Solidarity Statement: Justice for Rohith Vemula
The Association for India’s Development (AID) expresses its dismay at the death of University of Hyderabad PhD student, Rohith Vemula and stands in solidarity with the protests and calls for justice following the tragedy.
Vemula, a scholar in the department of Science, Technology and Society, an aspiring science-writer, and a perceptive critic of social inequalities, committed suicide after being expelled, along with four other students, on dubious charges of assaulting a student belonging to a student group on campus affiliated with the ruling party. While they were allowed to remain in the university to attend classes, they were barred from the hostel and the cafeteria, leading to an outrageous situation, where some students of a university were not allowed to eat or live in the same facilities as other students. With no other option, and in protest, the students slept in the open for two weeks.
All the five students expelled were Dalits. Documentary evidence points to the disturbing fact that the decision of the top university officials to expel the students came after persistent and intense political pressure by central government ministers.
Vemula’s death adds to the unfortunate statistic of suicides by students belonging to so-called lower castes in India’s leading academic institutions. On each such occasion, as vividly captured in documentaries such as “Death of Merit,” the caste-based discrimination, segregation and harassment, at the hands of so-called upper-caste fellow students and faculty lead the students to the fatal decision to take their lives
Vemula and the organization he was part of, the Ambedkar Students Association, represented new forms of assertion of Dalit identity and understanding of power structures of oppression, which challenged conventional ideas about overarching identities, especially national and communal. Through their actions, such as the screening of the documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, they sought to shatter narrow and shallow identities and form solidarities with all oppressed. These beliefs and positions, mostly springing from an understanding of their own lived experience of caste conditions, brought them in conflict with other student-groups on campus from either ends of the political spectrum, which were dominated by upper-caste students.
Such conflict with Dalit modes of self-expression was seen recently at IIT-Madras when a student group called the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was asked to remove “Ambedkar” and “Periyar” from its name, which it refused. The group was later banned for being critical of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi. (Following widespread protests, the institute lifted the ban in July 2015.)
Far too often casteism is recognized only when overt caste-based discrimination occurs. The caste biases perpetuated in educational, civic and private institutions, development policies and various threads in our social fabric are accepted as normal or ignored altogether. People who speak and act against these biases risk social boycott, loss of academic and career opportunities and even their lives.
It is imperative therefore that as we demand justice for Rohith Vemula we also examine structures of caste segregation and hierarchy amongst and around us, including in the diaspora, and render them visible so that as a society we can collectively challenge and dismantle them. This struggle is not the responsibility of the oppressed alone. The tragic suicides of Dalit students sound an alarm calling upon every one of us to work to ensure that those fighting for a just society do not feel alone, but rather feel empowered with a shared sense of urgency to achieve the goal of annihilation of caste and other bases of marginalization and oppression.
On the occasion of Republic Day, we recall the idea of India envisioned in the Constitution, and the cautious hope of the times:
“On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
B.R. Ambedkar, Speaking to the Constituent Assembly, 25 November 1949.
For further reading
Hyderabad: On the Social Boycott of Five Dalit Research Scholars in Central University Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, University of Hyderabad (17 January, 2016).
Death of a Dalit scholar (The Hindu, 19 January 2016).
No University For Dalits (Sandhya Ravishankar, The Wire, 21 January 2016).
Death by Discrimination (Economic and Political Weekly, 23 January 2016).
Love, justice and stardust: A requiem for Rohith Vemula (Harsh Mander, Scroll, 23 January 2016).
How I killed Rohith Vemula (S. Anand, Outlook, 1 February 2016)
The Death Of Merit: Dr. Balmukund Bharti (Part – I) (Dalit & Adivasi Student Portal, April 23, 2011)