The Human Resources Development ministry has denied putting pressure on the Hyderabad University to take action against the five Dalit students who clashed with an ABVP student leader last year on the campus, even though it emerged on Tuesday that it had written as many as five letters to the university based on a complaint by Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya.
Questions are now being raised both on the letters, that are based on the complaint that "anti-national activities" were going on in the campus, and the alleged incident of clash itself in which ABVP leader Nandanam Susheel Kumar complained of stomach pain after the assault by members of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in his hostel room in August last year. It now seems he was operated upon for acute appendicitis, according to a report by the Archana Hospital in Madinaguda where he was admitted by his brother “with alleged history of assault”.
The assault on Kumar resulted in the expulsion of the five Dalit students involved in the incident and on Sunday one of them, Rohith Vemulu committed suicide by hanging from a fan in the hostel room of a friend.
It is now being said that the pressure by the ministry in the form of five letters and the complaint by Dattatreya pushed Rohith to the brink. The whole issue has snowballed into a massive political row with leaders making a beeline to the campus to express solidarity with protesting students. Protests have also erupted across the nation against the University and the handling of the crisis.
In an open letter to Vice-Chancellor of the University, 131 academics have appealed for justice.
We of the global scholarly community make an urgent appeal that justice be done in the most recent case of caste discrimination in Indian higher education, that of the University of Hyderabad’s prejudicial suspension of five young Dalit men pursuing PhDs. It was ordered under political pressure, without even allowing the young men in question to speak in their own defense. It directly contravened an earlier decision made by the University administration itself, which had exonerated them of any charges of wrongdoing-charges which had been trumped up by political rivals opposed to the activism of these young men.
This prejudice has now exacted a terrible price. One of the five, a scholar of great promise, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide on January 17. Unable to bear the despair of having his one chance at a future snatched from him, of his value being reduced, in his own eloquent parting words, to nothing but “a vote” and “an immediate identity,” he took his own life. As scholars we know that individual actions are never just that. This suicide is not an individual act. It is the failure of premier higher educational institutions in democratic India to meet their most basic obligation: to foster the intellectual and personal growth of India’s most vulnerable young people. Instead, Rohith now joins a long list of victims of prejudice at premier institutions in the country, where pervasive discrimination drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide, when not simply forcing them to quietly drop out.
As international scholars of South Asia, we ask the authorities at the University of Hyderabad to immediately reinstate Mr. Vemula's four peers, to provide support to his family, and to launch a police investigation into his passing. But that is not enough. The University of Hyderabad must ensure not only that justice be done now, but that further injustice be rigorously prevented. It is vital to the life of any academic institution to actively nurture students exactly like Rohith, whose contribution to civic life and healthy political debate made the university the place of learning and personal transformation it should be. Measures must be implemented to ensure that such students are supported and allowed to thrive when they enter what is all too often the hostile, casteist environment of higher education in India. A university where students turn away from life with the regularity they have at the University of Hyderabad requires urgent and massive rehauling.
The involvement of political leaders in buttressing caste discrimination in Indian universities, and the double standards applied by university administrations to anti-caste student activity, directly contribute to the negative reputation India is earning among scholars worldwide. We urge the University of Hyderabad to restore our confidence by living up to its obligation to end institutionalized discrimination, to educate all students in a climate of respect and empathy, and to resist political pressures to do otherwise. We are all watching.
Dattatreya has explained that he wrote the letter only after ABVP students from the campus approached him.
HRD officials however claimed that after Dattatreya, MP from Secunderabad, wrote the letter on August 17 last year, the ministry only followed the standard practice by writing to the University on September 3, seeking the "issues raised by the MoS may be examined and facts intimated."
"It would be wrong to say that the Ministry has put any pressure on the Hyderabad University. The Ministry had only followed the procedure as per the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure. According to the procedure, if there is a VIP reference, it has to be acknowledged in 15 days and another 15 days may be taken to reply to it. Since no response was coming from the University, the Ministry had to send reminders," HRD Ministry spokesperson Ghanshyam Goel said.
After its first letter, the ministry sent four reminders on - September 24, October 6, October 20 and November 19 last year, to the University seeking facts expeditiously so that it could respond to the Minister of State Dattatreya.
HRD officials said the University finally provided a reply only on January 7, this year.
An official said not only are the ministries supposed to reply in a time bound manner to VIP reference, but even in Cabinet meetings, the number of pending references, grievances, assurances etc has to be shared which makes it important that these are pursued.
HRD minister Smriti Irani, who visited Assam and accompanied the Prime Minister to IIIT Guwahati, had yesterday said the government neither intervenes in functioning of the university nor does it have administrative control over it.
Three of the HRD ministry's letters were written to the University VC, while two were addressed to the Registrar. In the letter written on October 20, the VC was asked to look into the "facts personally and get the facts provided at the earliest".
HRD officials also said the two-member fact-finding panel comprising its officers Shakila T Shamsu and Surat Singh, is expected to be back today and that they are waiting for it to file its report.
Insisting that the ministry had given no directions to the University, HRD officials said on the night of August 3 last year, a group of students suspected to be belonging to Ambedkar Students Association allegedly attacked Kumar, the then President of ABVP on the campus and the Proctorial Board of the University enquired into the matter.
It was the Executive council of the University that then approved the expulsion of five students including Rohith, they said.
An Executive Sub-Committee, which included a senior Dalit faculty member and was headed by the senior-most professor, was subsequently constituted to go into the matter and it upheld the recommendation.
However, later at a meeting of the Executive council, a lenient view was taken as expulsion would have deprived the students of the chance to continue pursuing their doctorate and it was decided to permit them into their departments, library and academic meetings but not in hostel, administration and other public places.
The decision was challenged by the students in the court. Three of the students also started protest by sleeping in the open, the sources added.
They also said the Dean Students Welfare had regularly counselled the students to have patience to wait for the court's verdict, while the Vice Chancellor had also discussed the issue with them.
Rejecting Congress' demand for resignation of Irani and Dattatreya, BJP has accused its vice president Rahul Gandhi of politicising the death.
Attacking Congress for taking the political discourse to "such a low" that it was doing politics over a student's death, BJP insisted there was no link between Rohith Vemula's suicide and the Hyderabad Central University's action against him and other students on a complaint against them.
Meanwhile, noted writer Ashok Vajpeyi has decided to return the D.Litt given to him by the Hyderabad University to protest "anti-dalit" attitude of authorities which allegedly drove Rohith to commit suicide.
"A dalit student, Rohith Vemula, who wanted to be a writer was driven to commit suicide due to anti-dalit and intolerance of dissent shown. I have decided to return the award in protest against university authorities, (who were) presumably acting under political pressure," Vajpeyi told PTI.
The former Lalit Kala Akademi chairman, who was awarded D.Litt (Doctor of Letters, honoris causa) by the Central University of Hyderabad few years ago, said the institution has "acted against human dignity and knowledge."
Dattatreya, Hyderabad University Vice Chancellor Appa Rao and three others were yesterday named in an FIR lodged with the Cyberabad police over the alleged suicide of the dalit student.
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