The Case of Rohith Vemula

C. N. Subramaniam

The suicide of Rohith Vemula, son of a single poor Dalit mother, a PhD scholar, who dreamt of becoming a science writer and wanted to know about the stars, a student activist who fought not only against discrimination of dalits but also against the ABVP storm troopers of Hindutva variety of Fascism, and indeed against all injustice including the injustice meted out to Yaqub Memon and all others judicially killed due to capital punishment, who raised his voice for the minorities.... And above all a highly sensitive human being. Rohith thus had many sides to him, and the powers that be had many reasons to desire his silence.

Rohith’s decision may have been sparked by any reason - his being in debt due to seven month delay in the release of his scholarship, his being evicted from the hostel at the instigation of the BJP MP and the central MHRD minister, his sense of being used by political parties, his sense of loneliness, the discrimination faced by him since childhood for being born to a dalit mother and a non-dalit father. or none of these. We will never know. So we can only use this occasion to reflect on some of the factors he did definitely confront.

One thing is certain. Rohith’s death through a voluntary decision marks the beginning of the disenchantment with the Modi government. An event that could have passed off as an usual case of student suicide became a countrywide cause and moved the country’s conscience.

This article is not about Rohith’s death or what happened after that. It is a Salute to Rohith by focussing on the childhoods of dalit children and the youth of dalit scholars, their loneliness as Rohith termed it.

Dalit Education in the post-liberalisation era - Paradoxes of state policy

The dalit communities who in many parts of the country still are treated as ‘untouchables’ constitute some of the poorest and most discriminated segments of Indian society. Heirs to over a thousand years of fierce discrimination, freedom of 1947 only brought the hope of entering modern professions with the aid of formal education. Land reforms largely bypassed them. A brief statistical profile of the community will help to understand their status.

80% of them live in villages and only 20% in urban areas where traditional discriminations may be milder.

77% live off agriculture while only 10% are employed in industry and 13% in the service sector (mainly government jobs due to reservation). This effectively means that the dalits are concentrated heavily in low productivity sectors.

Of those living in the villages 75% SC households are classed as landless or near landless (with less than 0.4 Hectares). Only 25% households own land. However, the overwhelming proportion of them are marginal farmers who need to engage in wage labour to supplement their income and only a miniscule 4% own more than 2 hectares of land to qualify as middle or large farmers.

52% are agricultural labourers, facing uncertain future due to mechanisation and other changes in agriculture. 27% are in non-agricultural sectors in the villages and of them less than 4% are self employed. The rest are working as wage labourers. A national survey of bonded labourers conducted in 1995 showed that an overwhelming 66% of the bonded labourers were dalits.

In the towns over half of dalits depend upon wage labour and self-employment in the unorganised sector while about 40% have salaried employment. Given the decline of regular employment and recruitment in the government sector and increasing informalisation of labour, we can well imagine the stress faced by them.

This brief profile tells us that the dalits are concentrated in least productive sectors without any capital resources and the only avenue of mobility has been the limited government jobs. Land reforms and redistribution which could have provided the dalits with essential capital resources were never undertaken seriously in the post independence period in most parts of India. This ensured that the dalits remained resource-less casual labourers.

This status of dalits may have something to do with the strategy for securing equality for dalits adopted under the influence of Dr. Ambedkar. He identified the oppression of dalits with the functioning of traditional agrarian social order and was assured that keeping dalits in the rural world even as landed proprietors will not change their social status and only employment in modern sectors will help them to overcome the caste oppression. This effectively meant that only modern education could provide the ‘cultural capital’ needed to get into new professions.

The democratic movements of the mid-twentieth century little realised how loaded modern education was against the poor and marginalised in general and the dalits in particular. Access, the mindset of teachers, language of instruction and curriculum were all best designed to perpetuate the brahmanical hegemony. Indian education has been deeply imbued with a disdain for manual labour and cultures that sprang from it. All this effectively kept a host of marginalised communities out of modern education condemning them as academic failures.

The outcome of the exclusive emphasis on modern education thus was to keep dalits out of both land ownership and access to modern professions. This has been the fate of several other marginalised social groups like the Muslims with whom the dalits have much in common, though much less in focus of academic studies or policy concerns.

A host of studies, many of them conducted by government or international agencies point to continued social ostracism and discrimination faced by dalit students in schools. Made to sit separately in the class room, served food separately, not allowed to touch sources of drinking water, made to clean toilets and other jobs considered menial, addressed by caste names, and told that they are not educatable, dalit children have to constantly battle to retain their dignity and stick on. Very few children grit themselves for the gruel and most drop out. A very telling study was conducted some years ago to see if parental education, parental employment in modern profession, higher economic status, urban residence, etc. helped dalit children to bridge the gulf in learning achievement that separates them from upper caste equivalents. It was found that the gulf continued to be significant even for children of educated parents, employed in modern professions in urban areas. Interestingly it was found that Muslim children too faced a similar situation while on the other hand tribal children of such parents did manage to cross the gulf. This study effectively proves that the discrimination being faced by dalit and muslim children was not class or cultural or residential, but essentially social in nature. To put it simply, dalit and muslim children are being discriminated against for being dalits and muslims. To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, ‘Not all the perfumes of modernity could wash away the stains of being a dalit’. (Sonalde Desai, Cecily Darden Adams, Amaresh Dubey, ‘Segmented Schooling: Inequalities in Primary Education’, in R Govinda, Who Goes to School? OUP, 2010)

Much indeed has changed in the last decade and a half. There is increasing indication that almost all children including dalits are now in school and attending it. The NSSO data demonstrates the remarkable bridging of the gap in school enrolment, attendance and retention, between dalit and non dalit children.

Table 1. Gaps in School Attendance and School Drop out Rates 2011-12



S Tribes

S Castes





Never attended school amongst 6-14 year olds
 (in %)







Never attended school amongst 15-18 year olds
(in %)







Currently attending school amongst 6-14 year olds
(in %)







Currently attending school amongst 15-18 year olds
(in %)







School dropouts amongst 6-14 year olds
(in %)







School dropouts amongst 15-18 year olds
(in %)






Source: NSSO, 68th Round, 2011-12
(S Tribes: Scheduled Tribes; S Castes: Scheduled Castes or dalits; OBC: Other Backward Castes; General: Upper castes.)

The above household survey data indicates a significant bridging of gap between SC and non SC-ST children, especially in the elementary level. (Only ten years ago the minimum difference between Scheduled caste and non SC ST categories was over ten percentage points.) While school attendance and retention are no guarantee of learning or scholastic achievement, they are an essential step away from child labour and insecure life and towards scholastic learning. The efforts made by the state government agencies in this direction need to be acknowledged. Nevertheless another disturbing fact stares us starkly in the face: the revival of caste based segregation in education. Even as children from the most deprived dalit families came to the government schools the upper and middle castes abandoned them in favour of private schools. In a large number of states government schools are largely catering to dalits, adivasis and the very poor Backward Castes only. The fee demanding private schools are stratified. Thus the market driven private school system reproduces the social hierarchy.

If one gets the impression that this is due to the exercise of free choice by parents, we need to remember that a very large number of poor and lower middle class parents would have preferred to send their children to government schools if only some effective teaching took place there. Minimal teaching takes place in the government schools as the teachers are overburdened with a large number of non-academic tasks. These tasks are themselves not unimportant as they play a vital role in bringing the poorest children to the school and retaining them; the problem is that the government has not provided for workers to undertake these non-academic and administrative tasks, forcing the teachers to discharge them at the cost of teaching. Thus while the government has diverted the limited funds it has allocated for education to bringing the poorest to the school, it has also simultaneously forced the ‘well off’ poor and the lower middle class to pay for the education of their children in the market.

The overall result is segregated schooling with little scholastic activity for dalit children. Combine this with caste based discrimination that dalit students face due to social sanctions, one can understand the barriers encountered by dalits in acquiring the ‘cultural capital’ which Dr. Ambedkar considered essential for their emancipation. This is in some sense indicated by the sudden jump in the differential between SC/ST and OBC/General categories for high school education in Table 1. Poor learning, reinforced by a curriculum far removed from the life experiences and cultural codes of the marginalised communities heap enormous disadvantages on dalit and tribal students who struggle to reach higher levels of education. A large number of them do reach higher education aided by reservations and scholarships but face severe ostracism due to misplaced notions of academic merit among teachers and fellow students. While they are better organised to produce mutual support in a couple of universities, they remain isolated and supportless in most institutions of higher learning.

The second backdrop for Rohith’s death is to be seen in the nature of academic autonomy and freedom in the university space. Societies that seek change and development put great value in the freedom of spaces which generate new ideas. On the other hand societies which seek to conserve or imbibe received ideas convert institutions of higher learning into centres for mindless repetition of existing wisdom and indoctrination. The Indian university system, which is a legacy of the colonial rule was designed to impose modern European knowledge systems and create a colonial elite socialised into colonial mindset. During the post colonial period the state which embarked upon a project of limited and highly controlled modernisation, sought to create a handful of enclosures to promote free academic discourse without disturbing the larger framework of colonial university system. IITs specially focussed attention on Science and Technology to the detriment of Social Science, which were considered too subversive. Only a handful of universities with emphasis on social sciences were created and the Jawaharlal Nehru University which is currently in news and the University of Hyderabad where Rohith studied were among them. Rohith with an abiding interest in the Sciences did not choose the lucrative career as a scientist but wanted to be a science writer.

These universities have also been the sites of dalit and left student radicalism, which enabled the country to develop an alternative intellectual paradigm. This paradigm even though not revolutionary emphasised inclusiveness, rights of the marginalised and dispossessed within a liberal democratic framework. Students who came out of these universities went on to staff the administration and policy formulation resulting in the brief spring of ‘Rights based’ legislations of the last decade. These were also the sites which questioned the ‘nationalism’ being promoted by the Indian state by pointing to the underbelly of the nation and critiquing the antidemocratic jingoism.

The BJP government which came to power with the express promise of promoting neo-liberal growth categorically rejected the ‘rights based’ legislations; it likewise sought to reject both its own old autarkic nationalism and any democratic critique of jingoistic nationalism. It thus became imperative for it to attack precisely these institutions of higher learning which promoted such critical thinking and alternative paradigms. Rohith happened to organise and participate in an event which epitomised this conflict: the event was to commemorate the hanging of Yaqub Memon, condemned for his role in the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts in response to the 1992 anti-muslim riots following the demolition of Babri Masjid. The objective of this particular event was to question not only the hanging of Yaqub, but of capital punishment itself. It is well documented that the majority of people who landed up in the gallows were from dalit or marginalised/minority communities who neither received public sympathy nor did they have the wherewithall for hiring expensive lawyers in their defence. Given this record it is evident that capital punishment is used merely to oppress these communities. The meeting organised by Rohith and friends thus raised a host of uncomfortable issues of post-independence India: the position of minorities, Kashmir, caste, state coercion, etc.

An event which otherwise would have been ignored was used by the BJP and the central government (which controlled the university) to launch an attack on the students who organised the event. While the university authorities themselves were not keen to pursue the case, the central ministry pressurised it to take action against the students. This eventually forced Rohith to take his own life. Having tested this tactic the BJP virtually repeated it in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The death of Rohith thus brings to fore a number of crucial issues - not just of personal suffering of an indigent scholar, but of communities divested of livelihoods and deprived of access to quality education, of intellectual freedom and autonomy of universities.

Rohith has begun a major engagement and we have far to go before we can know of its outcome.

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