Hyderabad, India – On January 17, 2016, Rohith Chakravarathi Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad in southern India, hanged himself from a ceiling fan in his friend’s hostel room.
Two weeks earlier, Vemula and four of his friends, all Dalits and associated with a campus political group called the Ambedkar Students Association, had moved out of their hostel rooms after being suspended by the university administration.
The students say they were allowed to attend classes and other academic sessions, but were barred from entering the hostels and common areas in groups and participating in student union elections. Lacking the means to afford private housing, they pitched a camp in front of the university shopping centre and started a hunger strike protesting against their “social boycott”. They called their camp Velivada – Dalit Ghetto.
The traditional caste system still has influence over India’s Hindu population.
At the bottom of the caste hierarchy are groups like the Dalits, who were traditionally given jobs considered ritually impure, such as rubbish collection, street sweeping, the cremation of dead bodies, and the disposal of human waste.
People unfortunate to be born into a family deemed Dalit have been battling prejudice and discrimination which they face daily, within and outside their own communities.
Rohith and his friends were entangled in a rivalry between student groups.
Susheel Kumar Nandanam, the leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, accused the five suspended students of assaulting him. The accusation led to the formation of an inquiry committee by the vice chancellor.
Protesters allege that the university’s final decision to bar the students from hostels and public spaces on January 3, 2016, was heavily influenced by a series of letters written by union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani, describing them as “anti-national” and “casteist”.
The university was rocked by protests soon after Rohith’s suicide, with angry students saying it was yet another case of discrimination against Dalits on campus.