In September, Rohith Vemula, 26, a second year science doctoral student at Hyderabad Central University, wrote a satirical letter of protest to the vice chancellor of the Indian academic system.
“I ask Your Highness to act without delay in the establishment of an appropriate facility for euthanasia, dedicated to students like me,” he mused. “And I wish you and the entire campus to rest in peace forever.”
In India, you might call that the ordinary, scornful dialectic of a young dalit “left-winger.” But that would diminish the political activism of a generation of so-called “untouchables” against the secular and systemic harassment perpetrated by high castes against the poorest of the poor — a diverse group that in modern India includes dalits, adivasis (tribals), Muslims, shudra (the “servants,” according to the Hindu caste system), Indians of the Northeast, women and homosexuals. They all struggle for social justice in the hierarchy of ultra-Hinduism.
A few months after writing that letter, Vemula killed himself.
The letter and the rope
On Sunday, Jan. 17, Vemula’s lifeless body was found on the HCU campus, hanged, along with a letter that spread across the internet. He explained his dream of someday writing about science, “like Carl Sagan,” but instead took his life because he was crushed by the weight of a world where “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.”
Indian society expects students to keep their heads buried in their books. But Vemula and fellow members of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) had the luxury of guaranteed higher education thanks to India’s “reservations” system, the country’s version of affirmative action. They used that guarantee to overcome expectations: In addition to their studies, they took on political activism, fighting for awareness of the injustices on campus.
In 2015, following daily reports of Hindu extremist intolerance, the ASA — named after B.R. Ambedkar, the 20th century lawyer who campaigned for dalit rights — organized a series of awareness events. They screened the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, about the 2013 Muslim-Hindu riots in Uttar Pradesh. They attended a wake for Yakub Memon, a Muslim hanged for his involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bombing (despite his cooperation with investigators). And they organized a “Beef Festival” in solidarity with Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim rumored to have eaten beef and was beaten to death by a Hindu mob for it. (The meat, it turned out, was goat.)
The attack and the investigations
ASA’s activism stands opposite Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a Hindu nationalist, right-wing student organization affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party. They lashed out in strength against APA’s screening of the film about Muzaffarnagar. The confrontation, which resulted in a fistfight, set off a domino effect of threats and measures against Vemula and four other students, all dalits.
The local ABVP leader, Susheel Kumar, was encouraged by his mother to file a complaint with the Hyderabad police against five students for “aggression.” Police opened a case file and an investigation. A parallel investigation at the university, led by a panel of professors, none of them dalits, recommended countermeasures. The then vice chancellor of the university, R.P. Sharma, sought to reduce the ordeal as simple fiery student politics and to drop the charges. But when the new vice chancellor, Appa Rao Pondile, was appointed, the university reversed course.
The zeal of ABVP’s complaints moved Indian Labor Minister Bandaru Dattatreya to write letters to the university and to the federal Ministry of Human Resource Development demanding exemplary punishment for the five “casteist, extremist, anti-national” ASA members. Receiving the letters, Human Resources Minister Smriti Irani — a former model and television star accused of influence peddling — sent at least four letters to Vice Chancellor Rao encouraging the suspension of Vemula and his companions.
So that’s what Rao did. The five activists were expelled from their dormitory, forbidden to enter parts of campus other than their classrooms and the library, and, in Vemula’s case, to pay for his college housing: 9,482 rupees, about €127.
Vemula, incidentally, won a monthly scholarship from the university administration. But since July 2015 he had stopped receiving it due to “red tape.” According to Vemula’s calculations, the university owed him 175,000 rupees (€2,360). His friends say he supported himself by taking out loans. “I have to give some 40,000 to Ramji,” Vemula wrote in his suicide note. “He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.” Before Vemula began receiving the scholarship, worth €340 a month, his mother’s machinist salary of 150 rupees (€2) a day was his family’s only source of income.
In January, the five students appealed their suspension. They slept for 12 days in tents outside the university gates, waiting for their appeal to be received by the administration.
Since Vemula’s death, left-wing student organizations have surrounded Irani’s ministry in New Delhi, shouting slogans against the “murderess.” Police responded to the demonstrations with baton charges, beating the students with wooden sticks, sending a dozen people to the hospital. Students at Hyderabad Central University — after trying to block authorities from removing his body — organized a permanent sit-in, demanding administrators and the government accept responsibility for Vemula’s suicide and its discrimination against minority dalits.
Vemula’s suicide has become a national case, another of the dozens of tragedies in the last two years perpetrated in the climate of intolerance that seems to have worsened under the government of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. To Modi and his lieutenants, the episodes are a collection of “unpleasant incidents,” or, to paraphrase Modi’s only statement: a cause for “deep sadness. Politics aside, Mother India has lost a son.”
Grilled by the national press, Irani denounced the “misrepresentation” of the Vemula case in the media and denied any liability. Dattatreya echoed her statements, pointing to the fact that Vemula’s suicide letter doesn’t name names. Vemula’s style choice is now the minister’s legal defence: Police in Hyderabad have opened an investigation against Dattatreya and three university officials for “incitement to suicide.”
Pending justice in the Indian courts, it’s all but certain the issue of discrimination faced by minorities in India will remain a taboo, muffled by the ruling classes. The voices of the “others,” the cacophonous symphony of diverse, modern India, are hardly audible from the mouths of the living. Once again, and not for the last time, only the dead have managed to be heard.
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