why many urban, educated Dalits do not assume this identity and use a range of strategies to hide it, such as changing their surname [editor’s note: in India, a person’s region of origin, community, religion and caste can be determine by their surname, amongst other markers],” underlines Yashica Dutt, an Indian journalist and student at Columbia University, New York, who has created a blog, in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, on which Dalits can share their experiences.
“I realised to what extent I had interiorised the fear of rejection. Sadly, his death has helped me to ’come out’ as a Dalit,” she tells Equal Times.
For Mohib Ali, Rohith Vemula’s death is also representative of the climate of liberticide shaking India, especially on the campuses, where “profound anti-intellectualism is developing”.
The protests on the campuses are likely to continue for some time.
This is article has been translated from French.