Rohith Vemula’s Death Sparks Anger Among Diaspora

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Students Protesting For Justice for Rohith Vemula at Harvard Square, Cambridge
Students Protesting For Justice for Rohith Vemula at Harvard Square, Cambridge

Protesters Call for Prosecution of Union Ministers and Vice Chancellor

Saturday, Jan 22, 2016. Boston, MA. Protests erupted at major universities and cities across the US and elsewhere expressing outrage at the death of 26 year old Mr. Rohit Vemula an anti-caste activist, student leader, and PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) on January 17th, 2017.

On Friday January 22, Indian civil society groups gathered at Harvard Square, Cambridge for the second time in two weeks to demand punishment for those responsible for the student’s death. The previous Friday, a protest against the suspension of 5 Dalit student leaders at the UoH at Harvard Square attracted about 35 participants. The following Monday one of the five suspended students, Mr. Vemula, committed suicide.

Mr. Vemula’s death has sparked widespread outrage with analysts terming this an “epochal” moment for India’s students similar to the #BlackLivesMatter and #RhodesMustFall movements. On January 25th, 2016 hundreds of activists stormed the UoH campus and organized large demonstrations.

Meanwhile, protests outside India calling for punishment of culprits gained momentum with demonstrations outside the Indian Consulate in San Francisco, at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at the University of Michigan. Large protests have also taken place in London. Two more are planned on January 30th in Washington DC by the International Commission for Dalit Rights and in New York City by Ambedkar International Mission. A condolence meeting is also planned on Wednesday January 27th outside the Indian Embassy in Rome, Italy. Over 150 academics in the US have signed a letter condemning caste discrimination on Indian campuses and in response to escalating concerns about campus discrimination in India, Harvard University is organizing a solidarity meeting and discussion to highlight Mr. Vemula’s death.

Political Pressure and Caste Discrimination
Mr. Vemula’s death has been linked through a chain of emails to direct pressure by two Central Ministers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the university Vice Chancellor (VC) Mr. Appa Rao. The scholar’s death has turned into a major firestorm for Prime Minster Mr. Narendra Modi’s government with mass demonstrations across the country demanding the criminal prosecution of the two ministers and the VC under India’s anti-discrimination laws. Last week, a major speech by the Mr. Modi in North India was disrupted by Dalit students chanting slogans calling for justice for Rohit.

Tensions between the right wing Hindu student group Akhila Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Ambedkarite and minority student groups have increased sharply in public Indian educational institutions in the past years partly because of the resentment towards marginalized students’ gaining access to elite educational spaces and the latter’s’ political assertion. However, administration and teachers in top universities remains almost exclusively from the “upper caste” resulting in an often hostile climate for Dalit and minority students. Elite universities have seen a slew of Dalit student suicides in the past 10 years often after students complain about severe discrimination by their professors, advisors, and administration.

Mr. Rohit Vemula: 1989 - 2016
Mr. Rohit Vemula: 1989 – 2016

Mr. Vemula’s death shot into national prominence partly because of two powerful letters written before his death that have since gone viral on social media. In a letter to the VC Appa Rao a month before his death, Mr. Vemula asked him to provide Dalit students with poison and a rope as soon as they gain admission or arrange for them to be euthanized in order to solve the Dalit problem on campus. A month after receiving no response from administration Mr. Vemula, an aspiring science writer, committed suicide leaving behind a poignant suicide note that laments society’s inability to look beyond people’s most immediate identities – a reference to casteism.

Outrage in Cambridge
Dr. Vidya Karunakaran, a PhD from Dartmouth College who works with #DalitWomenFight expressed anguish at the loss of the promising young scholar and activist. Noting that his death was part of a larger pattern in Indian universities, she said “80% of suicides in the elite institutions in India are Dalits and Adivasis. Clearly we have a problem of casteism in our State”.

Dalit student Mr. Suraj Yengde, Associate at the Harvard African American Department and a PhD scholar from South Africa compared casteist India to apartheid South Africa and to the situation of the Palestinians. He noted that all systems of oppressions carry within them a “genocidal tendency” which make it difficult for oppressed groups to live.

Mr. Tanoj Meshram, a PhD student in Social Policy at Brandeis University and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the All India Backward and Minorities Communities Employees Federation (BAMCEF) accused educational institutes in India of denying political and civil rights supposed to be guaranteed by the constitution. He said that “the education is supposed to be an instrument of social change…but in India it is shameful to see that they are citadels of the status quo and Brahmanism.”

Protestors called for the immediate resignation of the two union ministers – Central Labor Minister Mr. Bandaru Dattatreya, and Minister for Human resources Ms. Smriti Irani for their role in Mr. Vemula’s death, as well as for criminal prosecution of the VC of UoH. Organizers are working on presenting a memorandum to the United Nations to call for a Special Rapporteur on Caste Atrocities and to constitute an independent working group to assess the conditions affecting 250 million Dalits.

Students Protesting at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Rohith Vemula
Students Protesting at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Rohith Vemula

The organizers which included Boston Study Group, Ambedkar International Center, Ambedkar International Mission, Ambedkar Association of North India, Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia, Association for India’s Development issued a joint statement, “We mourn the loss of a talented, sensitive, and powerful young Ambedkarite and scientist and extend our deep condolences to his family, loved ones, and to the Ambedkarite student community at UoH. We condemn the open support by UoH administration of extreme right wing groups like the RSS affiliated ABVP who have been carrying out a campaign of terror to intimidate progressive forces in society by using BJP’s political networks to protect their cadre and persecute democratic opposition. The death of Rohith is a direct consequence of this right wing persecution in partnership with the casteist and corrupt university administration”

The organizers called on other South Asian and human rights groups to join the protest and said “We express our solidarity with the Bahujan and Religious Minorities student resistance movements across all other casteist university spaces in India.”

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