Rohith Vemula suicide brings global attention to prevalence of caste-based discrimination in India

By: Maitreyee Boruah
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The anti-reservation lobby has always vociferously denied the existence of caste-based discrimination still rampant in our society. It is time for us to move beyond the controversial issue of reservation to end subjugation of people on the basis of caste and creed.

Caste-based discrimination is a reality, and unless and until we don't admit its existence, the malice of the age-old caste war won't end.


The tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old research scholar from Hyderabad, has once again brought into focus prejudice and violence faced by the Dalit community, even in revered spaces like a university.

The intolerance against the minorities-be it Dalits, Tribals or Muslims-plays at various levels, right from the social to political spectrum.

The circumstances under which Rohith was forced to take the drastic step--of hanging himself in a hostel room inside the campus of the Hyderabad Central University--has brought attention to the systematic discrimination faced by Dalit students in higher educational institutions.

In fact, 131-odd academicians from across the globe have issued a statement voicing their concern about the widespread prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Indian universities. The statement has been signed by noted scholars and academicians like Rupa Viswanath of the University of Göttingen in Germany, Joel Lee of the Williams College in the US and French scholar Christophe Jaffrelot, to name a few.

Dalit students face discrimination

In the beginning the statement says, "We of the global scholarly community make an urgent appeal that justice be done in the most recent case of caste discrimination in Indian higher education, that of the University of Hyderabad's prejudicial suspension of five young Dalit men pursuing PhDs.

[Read: Should India rise at the cost of wasted youth politics?]

It was ordered under political pressure, without even allowing the young men in question to speak in their own defense. It directly contravened an earlier decision made by the University administration itself, which had exonerated them of any charges of wrongdoing ‒ charges which had been trumped up by political rivals opposed to the activism of these young men."

Failure of higher educational institutions

Lamenting on the tragic and untimely death of Rohith, the academicians write, "This prejudice has now exacted a terrible price. One of the five, a scholar of great promise, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide on January 17.

Unable to bear the despair of having his one chance at a future snatched from him, of his value being reduced, in his own eloquent parting words, to nothing but "a vote" and "an immediate identity," he took his own life. As scholars we know that individual actions are never just that.

This suicide is not an individual act. It is the failure of higher educational institutions in democratic India to meet their most basic obligation: to foster the intellectual and personal growth of India's most vulnerable young people. Instead, Rohith now joins a long list of victims of prejudice at premier institutions in the country, where pervasive discrimination drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide, when not simply forcing them to quietly drop out."

Justice for Rohith

In strong words, the academicians have demanded that justice should be immediately delivered by investigating the death of Rohith and reinstating four of Rohith's friends, who are still under expulsion.

"As international scholars of South Asia, we ask the authorities at the University of Hyderabad to immediately reinstate Mr. Vemula's four peers, to provide support to his family, and to launch a police investigation into his passing. But that is not enough. The University of Hyderabad must ensure not only that justice be done now, but that further injustice be rigorously prevented. It is vital to the life of any academic institution to actively nurture students exactly like Rohith, whose contribution to civic life and healthy political debate made the university the place of learning and personal transformation it should be. Measures must be implemented to ensure that such students are supported and allowed to thrive when they enter what is all too often the hostile, casteist environment of higher education in India. A university where students turn away from life with the regularity they have at the University of Hyderabad requires urgent and massive re-hauling," reads the statement.

End political interference

The international scholars have condemned the direct involvement of politicians in encouraging caste-based discrimination in educational institutions.

"The involvement of political leaders in buttressing caste discrimination in Indian universities, and the double standards applied by university administrations to anti-caste student activity, directly contribute to the negative reputation India is earning among scholars worldwide.

We urge the University of Hyderabad to restore our confidence by living up to its obligation to end institutionalized discrimination, to educate all students in a climate of respect and empathy, and to resist political pressures to do otherwise. We are all watching," adds the statement.

Hope such words of caution by eminent scholars of global repute help the Hyderabad Central University set its house in order and end discrimination of students on the basis of their caste and religion.

OneIndia News

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