Suicide of Rohith Vemula
|Date||17 January 2016|
|Location||Hyderabad, Telangana, India|
|Cause||Suicide by hanging|
Rohith Chakravarti Vemula was an Indian PhD student at the University of Hyderabad and author of the book Caste is Not a Rumour. An activist with the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA), he committed suicide on 17 January 2016 following a controversy that had begun in July 2015 when the university reportedly stopped paying him a fellowship of ₹25,000 (US$370) per month because an enquiry found he had been "raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association".
On 3 August 2015, Vemula and four other ASA activists demonstrated against the death penalty for Yakub Memon, a convicted terrorist involved in the 1993 Bombay bombings and condemned the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) attack on the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai in Delhi University. In response, ABVP's local leader, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, described the five activists as "goons". Kumar was later confronted in his hostel room and had to be admitted to hospital on the following day for an operation related to acute appendicitis. He stated that he was "roughed up by around 40 ASA members who barged into my room."
The ABVP wrote a letter to Union Minister Dattatreya, alleging that the ASA members were indulging in "casteist" and "anti-national" activities. The letter was forwarded to Union Human Resource Minister Smriti Irani, and then to the university’s Vice-Chancellor, P. Appa Rao, whereafter the four activists were suspended and barred from their hostel. After the confirmation of the suspension in January 2016, Vemula committed suicide. His death sparked protests and outrage across India and gained widespread media attention as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits. Elite educational institutions have been purportedly seen as hotbeds of caste-based discrimination against students belonging to lower castes.
Vemula's mother had been adopted by a family considered to be Other Backward Class (OBC) in India's system of reservation. She was treated differently to the rest of her adoptive family because of her reservation status and a witness also claimed that she was abused by her husband, Rohit's father, which could be seen as caste- as well as gender-violence. Vemula's own distress in seeing his mother abused and treated as inferior was made clear to his friends. His political activities, based on his and his mother's experiences, suggested he identified as Dalit, and was advocating for Dalit rights.
Background and death
Vemula was born on 30 January 1989 in Guntur district of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to Manikumar Vemula and Radhika. His father is from the Vaddera caste, and his mother is from the Mala community, which is a Scheduled Caste.
A PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, in July 2015 the University reportedly stopped paying Vemula the fellowship of ₹25,000 (US$370) per month after he was "raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA)", though a university official denied the allegation of non-payment of scholarship, citing the delay on "paperwork."
At the beginning of August 2015, Vemula and four ASA members protested against the death penalty for Yakub Memon, a convict in 1993 Bombay bombings in which 257 people were killed. They also condemned the ABVP attack on the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai in Delhi University. On 3 August 2015, he and other ASA activists demonstrated at the Hyderabad campus. In response, ABVP's university unit president, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, called them "goons" on Facebook.
According to The Indian Express, an anonymous ASA member stated that "When we confronted Susheel in his hostel room, he tendered a written apology in the presence of the university’s security officer. But the next day he got himself admitted in a hospital and alleged that members of ASA had manhandled him. The university ordered an inquiry while ABVP lodged a police complaint."
According to the publication, "the ABVP wrote to BJP MP from Secunderabad and Union Minister Dattatreya, alleging that the ASA members were indulging in 'casteist' and 'anti-national' activities. Dattaatreya stated that he "forwarded the letter on my official letterhead to Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani. I do not know what happened after that. ABVP or BJP has nothing to do with that." The letter was then forwarded to the University’s Vice-Chancellor professor P. Appa Rao. In response, further action was taken against Vemula by the college on 5 August 2015, expelling him from his hostel along with the other four members of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), while "ABVP’s Kumar was let off with a warning."
In September, the five students were suspended, a decision which was upheld on 17 December 2015. Meanwhile, his family struggled to help him, and Vemula had to borrow money from a friend. On 3 January 2016, after the suspension was confirmed, "the five moved out of their hostel rooms to a tent they set up inside the campus and began a "relay hunger protest"." On 17 January 2016, Vemula committed suicide, hanging himself with an ASA banner. In his suicide note, he blamed the "system" for his death. According to the suicide note, he committed suicide in the room of one Umma Anna, in whose room he was staying after being expelled from the hostel by the authorities at the University of Hyderabad. The note also said:
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 stardust. 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. Maybe 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.
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.
Smriti Irani told the Lok Sabha that no doctor was allowed to help Vemula and that "Instead, his body was used as a political tool. No police was allowed till 6:30am the following morning." However, the Chief Medical Officer of the university, M. Rajashree, denied that was the case.
His father, Manikumar, has alleged that his son's death was not suicide and demanded a judicial inquiry.
Dattatreya was accused of being responsible for the suicide. According to Dattatreya's critics, his letter to the Education Minister, complaining about degraded student politics, had led to Vemula's suspension and ultimate suicide. Vemula's suicide letter did not blame anyone, and Dattatreya denied these allegations. After a complaint from students of the University of Hyderabad a police case was filed under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Bandaru Dattatreya, Bharatiya Janata Party's MP from Secunderabad and Indian government's Minister of Labour and Employment; Ramachandra Rao (BJP MLC); and Appa Rao Podile (University of Hyderabad Vice-Chancellor).
Rohith had a scheduled caste certificate for Hyderabad University admission. After External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claimed that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit, a police investigation was started to determine his caste status. The case against Dattatreya, Rao and Podile was likely to collapse if Vemula was not a Dalit. His brother's caste certificate lists him as Vaddera, and Vemula's uncle gave a statement to the police that Rohith's father was from that caste, which is classified as a Backward and non-scheduled caste in Andhra Pradesh. Intelligence reports also claim he was not Dalit.
The District Level Scrutiny Committee in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, which was reviewing the Dalit status of Rohith Vemula, submitted its final report to the government stating that neither Rohith nor his mother Radhika were Dalits.
His suicide sparked protests and outrage from across India and gained widespread media attention as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits and low status castes in India, in which elite educational institutions have been purportedly seen as hotbeds of caste-based discrimination against students belonging to lower caste.
In his suicide note, 26-year-old Rohith had shared that he always wanted to be a science writer like Carl Sagan. Ann Druyan, Sagan's third wife, depressed by discrimination against Dalit students, said that she mourned Rohith's death and lost promise, and responded to Rohith's words in a letter:
To read his suicide note and to learn the details of his predicament is to get a vivid inkling of the actual cost of bias to our civilization. If we could somehow quantify the totality of lost contributions and innovations as a result of prejudice, I believe we would find it staggering [...] You tell me, Rajeev: Is it possible that the attention paid to Rohit's story will lessen its chronic repetition? I am trying to find something hopeful in an otherwise heartbreaking example of needless suffering and squandered potential.
Rohith's suicide was described as "institutional murder" by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati, The poet Ashok Vajpeyi returned his D.Litt degree awarded to him by the University of Hyderabad in protest against the circumstances which led to the death of Vemula, for which Vajpeyi holds the University culpable.
An open letter was written to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad by over 120 worldwide academics, protested the role of the university in the events.
- According to reports, Susheel Kumar was admitted to hospital on 4 August by his brother, where he was operated upon for acute appendicitis on 7 August. Dr Anupama Rao, Senior Medical Officer of the University of Hyderabad, said:
"After collecting all the medical reports of Susheel Kumar and examining them, I could not reach the conclusion that he developed appendicitis due to the alleged assault. There was one line that there was a bruise on his left shoulder. I could not say if he was allegedly punched or beaten up. I did not examine him as he did not come to me and the hospital’s report does not mention that he had any external or visible injury.".
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