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'Rohith will become a symbol for educational reform'

By Shobha Warrier
January 20, 2016 16:27 IST
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'If you are a slave, nobody has any problem. The conflict starts when you question and ask for equal rights.'

The grieving mother of Rohith Vemula, a doctorate student at the Hyderabad Central University who was found hanging in a hostel room.

IMAGE: The grieving mother of Rohith Vemula, the doctorate student at the Hyderabad Central University who committed suicide.

Kancha Ilaiah, a Professor and Director at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, is a well-known Dalit rights activist.

Professor Ilaiah -- the author of books like Why I am not a Hindu, God As Political Philosopher: Buddha's Challenge to Brahminism, A Hollow Shell, The State and Repressive Culture -- spoke to Shobha Warrier/ about the suicide of Rohith Vemmula, the research scholar at the Hyderabad Central University, a death that has shocked the nation.

How would you look at the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemmula? As the suicide of a bright research scholar or the suicide of a Dalit student?

Rohith was an outstanding research scholar and a merit student. He is also a Dalit. So naturally, he is both, a research scholar and a Dalit research scholar at that.

Rohith was a member of an independent students association called the Ambedkar Students Association, which helps in the academic and intellectual improvement of all Dalit students. They organise seminars, meetings, etc. A lot of very bright scholars emerge from the association.

The problem of discrimination is an issue at all the universities, but at Hyderabad University, these students are fighting the issue. From 1993 onwards, they had been fighting for equal guide-ship, equal time bound payment for research scholars, etc.

They also take up a lot of national and international issues and debate on them. This is also a trend among Dalit tribal scholars and even the OBCs are doing that now.

The Ambedkar Students Association is the best intellectual Dalit organisation among students in India.

Has the discrimination anything to do with the ASA and the issues that they debate on?

This association has a lot of debates with the opposition, the ABVP (The Baharatiya Janata Party's student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Hindutva as they organise lectures and seminars on many issues like the role of Hinduism, atheism, the role of the BJP, RSS and other Hindu organisations, untouchability and poverty.

The ABVP, the BJP and the RSS are the main opponents of this organisation. They (members of the Ambedkar Students Association) are the poorest of the poor while most of the teachers are from the upper castes.

Among the teachers, there are many BJP and RSS supporters and they discriminate more because they believe in the caste system, untouchability, etc. So their (members of the Ambedkar Students Association) confrontation with the teachers is becoming more and more. The Congress is more of a middle rung group. The Left sometimes sympathise and sometimes collaborate.

Many years ago, you also had an university education. Did you have to face discrimination then? Is it more so today?

Of course. I studied at Osmania University and there was huge discrimination. Teachers discriminated, in supervisor allotment there was discrimination, in giving marks they discriminated, in paying scholarship there was discrimination.

To protect against these kinds of discrimination, we have an association. Because of the collective strength of the association, we came out with degrees.

Now, in Osmania University, there is a huge SC/ST students group and they cannot discriminate because the organisation is very powerful. So teachers also don't risk that.

In Hyderabad University, there are a lot of discriminating elements. A lot of Dalit and tribal students come here and because of discrimination, many commit suicide here. But the association takes up these issues.

But more and more Dalit scholars are coming and they are very good. When you are really good, you argue and ask for your rights.

If you are a slave, nobody has any problem. The conflict starts when you question and ask for equal rights.

The Ambedkar Students Association is one of its kind in the country which is intellectually very strong.

It is said that members of the association had a meeting in support of Yakub Memon and against his hanging. Do you consider this anti-national like their detractors allege?

The Yakub Memon issue was discussed and debated even on television. These students also had a meeting and they debated the issue. What is anti-national about debating an issue?

The (Union Labour) minister (Bandaru) Dattatreya wrote a letter to the HRD ministry in which he characterised the association as anti-national and called them extremists.

Did he find any weapons or bombs in their rooms to call them extremists? How do they become extremists?

This is the only a Dalit organisation and all its members are Dalits. On the other hand, these people carry trishuls!

When they organised a meeting to discuss the Yakub Memon issue, the ABVP went and disturbed the event.

The ABVP as an organisation never organises any event to discuss national issues, or poverty or international events or any intellectual subject. They only have festivals on campuses. If some other organisation has an intellectual discussion, they go and disturb.

Tell me, if a ruling party's students wing does this, how will democracy function? How will the PM's Make in India succeed without intellectuals?

I have not come across a good research scholar from the ABVP while you see great intellectual depth in these Dalit students.

By involving himself, do you feel Minister Dattatreya is in a way responsible for Rohith's suicide?

What else? How can an intellectual boy tolerate this kind of discrimination?

This is your vice-chancellor, this is your ministry and you got him suspended. His fellowship was not released for 7 months when his mother was starving. Does anyone know what he was going through?

So, you feel he was driven to suicide by the minister, the VC and the university?

Absolutely. The HRD ministry too. What was the need to write so many letters against these boys? Was there a murder on the campus? Were there weapons in their rooms? It was only a scuffle and in every university, you will have students fighting.

Do you feel it became ugly because the BJP is ruling at the Centre?

They involve themselves in every small student issue, write letters complaining and when they have their own appointed VCs, what do you expect them to do?

From his Facebook posts, it is clear that Rohith had a great sense of humour...

Yes, he wanted to be a science writer. Underneath the humour, there was a boy who was sensitive and helpless about his family's poverty.

When his mother was starving, he was not able to help as his supervisor did not clear his fellowship for many months.

Do these people not get their salaries on the first of every month? These are very sensitive economic issues.

Even now, there are four more students who are punished like Rohith. What was the big crime that these boys committed to treat them like this?

If not for the collective strength of the association, most Dalit students would have died of depression.

Compared to these Dalit students, most of the ABVP members are either landlords' children, or businessmen's children or even from political families.

Do you feel the prime minister, by remaining silent, has been unfair to the boy?

He has not uttered a word. He has not even sent a representative to meet his (Rohith's) mother. He also has a 90-year-old mother.

Do these people who always talk about mother, Bharat Mata etc do not understand the feelings of this mother? How can the prime minister be so indifferent?

Even the minister who wrote the letter does not have the courtesy to see the mother. If something like this has happened to a black student in the US, Obama would have immediately come out and spoken. I am sure he would have cried in public. That is how you value a human being.

Every political party is trying to secure political mileage from the suicide...

I don't see anything wrong in it. Let the political parties come and talk about the issue. If they do not take it up, how will the country know and how will it not become an issue?

All of them are going to see the mother except the BJP, TRS (the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) and TDP (Telugu Desam Party). There is nothing wrong in it.

Without politicising it, this issue will not get resolved.

Today, there was a debate about whether Rohith was a Dalit or not.

I feel this is absolutely criminal. Is it human to ask for his caste certificate now? Look at the upper caste mind!

How can society give Rohith justice?

Whenever I read the letters written by Rohith, tears roll down my eyes. He wrote that pardon my enemies. I can only compare him with Jesus Christ.

He will become a symbol for the educational reform in this country. I feel his mother has given a gift to the nation.

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Shobha Warrier /