The suicide of 26 year-old Indian PHD student, Rohith Vemula, is both a human tragedy and a symbol of centuries of systemic abuse and injustice metered out at India’s Dalits. “My birth is my fatal accident,” writes Rohith Vemula in his suicide note. This notion rings true for far too many Dalits in India, destined for discrimination from birth.
His is not the first Dalit student suicide, there have been many before him who have found no alternatives to the exclusion and ostracism they faced, as was also documented in the 2011 documentary on Dalit student suicides “The Death of Merit”. In 2007, the Professor Thorat Committee also presented a report on caste discrimination in the All India Institute of Medical Science and over the years numerous cases of discrimination in universities across India have surfaced. The difference is that his case represents the final straw that made people in India come out in protest and the international community join them in solidarity.
People of the world from San Francisco to South Africa and global media have raised the death of Rohith Vemula as a symbol of caste oppression and centuries of injustice suffered by Dalits in India. His suicide note has been published by leading Indian media, and analysed across dozens of outlets. Online activists are using the hashtags #RohithVemula and #justiceforrohith to raise awareness of the case, organise protests and track developments.
In India, some commentators argue that his suicide is a ‘personal matter’, while many others argue it is the direct outcome of exclusion and caste oppression by the University of Hyderabad, that he was attending. As the group Hyderabad for Feminism writes,
“The sense of hopelessness that is tangible in Rohith’s letter comes from this dissonance between what he had dreamed he would become – a science writer, writing creatively and philosophically about science – and what he became – an “outcaste,” “outsider,” “out-everything” in that idealized space of higher learning and enquiry, the university. The monster is this: a human being systemically and systematically dehumanized, delegitimized, isolated, pariahed, his dreams thrust out and crushed underfoot.”
Rohith was a members of a student group at Hyderabad University that fought against caste discrimination. According to independent news site Scroll.in, “university authorities had barred them from entering the administrative building, hostels, libraries, mess and other common areas.” The barred students slept in tents outside campus. According to numerous sources, Rohith and members of other student groups had been on a hunger strike to demand their suspension lifted. Fellow students claim that the allegations against the barred students were false, but the University upheld the suspension.
In a Facebook post cited on Globalvoicesonline.org a friend of Rohith’s comments,
“One of the reasons for which Rohith and others were persecuted by the administration is that he was seriously organising campaigns and programs to highlight persecution of, and discrimination against Muslims and worked to bring Dalits and Muslims together to combat it, on campus level.”
Nearly 130 academics from around the world have written an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad expressing their shock and anguish at the suicide of Rohith Vemula, and demanding that justice be done and solidarity protests are being staged at universities in India as well as abroad.
As protests across India take hold, caste tensions flare and make the divisions in India ever clearer. A peaceful solidarity protest in Mumbai was reportedly attacked by a Hindu Nationalist group and women were beaten and sexually abused. This attack on Dalit women is often seen in the face of Dalit rights assertions and the women bear the brunt of abuse and forceful oppression.
Many commentators have also lamented the fact that India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, remained silent on Rohith’s death for 5 days before expressing grief for a mother’s loss of a son. Rohith’s family has reportedly also rejected cash compensation offered by the University of Hyderabad instead demanding a full probe into the events preceding his death. According to the BBC Rohith’s mother has stated,
“My son died because of the misuse of power and conspiracy by some powerful people. At least, now they should revoke the suspension of the four other boys.”
While Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide is just the very tip of a gigantic iceberg of caste-based injustice and struggle, it is hoped that the attention it is receiving will jolt both the Indian authorities, and the international community, into taking much more systematic and concerted action against a scourge of discrimination that threatens to corrode Indian society from the inside out and completely undermines notions of equality and human rights, reportedly held in so high esteem by many in the international community.
“In the end, the system got Rohith Vemula. He died thinking he could not win the caste battle, little knowing that he has started a war.” Lead in to the cover story of Outlook India.
Selected press clippings:
Not Quite An End Note (Outlook India)
‘We don’t want even Rs 8 crore, we want to know why PM Modi did … (International Firstpost)
“Outrage over Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula suicide – The Times of India”. (The Times of India)