External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently tried to brush off the outrage around the suicide of student Rohith Vemula by remarking that he "was not a Dalit". This insensitive comment was a deliberate attempt not only to obfuscate the issue but also to besmirch the reputation of the bright scholar, whose promising life came to an end due to the culpability, partially at least, of both the HRD Ministry and the University of Hyderabad. The issue at hand is not whether Rohith was a Dalit or not, but the independence of our academic institutions, which unfortunately are remotely controlled by the government of the day.
Why do we need student organisations affiliated to political parties in colleges and universities? Should they even be allowed?
Rohith's death received was covered by all the leading newspapers of the world. The New York Times, in an editorial published on 27 January spoke about the caste prejudice in India and, provided they were found guilty, called for action against those in Modi's cabinet who have been implicated in Rohith's death. In an open letter published in The Hindu on 19 January, more than 130 academics from India and abroad called on the Indian government to come up with measures to support students, especially those who are underprivileged, so that they don't have to face a hostile, casteist environment.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi and other political parties are trying to gain mileage out of the situation by staging dharnas and stoking sentiments against the government.
What is not getting enough coverage is the larger issue of student politics in Indian universities. Most of the leading universities have student bodies affiliated to one party or the other. For instance, JNU is dominated by students allied to the Left parties, while the Delhi University Students Union has elections in which the Congress and BJP face off via their student wings (NSUI and ABVP respectively). Why do we need student organisations affiliated to political parties in colleges and universities? Should they even be allowed? In the United States, UK and other countries, students' associations are not extensions of political parties.
As it happens, the University of Hyderabad had a "no politics" policy and ostensibly did not allow student organisations affiliated to political parties to operate from the campus. What changed things then?
In 1993, the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) was formed by Dalits to fight against caste discrimination in the campus. Under the umbrella of ASA, students started to assert themselves and take on students who were fomenting trouble through discriminatory practices. Rohith was an active member of the group.
The present HRD Minister has repeatedly proved herself unworthy of the task. The Prime Minister should immediately give her another portfolio.
The immediate provocation that led to Rohith's suicide was the alleged protest of the ASA against the death penalty of Yakub Memon, who was one of the masterminds responsible for the 1993 Bombay bombings; this led to a backlash from the ABVP. Secondly, Rohith and other members of the ASA also tussled with the ABVP over the latter's stalling of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. One is not able to understand what led ASA to protest in a matter where the Supreme Court has given a decision. ASA is equally responsible for vitiating the atmosphere at the UoH campus.
The ABVP also brought to the attention of the university authorities to an alleged assault of one of its members by Rohith and others. An inquiry took place but the university did not find any evidence and the charges were dropped. It is then the ABVP brought the matter to the attention of Bandaru Dattatreya, a Cabinet minister, claiming that anti-national activities were taking place on the campus. Subsequent to this, the HRD Minister got involved and shot off letters to the UoH to take action against all those involved in "anti-national" politics. It was then that action was taken against Rohith and four others who were suspended.
The whole tragic saga could have been prevented had the University of Hyderabad come down on those who practicing social discrimination on campus, and if they had resolved the matter using their own discretion instead of succumbing to political pressure.
In the long run, what needs to be done is to prevent campuses from becoming hotbeds of politics. To achieve this the government should take certain steps.
1. The present HRD Minister has repeatedly proved herself unworthy of the task. The Prime Minister should immediately give her another portfolio, and bring in as HRD minister someone with excellent academic credentials and with considerable administrative experience. A former vice chancellor of a reputed university who has considerable experience of managing campus politics might be an ideal candidate for the job.
2. Academic institutions are centres of learning, not training grounds for future politicians. No student body even remotely connected to any political party should be allowed to operate in a university. Instead, as is the case in the US and UK, student bodies should be engaged in the task of addressing the needs of the students.
All institutions of learning... should have the power to resist any interference from the state or Central government.
3. All institutions of learning, whether funded by the University Grants Commission or not, should be empowered to take their own decisions, and should have the power to resist any interference from the state or Central government. There should be an ombudsman to look into cases where there are allegations of unlawful suspensions of students or victimisation of faculty for political reasons.
4. Universities should set up a forum where the students are allowed to express their opinions, even if such opinions do not conform to the views held by the academic institutions. Universities must encourage freedom of thought in students rather than try to suppress dissenting voices.
5. Universities should take action against all those who are found to perpetrating or abetting any discrimination against the Dalits or minorities.
6. Academic institutions should set up counselling centres to help people who are not able to cope with academics or face discrimination from the fellow students.
I hope the government will initiate proper steps so that our centres of learning are protected from politics. No other student should lose their life because of caste discrimination or high handedness by the academic institutions in addressing legitimate grievances.
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