On 17th January, 2016 barely a fortnight into the New Year, the nation had to grieve the death of a young research scholar who was pursuing his Ph.D. from the Hyderabad Central University, Rohith Vemula. He had committed suicide following his expulsion along with 4 other scholar from the University.  

The saga of this tragic began unfolding following a Facebook post made by Rohith Vemula during the Vignesh Chathurthi of 2014. He had posted a poem by the Telugu revolutionary poet Sri Sri on Facebook, mocking the Brahminical nature of such celebrations. Nandanam Vishnu Dutt, a BJYM leader from Lingampally and brother of Nandanam Susheel Kumar, filed a case against this Facebook post. That evening, the police took away RohithVemula for questioning; he was later released after his comrades protested at the police station. A few months later, a photo was posted on Facebook along with allegations that Rohith Vemula had torn ABVP banners. Rohith Vemula posted a clarification note on Facebook describing the actual sequence of events where he was surrounded and abused by the ABVP members. 

The most recent row, which culminated in a false case against five Dalit scholars including RohithVemula and their expulsion, was similarly bogus. The issue when the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) organised a protest march at the UoH against the attack by ABVP on Montage Film Society in Delhi University, which was screening a documentary movie ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’.

In response to this protest, local ABVP leader Susheel Kumar passed a comment on Facebook calling ASA members ‘goons’, for which later he submitted a written apology. The matter was almost settled before the next day when things took a dramatic turn. Next morning, Susheel kumar alleged that about 30 students belonging to the ASA had beaten him up and he had to be hospitalized.

However, the University’s Proctorial Board which conducted an enquiry with a medical examiner could not find any proof of injuries on Susheel Kumar. Security guards present at the scene also did not confirm the incident. There is a quote from the findings of the board;

“The board could not get any hard evidence of beating of Mr. Susheel kumar either from Mr Krishna Chaitanya or from the reports submitted by Dr. Anupama. Dr. Anupama’s reports also could not link or suggest that the surgery of the Susheel Kumar is the direct result of the beating.”

After this, the board decided to warn both groups. However, the final report of the board blamed the ASA activists for causing harm to Susheel Kumar and ordered the suspension of five students. It is said that whole picture of the matter changed after BJP MLC Ramachandra Rao met formar vice- chancellor Prof. R.P. Sharma. BJP MP and union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to the union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani and allegedly forced the university to expel the dalit scholars.

Bandaru Dattatreya wrote in his letter to the MHRD that the university had become a ‘den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics’. Written in 2015, it read: "This could be visualised from the fact that when Yakub Memon was hanged, a dominant students union, that is Ambedkar Students Union had held protests against the execution. When Shushil Kumar, president, ABVP, protested against this, he was manhandled and as a result he was admitted in hospital. What is more tragic is that the university administration has become a mute spectator to such events." Following this letter, the MHRD ministry was known to put pressure on the University to expel the 5 students that were mainly involved in the scuffle that took place in the early hours of 4th August, 2015. 

Following the decision of suspension, a protest was organized by ASA, and in an open discussion with former vice-chancellor Prof. RP Sharma on the fallacies of the enquiry and the decision taken, he immediately revoked the suspension, subject to constitution of a new committee to enquire into the incident afresh. But, the present vice-chancellor Prof P Apparao did not order a fresh enquiry and kept the suspended students in the dark while a committee from Executive Council took a decision of suspension without conducting an enquiry. This decision translated to a kind of social boycott. 

A written statement was released by Joint Action Committee for Social Justice (UoH) terming the decision ‘shockingly atrocious’ and ‘incomprehensible’. It also states that immediately after the appointment of Prof. P. Apparao as VC under the direction of the new BJP-led Union government, the decision to ostracize the dalit research scholars from hostels, common places, administrative building, and students’ union election was taken without conducting any fresh enquiry.

The students who had been expelled had been part of a ‘sleep-in’ protest within the University campus for 12 days prior to Rohith Vemula’s untimely death. The sons of Manu successfully claimed another young, bright mind. 

The students’ movement that has now taken shape following Rohith Vemula’s death has to be a unified one. The issue is not merely demanding that the Rohith Vemula’s ‘murderers’ be punished but rather, a much larger issue has to be addressed, that of the rising inequalities in the educational campus. 

Those, trying to deny Rohith’sDalit identity are definitely wrong but those, trying to project the entire incident as merely a case of caste oppression are also equally misguided. Soon after, the death of Rohith Vemula broke; his suicide note was also released. RohithVemula 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 star dust.In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.’ These lines are proof of the fact that, Rohith Vemula wished to rise above his Dalit identity. His political struggles were against the primitive fundamentalist forces still rife in the society that, treated individuals according to the religion or caste they are born into. 

The death of Rohith Vemula has affected most adversely his family. He came from a very modest background. His mother was a daily wage agriculture labourer and the family depended largely on Rohith’s fellowship which will now stop coming in too. Vemula wrote in his last letter, ‘If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get seven months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that.’ Our honourable MHRD minister sent letter after letter to the V-C of the UoH, asking whether any action was taken against the 5 students who had allegedly beaten up Susheel Kumar, but, for once did she write to ask why Rohith Vemula had not been receiving his fellowship for the past 7 months?

Rohith Vemula's death has brought to the fore front the growing socio-economic inequality present in an educational institution. A vast majority of Indians are still unable to access higher education. Those of the lower socio-economic strata are often subjected to oppression amd are forced to take drastic measures such as Rohith Vemula. P. Sainath in his address to the students protesting at the UoH following Rohith Vemula's death said, 'Only about 2% of India's rural population could boast of a graduate, if these figures were to be worked out for tribal or Dalit populations the figures would be more bleak.' Sainath cited these figures to emphasise on the kind of struggle that Rohith Vemula and others have had to go through to reach the point in his academic journey he was at. Sainath's comment also points to the wide socio-economic disparity that is becoming more and more evident in the field of education. 

Rohith Vemula's exasperation is evident from an earlier letter he wrote to the UoH V-C where, his tone attacking. He wrote that in light of the treatment being meted out to the Dalit students, the V-C's job of maintaining the 'brahmanical purity' of the institute would be made easier if he offered '10g Sodium azide to all Dalit students' and if their hostel rooms came along with a rope. 

What Rohith Vemula's unfortunate death does is brings to the fore an issue that the SFI has been speaking up against since quite some time now, i.e. the privatisation and commercialisation of education. This process does nothing but further widens the chasm between the various socio-economic groups. Thus, defeating the primary intent of acquiring an education i.e. overcoming the disparities prevalent in the society. Another incident that, further strengthens this argument is the suicide of three girls in Tamil Nadu, who were pushed to the wall in such a manner that, they were convinced that, only ending their lives would finally free them of the emotional and finanacial stress they were in. 

Since, nation-wide protest has erupted following Rohith Vemula's death, the SFI has been faced with much criticism. Rohith Vemula was an active member of the SFI but then he joined the Ambedkar Students' Association. It is being said that, he was subjected to discrimination on account of being a Dalit while in the SFI and this forced him to dissociate with SFI. The fact had been that there had been an influential SFI leader who was part of the leadership at the UoH unit, he had a tiff not only with Rohith Vemula but others too. Later, this individual was also expelled from all committies he was a part of after detailed discussion. SFI has always been a front runner in raising it's voice in support of the students. A joint action Committee for Social Justice -UoH made up of representatives of 14 students' organisations was set up following the expulsion of the 5 Dalit students (including Rohith Vemula) on charges of beating up Susheel Kumar, the Committee asked for the expulsion order to be revoked. This committe had active representation from the SFI as well. SFI has organised protest rallies and demonstrations all over the country demanding that MHRD minister, Smriti Irani, Labour union minister Bandaru Dattatreya,  the UoH VC be punished for aiding and abetting Rohith Vemula's suicide. The protest demonstration organised by the Delhi State SFI was lathi-charged by the police and the protestors also had to court arrest. The Kolkata SFI state committee also organised a protest demonstration at the ongoing Kolkata International Book Fair.

SFI is first and foremost an organisation of the students, it has had a long history of fighting for students' rights in the campus and it shall continue to uphold that legacy. To reiterate, Rohith Vemula's death is unfortunate and has stirred up a larger debate that has to be addressed, that of the isssue of privatisation in education and the ever widening socio-economic gap in the campus. SFI shall be an active participant in this future struggle. 

Rohit Vemula wrote, 'Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.'

“From shadows to the stars.”

17 February, 2016