A barrage of emotions overwhelmed me as I visited the Hyderabad Central University on January 20. The grit and determination on the faces of the large crowd of students that I could see and their body language were both refreshing and redeeming. Their demand was simple: justice must be done. A bright young research scholar, a fellowship holder, a Dalit, was forced to commit suicide on January 18. This was the result of an action taken by the newly appointed vice-chancellor of the university to rusticate five students from the university hostel on the ground that they assaulted another student.
Rohith Vemula and his friends belong to the Ambedkar Students Association. The student who was allegedly attacked belongs to the ABVP. The alleged incident happened in August last year. The then VC - not an appointee of the Modi government - ordered a proctorial enquiry which reprimanded the students by issuing warnings and concluded the matter. The current VC was newly appointed by the Modi government. Under pressure from the Union Minister for Labour and Employment, who is an MP from the area, the HRD ministry sent five reminders asking why action was not taken against the Ambedkar Students Association. The last of these was signed by the Joint Secretary, in the ministry. All these are in the public domain. The action of the new VC followed from this pressure. The VC also stopped the payment of Rohith's fellowship. The student's debt ballooned and that financial burden is seen by his co-students as one of the major reasons that pushed him to take his own life.
His mother Radhika brought up her two sons virtually as a single-mother. She is a Dalit. One can imagine her income from our society with its rampant caste prejudices today. Rohith and his younger brother have both reached this level of higher studies through sheer hard work and scholarships. Rohith, therefore, had no fall-back options.
Radhika broke down when I met her. One could see the glow of anger against the injustice perpetuated by our society. Her suffering was on a single count: how can any political motivation harass and persecute a young student who through his merit or scholarship had earned a fellowship. She says that Rohith used to proudly tell her that one day she will be known as the collector's mother. She told me that Rohith was simultaneously preparing for the civil services exams while pursuing his research.
At the meeting of the students the mood for fighting against the injustice was palpable. The VC had asked the teachers to conduct normal classes. The teachers, I was informed, in turn, told the VC to first ensure that the students return to the classes.
The boycott by the students is complete. Their demands are simple: justice has to be delivered to Rohith and the university community, and the Union Minister for Labour and Employment, the HRD minister and the VC must be dismissed for abetment of suicide.
The supreme irony of this situation lies in the fact that the Modi government had begun the last winter session of Parliament with a two-day commemoration of Baba Saheb Ambedkar's 125th birth anniversary and to reaffirm our faith in our Constitution. Our Constitution guarantees all our citizens equality "irrespective of caste, creed or sex." What is this reaffirmation of the resolve to uphold the Constitution when this constitutional guarantee is being violated? Further, despite all disruptions, this last session, in its last week, unanimously legislated the amendments to the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act according to which such pressure mounted on the student is a crime. Accordingly, action must be taken against all those responsible.
My being with the students on the campus took me back by four decades to my times as a student activist in JNU. Mercifully, we did not have to face such a tragedy of a student committing suicide due to official pressure by the government. We underwent a large dose of repression during the days of the internal emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi. The determination and courage that is being shown by the students of the Hyderabad Central University is a demonstration of the fact that the youth in our country will no longer tolerate such expressions of social oppression and official patronage to destroy our system of higher education to meet the ideological objectives of the RSS and the BJP, to transform our secular democratic republic into their version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic Hindu Rashtra. Clearly the students of this premier university, which ironically again was declared by the President of India to be the best university in 2015, will not allow the current offensive by the Modi government to replace Indian history with Hindu mythology and Indian philosophy with Hindu theology in the pursuit of advancing the RSS' objectives.
I grew up in the city of Hyderabad and went through my entire school education there. Of every four of my friends, one would be a Muslim and another a Christian from the Anglo-Indian community. There was a rich confluence and there continues to be a rich confluence of various cultures that in a way defines the syncretic character of our great Indian civilization. This is now being assaulted by the bigoted and regressive ideology of the RSS that seeks to achieve its objectives by destroying the unity of our people and integrity of our country. Such a violent assault on our country and our people cannot be tolerated.