Rohith Vemula: a saga of the inheritance of loss

Dharmaraj Kumar


The suicide of Rohith Vemulla, a Dalit research scholar of central University of Hyderabad, has left the academia of this country shocked and caused immense pain to everyone who came to know about it. This incident has offset strong protest. A great revulsion has been expressed in expressed editorials, articles and debates telecast on almost all the channels. It has attracted attention at the international level thanks to social media. We do not, in the recent past, remember a case of suicide which has got so much attention. It is not just the act of suicide, but the suicide note of Rohith Vemula which has entirely exposed the shenanigans of the society and the central government, including those of the Union minister of HRD and a junior minister in the Modi government.

The suicide note of Rohith Vemula, apart from the anguish expressed, needs to be given some serious thought. This is not the first time in this country that a Dalit research scholar  has committed suicide. He was the sixth in a year in a hostel room of the esteemed Central University of Hyderabad, because of exclusion and isolation. It needs to be investigated as to what kind of social atmosphere abetted Rohith’s suicide. In this regard here are some of my observations:


The plight of Dalits in all kinds of institutions

In India, public institutions are considered to be providing equal opportunity to all, as stated in the Constitution. Government schools, colleges and universities, the judiciary and all other kinds of state set-ups are modern institutions where every person of society, irrespective of their caste, creed, colour, gender and religion participates and contributes.

Contrary to this, we find that caste, creed, colour, gender and religious bias have a huge role to play in the making of our modern institutions. Among all kinds of bias, caste is more widely prevalent in almost all cases. In the Indian context, caste is the basis for kinds of discrimination. In the caste order, Dalits come the last.

Dalits are discriminated against in modern institutions as leaders, practitioners and producers. In a university set-up, learner stands for student or researcher, practitioner stands for teacher and producer stands for a person who either creates the knowledge or a system.

Discrimination against Dalit learners and research scholars like Rohith Vemula compells them to commit suicide. Institutions like AIIMS and Central Universities are not safe for them.

Discrimination against practitioners of knowledge is exemplified by Dr. Sunil Kumar Suman, an eminent Dalit professor  of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, who was dismissed arbitrarily and reinstated later, after an order of the Bombay High Court. He still faces constant threat of being removed from service by the dominant upper castes. I would like to give another burning example from my own alma mater Patna University, Patna, where the Dalit Vice-Chancellor Dr.Y.C.Simhadri, was chased out of his position on flimsy grounds. When he won the case and resumed office, he is reported to be hiding at his residence and not going to his office for last couple of months fearing for his life. He has been previously attacked and his official car burnt down. All these incidents, of course, are on record. It would not be surprising if he gets killed in the coming days.

The condition of Dalits has remained almost the same over the decades. A Dalit IAS officer of Rajasthan cadre, who had to resign because of partiality in promotion later converted to Islam A maid servant in a school in Bihar found to her consternation that students refused to eat mid-day meals prepared by her just because she was a Dalit. There are many such cases.


Expulsion from hostel

Before Rohith Vemula’s death, he was “evicted” from his hostel room. There are several instances of eviction from universities in India. But, what is implied by “eviction” has not been sincerely debated and properly dealt with.

The reality of “eviction” has remained eternally present as a part of lived experience for the Dalit communities in India. For Dalits and tribals, the history of “eviction” from their lands, villages  and from places where they longed to live their life but could not, haunts them. We read everyday in some newspaper how Dalits of a whole village are being chased away from their own places in all states of the country. Such cases have been reported from Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana  as well as form other states of India. Their women get raped, their dignity gets ravaged, their hopes robbed off. This “eviction” is a  tradition of our villages, a lived reality of every village where Dalits have been living for ages.

The university is a modern institution where new ideas are supposed to flourish. It is believed to be different from other traditional institutions. It is expected to be more inclusive. It promises to provide equal growth without any discrimination. But we see that it reneges on its promises. Because, the system of “eviction” has penetrated the university also. For other communities, the idea of “eviction” may be an immediate denial of some facilities but for Dalits it comes with a whole lot of troubled memory of  past experiences of their lives. It opens old wounds to fester. the same practice in the Central University of Hyderabad forced Rohith to accept his birth as a “fatal accident”.

The suicide of Rohith is not a symbol of surrender, or defeat. Rather, he just refused to believe in the claims of “tolerance” made by his tormentors. How can one take abetment to suicide as an act of tolerance? 


A Dalit is an outsider on varsity camps

The life of Dalits on a university campus is a grim reality. Somehow, it does not go well with the high-caste establishment. The history of the country says that Dr. Ambedkar was a “Dalit” scholar. But, Gandhi and Nehru were mass leaders. They were not “Baniya” leader or “Brahman” leader. They were mass leaders.

Such description reveals the way our scholarship on Dalits works. The idea of being a Dalit and a scholar is considered in conjunction with each other. The presence of Dalits in the university system is so limited that they are easy to be pointed out. Their views against the oppressive system of Brahminism get them identified, so that they can be easily neutralised. This situation reinforces Dalits’ historical experience of being kept out of the education system for centuries. They have never been insiders. Dalits are “made” educated. Because, they are considered to be creatures who cannot have ideas. They are not native to the education world. They are migrants. They will come to the university to go out. Those who will stay, will perish. As this gets proved by Rohith’s suicide case.

Dharmaraj Kumar is a PhD scholar at JNU, New Delhi. He may be contacted at

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-29 February 2016 on page no. 2

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