Hyderabad Varsity suicide: Rohith Vemula’s death should force us to change campus politics

Rohit Vemula was a bright 26-year-old PhD student on the politically active and (recently) intensely controversial Hyderabad Central University (HCU) campus, who was among five students suspended by the administration and protesting against it.
He had potential and a bright future ahead. Had.
He might have been someone. Might have.
Now, he is gone and the very politics that consumed him on one of India’s best campuses, is back to make a spectacle and score brownie points, even as we are adeptly missing the most crucial point. He hanged himself in the room of a friend, to whom he apologised in his final letter: His suspension meant that he was not allowed into the public areas, including the hostel; and was therefore camping in the open.
Simmering political confrontations
Trouble has been brewing on campus for over a year now — with the ABVP and Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) and Telangana SFI being in constant conflict. Events organised by Leftist students associations such as the Kiss of Love, Beef Festival and a memorial for Yakub Menon after he was hanged and protests against increased police presence and intervention by police were opposed by the ABVP students.
The current round of confrontation began when the ABVP complained against five students, including Rohit, of attacking them during the protests and counter-protests over the screening of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai and the funeral prayer organised for Yakub Menon. The previous committee led by the vice-chancellor absolved the five charged students of any wrong-doing.
A new committee was set up by the new VC to investigate the matter again, which with the intervention of a BJP Member of Legislative Council and a letter from Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya to Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani, led to both the police registering a case and the five Dalit students being suspended. Students feel this is yet another instance of right-wing domination of the life of students and the culture of the campus.
Who cares enough to counsel?
Despite the trouble and increasing tension on campus, while politicians prepared to fight on both sides, nobody bothered to reach out humanely to the students protesting by camping in the open. The suicide of students on India’s best campuses is a tragedy that we do not wish to acknowledge or recognise. Aamir Khan’s character asked the question in 3 Idiots: “If we have such a high alarming number of suicides on our college and university campuses, something must be wrong…”
We ignored it.
And we will perhaps ignore the last angst of Rohit Vemula, the boy who might have been.
He was a Dalit. He was a PhD student. He was suspended. He was part of the ASA, and in confrontation with the students of the ABVP on campus. But he is more… He loved science. He said he wanted to become a science writer like Carl Sagan. In the humdrum and pandemonium of politicised campuses, such subtle tunes are lost.
Profound last words
The last words Rohith Vemula wrote were profound, noble and far more benevolent than the campus politics that killed him. “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. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone,” he wrote.
He did not hate anyone or wish to use his final act against anyone, including those he was fighting against.
He was making a more profound point. A point we will love to miss. Newspaper headlines are already screaming: ‘Dalit student kills himself’. The angst was not based on caste, despite the seeming backdrop of political confrontation.
He did not find space in the campus to pursue his true love — science. He was sucked into the black-hole of mutual destruction by binaries that campus politics has become: You are either this or that, you are either with us or against us.
Politics damning core purpose of varsities
What he was born as has dominated the narrative so much, that what he wanted to become was buried, and never given a chance. The suspension, police entry into campus, frisking, cases, violence, dharnas, beef festivals, counter pork festival, strikes – have all enough justification and spokesperson, have a point of view, but together failed in the basic promise – that he would have space to purse his real passion in science.
Report after report, mis-event after mis-event, I have spoken to students from the campus, including two who were friendly with Rohit and knew him — irrespective of the department they hailed from, they only spoke politics.
“Students have power to shape nations. They have a larger responsibility to their community and in opposing fascist policies of the government,” Syed Mohib Ali, an M.Phil economics student on campus, told me three evenings ago.
Actually, they don’t. They have a responsibility to themselves, to their mission of becoming better minds and finding place in society; from which point both directly, and indirectly as a role model, they could achieve a lot more for themselves, as well as their social roots.
Students are not politically powerful. They are misled into thinking so by groups which wish to misuse them for their political ends. Politics on campus is vicious, despite the unimpeachable need to create concerned citizens with a awakened sense of country, political awareness and willingness to fight for a cause. But not by creating a permanent divide between students based on party lines. Not by setting an inescapable agenda to protest and fight at all times.
Lost message and ppportunity
Since morning, the campus has been tense. His body was blocked by students from being taken away, making demands from retraction of the suspension of the other students, action against the ABVP students for registering false complaints, apology from union minister Dattatreya, withdrawal of police presence, punishing the committee which suspended the students, among others.
Instead, the police charged in, over 100 of them, imposed section 144 and removed the body forcibly.
The students in protest have created a Facebook page to take their message. But sadly, the politics that took his life will make a spectacle of him. It will become another pitch to battle – ASA versus ABVP; left versus right; this versus that – and skip the larger question – can campuses allow politics to completely overtake their mission of academics, of their responsibility to produce successful people who will rise in life, and above all, give them a good intellectual-curiosity and learning providing ecosystem? Can we let our campuses become recruiting grounds for political parties… And little else?
Rohit’s death should and could become our mission, a lesson for all of us – and we should speak up. What died was a dream, before its time and nothing is more painful or tragic. Who died was a science writer who wanted to explore the universe, staring at the stars; but was stuck in the mud of group violence and a self-serving polity.
Let my funeral be silent and smooth, he wrote as his last wish. Instead, student organisations claiming to represent him have called for a bandh, and are demanding removal of vice-chancellor and chief warden. Slogans holding Union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani responsible for his death and seeking cases for SC/ST atrocities against the vice-chancellor have arisen.
We must will this death to be the last on any of our campuses. We must not let politics eat into our campuses. We must stop the burden imposed on Rohit, the Dalit, and preventing him becoming Rohit, the science writer. As slaves of the past, we cannot poison forever the possibility of the future.
Most students fear the campus would have more confrontations, more police presence, more agitations, and tension in coming months. “We will lose more freedoms… we will face more police action. More decisions will be thrust on us – what we can eat, what we can wear, what we can say, and what we can believe,” said Mohib Ali.
If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars, Rohit signed off. Let it become the true mission of all students and campuses in our country.
Sriram Karri is the author of the bestselling novel Autobiography of a Mad Nation, which was long-listed for the MAN Asian Literary prize. The author is based in Hyderabad and his research interests lie in student politics and its role in the affairs of the nation.