A letter that should shake our world: Dalit scholar suicide triggers outrage

First Published on: January 18, 2016

Rohith (right) carrying a poster of Ambedkar along with other belongings, after his suspension

Rohith Vemula will live on

Anguished and shocked at Rohith’s death, expelled students vow to continue the protest with support of others

Nationwide protests will take place following the suicide by Vemula Rohith, a Dalit student at the university of Hyderabad (UoH) on the evening of Sunday, January 17. The first protest, spontaneous and angry, took place at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) late night, about 9.30 p.m. on Sunday January 17, 2016 itself. Vemula Rohith left a poignant suicide note before he took his life by hanging himself in the room of a colleague-friend in Hyderabad.

The next protest will take place outside the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) and its minister, Smriti Irani at 2 p.m. on Monday January 18. Irani had, according to protesting students and a letter written by a ruling party Member of Parliament (MP)—see https://www.sabrangindia.in/article/we-shall-not-be-silenced-protest-against-expulsion-dalit-research-scholars — obviously interfered in the matter of unlawful suspension of five PHD students and in protecting the student saffron wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

The students belonging to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) of which Rohith Vemula was an active part, had been furthering a debate on issues related to social justice, including communalism, ensuring that they get effectively flagged on the campus. Irani’s alleged interference can be traced to a letter written by none less than Bandaru Dattatreya , Secunderabad BJP MP and Minister of State for Labour and Employment, to the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) dubbing ASA “casteist, extremist and anti-national”. The communication demanded that the “dynamic leadership” of Smriti Irani, Minister of Human Resources and Development, bring about a “change for the better” in the institution. The ‘change for the better’ in ideological terms (for the Sangh Parivar) meant overruling an earlier decision of former Vice Chancellor of the University RB Sharna who revoked an earlier suspension of the same students after the decision was found to be not in accordance with the decision taken by the Proctorial Board of the UoH (August-September 2015). Sharma soon retired after which the newly appointed and more politically compliant, Appa Rao ‘fell in line’ with Dattarayera’s communication and Irani’s interventions.

Anguished at the loss of life of one of their own, one of the five PHD students unlawfully suspended, students from the ASA and other students organizations including the Students Federation of India (SFI) told Sabrangindia that though deeply disturbed there is a steely determination among the students that the late night, sleep out protest will continue.

Vemula Rohith, was one of the five PHD students who had been expelled had been successfully protesting the high-handedness of the authorities, sleeping out in the open since the night of January 4, 2016, when the doors to their rooms were illegally locked though they had been quietly studying in their rooms following the suspension. Sabrangindia had carried a story on the protest on January 12. His colleagues were in a day-long meeting and it appears that Rohith Vemula hanged himself in another room of his friend-colleague on Sunday evening. The 28-year-old, hailing from Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, was a Ph.D second year student. His letter tells a poignant tale

“Good morning, 
 I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write. 

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. 
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 very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living. 
I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense. 

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. 

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this. 

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds. 

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that. 
 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.” 

 Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing. 
To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future. 

For one last time, Jai Bheem 

I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. 

No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. 

This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. 

Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone. “

A Hindi translation of the note left by Rohith Vemula can be seen here
It is a battle for freedom of expression. The Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) decided to screen Muzaffarnagar Baqi Hai on campus last year (2015). The ABVP tried, unsuccessfully, to disrupt the screening. The saffron outfit began abusing students affiliated to the ASA on facebook and social media. Widespread protests by all students at this hate-mongering forced the student to submit a written apology. However, local BJP and RSS supporters joined with ABVP to force the VC to expel the ASA leaders on fabricated charges, although, a committee appointed by the VC had already given a favourable report finding no fault in the ASA or the students affiliated to it.

The persuasion in this communication appears to have worked. The Vice Chancellor buckled under pressure and without looking into the background of the case or even hearing the students, expelled them.

This expulsion from the hostel of five Dalit student leaders of the Ambedkar Students Association(ASA) at the Hyderabad Central University is illustrative of the manner in which politico-ideological considerations and governmental authority are being abused with impunity to suppress all points of view other than the self professed ‘nationalism’ of the Hindutva  brigade. Another reason for the expulsion was the claim that they had opposed the death sentence to Yakub Memon!

Several students groups from the university have also launched a legal battle. They have challenged the University of Hyderabad (UoH)’s decision to expel five Dalit scholars for allegedly attacking a student and a member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).  Seeking justice, the suspended students, on December 18, filed a writ petition in the Hyderabad High Court. This development has come in the wake of university issuing orders, banning the Dalit scholars from hostels, barring their entry into common places in groups, administration building and disallowing their participation in students union elections as a punishment.

The unique sleep out research protest of the research scholars is backed by 10 student outfits on campus. Student supporters have been gathering singing slogans and participating in the seep out protests. All of us all over India most now organise protests and sleep out protests against the highhanded intolerance and authoritarianism of the present government.  The death of Rohith Vemula must not go in vain. 



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