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What Smriti Irani forgot about Rohit Vemula in her famous speech at parliament

Smriti Irani, Union HRD minister brought the subject of Rohit Vemula back in the media spotlight through her speech in the parliament. Twenty-six-year-old Vemula committed suicide in the room where he was staying after getting expelled from the University of Hyderabad. The University justified the expulsion citing the reason of alleged attack on Nandanam Susheel Kumar, an activist of BJP’s student wing ABVP.

Vemula was a research scholar at the University who was expelled along with five members of Ambedkar’s Student Association. The media reports stated that the payment of fellowship of Rs.25, 000 per month was also pending since the July 2015. University explained that it was due to the delay in the paper work.

Ruling party spokesperson informed that the suicide has nothing to do with the Dalit rights but simply a clash between the student groups due to Vemula’s support to terrorism. While the Congress and other left wing parties in India termed it as ‘institutional murder’ based on caste discrimination.

Findings by the judicial probe can only tell us what led to the suicide of Rohit Vemula but one should also keep in mind Hyderabad University’s record on Dalit suicides. Three committees, including the one headed by former Supreme Court judge, investigated three suicides on campus during 2008 and 2014.
Submitted reports clearly concluded that victims faced alienation and institutional discrimination. Caste discrimination is definitely something the university should address soon even if the suicide note written by Vemula says about not blaming anyone.

The Rohit Vemula suicide is also a reflection of polarized opinions about the caste on Indian universities’ campuses. Opinion was also divided in two view points on the social media. One group clearly disconnected the suicide from caste discrimination, while the other side accused higher educational institutes in India of being hotbeds of casteism.

The fact is that the caste is never a part of open discussions on campus. ‘General’ category students silently blame reservation system but nobody talks about caste openly on campus as they do feminism, technology and mainstream politics. For University students, caste is something you should forget after securing an admission. Lack of open discussions then outbursts into ill-informed hate posts on social media from both sides.

The silence by Dalit leadership of the ruling party also shows the lack voice from the marginalized section in the government. It is surprising when you consider that there are 40 Dalit MPs in BJP. It is definitely a worrying sign as the scheduled castes and schedule tribes (SCs and STs) make around 25 percent of the Indian population.

Complete denial about the caste discrimination is definitely not wise statement to make in a country which has long history of Dalit alienation. Especially not when it is University of Hyderabad! Smriti Irani should get her facts right on the Rohit Vemula suicide before making speech on the floor of parliament.

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