Hyderabad: “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 every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living,” said PhD student, Rohith Vemula, in his last words to the world before he died by suicide six years ago on this day.
Vemula, a 26-year-old student of the University of Hyderabad, died by suicide on January 17, 2016 as he was suspended from the university along side four others after a complaint by the local unit of the Akhil Bharatatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS.
Vemula’s death triggered a nationwide agitation against casteism in institutions of higher learning.
Following the complaint by the ABVP against the ASA, the matter was handed over to the former Human Resouse Development minister, Smriti Irani, by the Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya. Irani had instructed the University to look into the matter of student politics following which Vemaul was suspended and his fellowship of Rs 25,000 was also withdrawn.
Vemula was suspended by the UoH for allegedly raising “issues under the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association” (ASA).
When Velmula and the others were forced out of their hostel rooms, and found it diffcult to manage without a grant, they set up camp in the shopping complex of the university, to protest against the unfair decision with a hunger strike.
On 17 January, 2016, Vemula ended his life by hanging himself to death leaving behind a heart wrenching note that described his stuggles, and called his birth a fatal accident.
“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past,” said Vemual in his suicide letter.
Many students, activists and teachers had demanded that universities implement a ‘Rohith Act’, including the members of the Joint Action Comittee for Social Justice. The legislation would ensure protection to students of the marginalised communities, in educational institutions.
In February 2016, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) appointed Ashok Kumar Roopanwal, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, to look into the facts and circumstances leading to Vemula’s death.
The one man commission that was set up to probe the death of a dalit student, created a sense of apprension among the well wishers of Vemula as it did not constitute a person of the minority community.
The commission’s report that was published on 15 August 2017, proved their doubts right, shaking their belief in the judicial system. The report said that Vemula was “a troubled individual” who commited suicide and not because of caste discrimination. The report also tried to prove that Vemula was not a Dalit.
“His suicide note is on the record which shows that Rohith Vemula had his own problems and was not happy with the worldly affairs. He was feeling frustrated for the reasons best known to him. He wrote that there was no urgency for understanding love, pain, life and death but he was rushing after them. It indicates that he was not happy with the activities going around him. He also wrote that he was all alone from the childhood and was an unappreciated man. This also indicates his frustration,” said the report.
The report also attempted to explain and blame the problems and issues of socially and economically marginalised students, defining the meaning of failure for them and the weight of which that pushes them over the edge.
“Failure has a specific meaning for these students. Due to many reasons, ‘discontinuing’ and going back home is not a viable option for poor, rural students, who may choose death over a future in which they must stare at their inability to provide for miserably poor families that have staked everything to educate them. In many cases they were also the academic ‘toppers’ in a village or a community and the ignominy of returning as failures would also be unbearable.”
The report met with protests by teachers and students of the UoH as protestors burned copies of the report and ran campaigns to seek justice for Vemula.
Vemula in his letter blamed no one for his death and took up full resposibility stating, “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,” but the common man denies to forget the injustice, brought to Vemula and the community, even six years later.
The Ambedkar Students’ Association in the University of Hyderabad held an online event on 17 January, 2022 to commemorate Vemula’s sixth death anniversay as he lost his life fighting caste discrimination and social boycott.