Behind Rohit Vemula’s suicide: how Hyderabad Central University showed him the door
At a protest over the suicide of Rohith Vemula, outside the HRD Ministry in New Delhi, Monday. (express Photo by: Tashi Tobgyal)
On January 30, Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula would have turned 27. Yesterday, the Dalit research scholar, suspended from Hyderabad Central University over a political dispute, told his friends that since his stipend was on hold, he was unable to give them “even a small treat”. Hours later, he hanged himself.
Today, the suicide of the second-year PhD student of Life Sciences inside a hostel room sparked protests across the country and led to an FIR being filed against local BJP MP and Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya under the SC/ST Act and on charges of abetment to suicide. Last August, the minister had written to the HRD ministry accusing the university of being “a mute spectator” after a group of Dalit students, including Rohith, clashed with an ABVP leader.
While the HRD Ministry has decided to send a fact-finding team to “look into the matter”, The Indian Express spoke to Rohith’s friends and faculty on campus, police and officials to piece together the sequence of events in the run-up to his death. It shows how Rohith was steadily isolated by campus authorities and his appeals — many of them anguished and sometimes cloaked in irony — went largely unheard.
* From July, the university stopped paying Rohith his monthly stipend of Rs 25,000 (excluding HRA), with friends alleging that he was targeted for raising issues under the banner of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). A university official denied the allegation, blaming the delay on “paperwork”.
* On August 5, the university set up an inquiry against Rohith and four other ASA members, two days after they allegedly assaulted ABVP leader N Susheel Kumar.
* On August 17, Dattatreya wrote to HRD Minister urging action and claiming that the “Hyderabad University… has in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.
* After a series of flip-flops, the five were suspended in September. On December 17, the decision was upheld.
* On January 3, after the sanction 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 Sunday, police recovered a “suicide note” in the room where Rohith hanged himself. It read: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster.”
The day after, at the mortuary of Osmania Hospital, Rohith’s mother cried out: “I used to proudly tell everyone in my village that my son was doing PhD at Hyderabad University. Today, I have come to collect his dead body.’’
Hailing from Gurazala near Guntur, Rohith’s father Manikumar works as a security guard at a private hospital while mother V Radhika is a tailor — he had an elder sister and a younger brother.
“After the stipend was stopped, his family was struggling to support him. He borrowed Rs 40,000 from a friend and was living frugally. Almost every day, he used to say that his money was stuck,’’ said Velmula Sankanna, a fellow PhD scholar and one of the five suspended.
“In December, Rohith wrote an angry letter to the V-C, sarcastically asking him to provide euthanasia facilities for Dalit students. Since then, he was scared to go to the administration building and ask about his stipend. He became silent and withdrawn. He said that he was falling into depression because he was being defeated by the system at every turn. He blamed himself, his caste, and the circumstances around him. He did not take much interest in anything except studies,’’ said Sankanna, a close friend.
When contacted, an official from the V-C’s office said, “His stipend was stuck due to lapses in processing the paperwork. On many occasions, the funds arrive late and are disbursed in lump sums,’’ the official said.
In the “suicide note”, Rohith wrote that he was expecting Rs 1.75 lakh in arrears from the university.
The note also betrays the anguish that marked the final days of Rohith who joined the university in 2012 and received a Junior Research Fellowship from CSIR in April 2014.
Stating that this was “the only letter I am getting to write’’, he wrote: “I always wanted to be a writer — a writer of science. Like Carl Sagan. I love science… stars. But then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second-hand. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. It has become truly difficult to live without getting hurt… Maybe I am wrong in understanding the world. There was no urgency but I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life.’’
According to friends, Rohith and other ASA members had gathered to discuss the future of the suspended students on Sunday. “At 4 pm, he said he had to finish some work and left us. When he did not return till 6 pm, we started searching for him. By then his mother had also called us, saying that Rohith had called her and sounded very depressed. She said he had abruptly cut the call, and had stopped answering her calls. Then, we found him hanging from the ceiling fan in a friend’s room (207), which was also the ASA activity room. He used a ASA banner to hang himself,’’ said Krishna Kumar, a close friend.
According to friends and officials, the five ASA members got into trouble in the first week of August 2015, when they protested against the hanging of Mumbai-blasts accused Yakub Memon and condemned the ABVP attack on the screening of the documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ in Delhi University.
On August 3, the ASA held a demonstration at the Hyderabad campus. But then, the ABVP’s university unit president Kumar posted a comment on Facebook, calling the ASA members “goons”.
“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,’’ said an ASA member, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When contacted, Kumar maintained that he was “roughed up by around 40 ASA members who barged into my room”.
It was then that 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. “I 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,’’ said Dattatreya.
Irani, however, refused to get drawn into the controversy. “I don’t want to make a political statement. My condolences to the family of the deceased,” she was quoted by ANI. She added that her department does not interfere in the administration of universities.
Officials at Irani’s office said they forwarded that letter to the university’s Vice-Chancellor Prof P Appa Rao. The ministry’s two-member probe committee of Shakila T Shamsu and Surat Singh have been asked to report back in a day.
“We sent an explanation regarding what happened on the campus. The decision to suspend the students was done after a thorough inquiry by a Proctorial Board and an executive committee. Instead of suspending them fully, we ensured that they could attend classes. They were barred from the hostel and participating in any non-academic activities and politics in the campus,’’ said Prof Rao.
While Rohith, Sankanna, D Prashanth, Vijay Kumar and Sesu Chemudugunta were suspended, ABVP’s Kumar was let off with a warning.
ABVP Telangana Unit member and National Executive committee member Dilip Kumar alleged that when the Proctorial Board suggested suspension in its report on August 31, the five students put pressure on then Vice-Chancellor R P Sharma to revoke their move.
“Concerned by this, Kumar’s mother filed a petition in the High Court at Hyderabad on September 3 seeking to direct the university to submit an action taken report,” said Dilip Kumar.
The court directed the university registrar to submit a report but the university sought more time. Meanwhile, the university decided to go by the Proctorial Board’s recommendations and suspended the students. The decision was conveyed to the students on December 17 and the next day, the five suspended students also approached the High Court seeking revocation of their suspension. The court clubbed both matters and posted it for hearing on January 19.
Said V-C Prof Rao: “I took charge on September 22 and the matter came up in the court which sought an action taken report. But we sought time to submit the report and in the meantime, we discussed how best to sort out the issue. Even after they were suspended, on January 13, I sat for two hours with the Joint Action Committee members and we discussed the upcoming court hearing on January 19,’’ Rao said.
On Monday, based on a complaint from Prashanth, a case was registered at the Gachibowli police station against Dattatreya, Vice Prof Rao, BJP legislator N Ramachander Rao and ABVP’s Kumar, on charges of levelling false allegations and abetment to suicide.