Photo illustration by John Lyman

Killing Rohith Vemula Again

In the first week of May, as India’s general elections dominated headlines, a significant issue involving a prominent student activist, Rohith Vemula, quietly resurfaced. The Gachibowli police of the Cyberabad Police Commissionerate decided to close the case of Rohith Vemula, citing a lack of evidence, thereby denying justice for what many regard as his institutional murder at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) in January 2016. This case, which once drew worldwide attention and sparked widespread protests, continues to highlight the systemic injustices faced by marginalized communities in India.

The official report, which concluded that Rohith was not a Dalit and had fabricated his documents, seems like an attempt to assassinate his character posthumously. Rohith’s activism and his association with the subaltern student movement were clear indicators of his caste identity. Yet, the official report attributed his suicide to the fear of losing academic degrees over alleged document fabrication. This conclusion egregiously overlooks the broader context of caste-based discrimination and the numerous suicides of other Dalit students reported from the same campus. This pattern of oversight underscores the investigation team’s negligence in addressing the root causes of such tragedies.

The report also portrayed Rohith as someone more interested in politics than in his studies. In reality, Rohith was an exceptional student who secured admission through a rigorous entrance process and qualified for a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF). He attended several national and international seminars and conferences, distinguishing himself academically. Politics, undeniably, are an integral part of university life, serving as platforms for discussing and debating policies that shape the nation’s political and economic landscape. Yet, the official report ignored the involvement of local politicians and ministers in the incident, exonerating them while they received promotions and other benefits.

Moreover, the official report attempts to cast Rohith as an extremist, equating student dissent with violent actions. This narrative aligns with broader efforts by political parties and governments to suppress student movements across India. The report’s dismissal of caste-based discrimination in Rohith’s case is deeply troubling. His poignant final words, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote, to a number, to a thing, never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living,” vividly capture the discrimination, humiliation, and exclusion faced by Dalit students. Rohith Vemula and his peers were suspended, denied fellowships, and deprived of access to essential resources, ultimately leading to his tragic decision.

Civil society must unite to continue this fight—not merely to ascertain Rohith’s caste but to address the broader treatment of underprivileged sections of society, including Dalits, OBCs, and minorities. Indian universities have become strongholds of higher caste dominance, a fact underscored by disturbing statistics. The report fails to answer why such a promising student, an asset to his community, was driven to such an extreme action. Peaceful protests across the country and advocacy at international forums like the UN Human Rights Council are imperative to ensure justice.

The state government must act immediately to reopen the case and conduct a fair investigation. The focus should not be on Rohith’s caste or political activities but on identifying what pushed him to suicide and holding the responsible parties accountable. Students across India should show solidarity, demanding justice for Rohith. Universities must become voices of advocacy, ensuring no more young lives are lost. It is crucial to uphold the principles of justice, irrespective of caste, creed, or gender, proving that the Indian constitution remains supreme in its promise of equality and fairness.

Additionally, the former Vice-Chancellor, officials, and politicians who were implicated in the events leading up to Rohith’s death have been cleared of wrongdoing and even rewarded with positions and promotions. This stark reality highlights the systemic issues within the institutional structures that perpetuate caste discrimination. The negligence and failure to consider previous incidents of caste discrimination within the university are glaring omissions in the official report.

The portrayal of Rohith as an extremist seeking violent actions further attempts to undermine the legitimate grievances and activism of students fighting for their rights. This characterization is part of a broader trend to silence dissent and label legitimate student movements as extremist activities. It is essential to recognize that Rohith’s activism was rooted in a desire for justice and equality, values that are cornerstones of a vibrant democracy.

Civil society must not only unite in the call for justice but also work towards systemic changes that prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future. The university system in India needs a thorough overhaul to eliminate caste-based discrimination and ensure equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their background. This systemic change is crucial for fostering an inclusive and equitable educational environment.

Finally, it is imperative that students and civil society continue to organize and advocate for justice, drawing parallels to the student movements of the 1970s. Mass mobilization and sustained pressure on the authorities are necessary to ensure that the principles of justice are upheld. The fight for justice for Rohith Vemula is not just about one individual; it is about challenging and dismantling the structures of oppression that affect countless lives. Only through collective action and unwavering commitment can we hope to create a society where every individual is treated with dignity and respect, and where the ideals of justice and equality are truly realized.