The recent suicide of a PhD student from India’s Dalit community -- an undesired segment of society which has faced discrimination for centuries -- has once again brought India’s caste system under intense scrutiny.
Rohit Vermula, a doctoral candidate at the University of Hyderabad, was found dead in his dorm room.
He was among five students suspended following an altercation with student leaders associated with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a student wing of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which presently heads the Indian federal government.
Vermula, 26, belonged to the Dalit community, whose members were once considered untouchables and are the lowest in the Hindu caste system. His suicide has triggered protests across India.
The university revoked the suspension after the suicide and the police have registered a case against the university’s Vice Chancellor, as well as Bandaru Dattatreya, a federal minister in the BJP government.
It is reported that Dattatreya had written a letter to his colleague Smriti Irani, head of the Federal Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry, seeking action against the students for “anti-national” acts.
The Indian government has established a judicial commission to further investigate the suicide and has offered compensation to the deceased’s family.
Protests in support of the deceased continue unabated in several parts of the country.
Police had detained over 100 hundred students in New Delhi last in recent days after they took to the streets demanding justice for Vermula. The police justified the students’ detention by claiming the students had tried to march to the office of the HRD ministry itself.
Students from the Dalit Community allege that they face discrimination from the upper echelons of India’s caste system. One of the suspended students stated that the continued “political victimization” of their caste led to Vermula’s suicide.
“They don’t want to listen to us [Dalits], our voices or our writings,” said, Dontha Prashanth, a Dalit scholar at Hyderabad University.
Prashanth cited an example of a Dalit student at Hyderabad University who failed the same subject three times simply because the professor belonged to a high caste. Only after the intervention of the student’s association was the Dalit student given a passing grade.
“Many Dalit students don’t get fellowships and scholarships,” he said, emphasizing that the students will not compromise on their demands until justice is served.
Some Dalit activists say the abundance of talent among Dalits is precisely the reason they are discriminated against by the upper caste.
“The Dalits pose a challenge to upper caste people. They are afraid of Dalit students because Dalits are rich in knowledge,” Kancha Ilaiah, a prominent Dalit rights activist and academician, told Anadolu Agency.
The protests, meanwhile, have also acquired a political tone with the rival student wings of other political parties taking to the streets to show solidarity with the deceased student.
The National Students Union of India (NSUI), a wing of the Indian National Congress, is among the student associations that have protested the authorities.
“Minority students, especially the Dalit students in the country, are facing problems on campus and Rohit’s case is an example of it,” Roji M. John, the NSUI president, stated.
John continued by blaming the federal government for suppressing the voices of dissent.
“Rohit was fighting against discrimination and he, along with others, was suspended,” he told Anadolu Agency.
He also quoted a case of students at Lucknow University who had raised slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a speaking event and were removed from the dormitory as a result.
“We have witnessed in one year, the government interfering in the functioning of autonomous institutes, and as a result, these prime educational institutes are facing a challenge,” he said, adding that the NSUI will intensify its agitation for demanding justice for Rohit.
The ABVP meanwhile rejects its rivals’ claims that it played any role in the entire episode.
“It is the politicization of the issue by the Congress and NSUI,” said Nagesh Thakur, the president of the ABVP. He also denied that the university authorities had acted against Vermula at the behest of the ABVP.
“It is not true,” he said, while adding that the ABVP has been fighting for the rights of Dalit students.
The HRD Ministry, which is also being criticized for its interference in the university administration, reacted to the allegations. Irani framed the entire ordeal as “a malicious attempt that is being made to show it as a caste battle, which it is not.”
Vivek Kumar, professor of Sociology at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, has extensive knowledge about India’s caste system. Kumar describes caste-discrimination as a “historical” issue that has now acquired sophisticated tones.
“It is not related to the present government only. It is a historical problem. Before India’s independence, there was unaccountability, and now the discrimination is refined and sophisticated. A research scholar is denied scholarship or is denied working in a laboratory for days because he is a Dalit,” Kumar said.