A Student Suicide Moves Thousands to Protest Discrimination in India

Members of the Dalit community are fed up with being denied education and employment.

(Photo: Matt Alesevich)

Feb 25, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Matt Alesevich is a New York City based travel journalist who covers human interest stories, meditation and marginalized members of society.

With pumping fists, chanting voices, and waving flags, student activists in India are breathing new life into a movement to bring equality to the country’s silenced minorities.

Thousands of protesters took to central Delhi on Tuesday to challenge discriminatory government and education initiatives that many believe led to the suicide of 26-year-old Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula.

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The protesters, many wearing paper Vemula masks and holding banners with Vemula’s image, marched through Delhi’s capital region chanting slogans and demands for justice. Atop the list of actions to be taken immediately are the resignations of Hyderabad University Vice Chancellor Appa Rao and central government union ministers Smriti Irani and Bandaru Dattatreya. Protesters claim all three are responsible for the institutional murder of Vemula.

In late 2015, Vemula, a member of the Dalit community, a historically oppressed “untouchable” group classified as outside India’s caste system, was suspended from Hyderabad University along with four Dalit friends. Their offense was holding what government and university officials Dattatreya, Irani, and Rao, among others, believed to be extremist and antinationalist views.

The five were banned from the university’s dorm, dining hall, and library and set up a tent in which to live on university grounds. Inevitably seeing little hope for his future, Vemula hanged himself from a ceiling fan in a friend’s room on Jan. 17. In his widely circulated suicide note, Vemula dubbed his birth “my fatal accident.”

“This is a murder case,” protester Vijay Kumar, a 36-year-old Dalit who runs a center for social equality and inclusion in Delhi, told TakePart. “[Government and university officials] only opened one gate for [Vemula]. They gave him no choice.”

(Photo: Matt Alesevich)

While Dalits, who represent nearly a fifth of India’s population of 1.2 billion, have historically been subjected to hate crimes and forced to take society’s most degrading jobs, the group faces significant present-day horrors in the world’s largest democracy.

According to an article in India Today that highlighted data from the National Human Rights Commission, every day in India three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit houses are burned.

The data also note that Dalits are refused entrance into a police station in 28 percent of villages, and Dalit children are segregated while eating in 39 percent of government schools.

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Because of discrimination and humiliation in the classroom, various studies over the past decade put the Dalit primary school dropout rate at around 50 percent, which can help one grasp the cultural and personal significance Vemula, a doctoral student, put on his education.

Tuesday’s protest was the latest and largest of dozens of demonstrations that have taken place around India—and to a smaller extent, Europe and the United States—since Vemula’s suicide. Organized via social media by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, a Hyderabad University student group leading the charge for the officials’ resignations, the hashtags #ChaloDelhi, #JusticeForRohith, and #DalitLivesMatter were used to mobilize university students across India. At the demonstration, protesters were given blue headbands with “#CastoutCaste” printed in white.

Absorbing other university student grievances, the protest also called for justice for and the release of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar. On Feb. 12, Kumar, who is known for advocating for government tolerance and antiauthoritarian politics, was arrested on sedition charges for allegedly chanting anti-Indian slogans and is in judicial custody.

“There are more than 20 schools from around India here—no doubt,” says Rahul Kumar, a 26-year-old social worker from Delhi. “If we don’t protest now, we will suffer in the future.”

Other minorities, including Muslims and various tribal groups, have also joined the movement with calls for equality. Flags and banners representing several political and social organizations were visible during Tuesday’s demonstration.

(Photo: Matt Alesevich)

Leading up to the protest, emotions ran high as the last demonstration in the name of Vemula, in Delhi on Jan. 30, ended in a police-protester clash in which officers were caught on camera beating protesters, including women, with fists and sticks.

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On Tuesday, however, police-protester relations were cordial, and Delhi’s Joint Action Committee controlled the crowd and ensured that participants, among them Vemula’s mother and brother, stayed on the denoted protest route.

At Jantar Mantar, the capital’s unofficial protest grounds, leading activists and politicians, including congressional vice president Rahul Gandhi and Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India, gave speeches showing their commitment to the cause and shared vows of solidarity.

(Photo: Matt Alesevich)

One politician, Yogendra Yadav, promised the crowd that he was organizing a team of volunteers to make sure nondiscrimination regulations would be followed at hundreds of universities across India.

As the microphone passed from politician to politician, some protesters dispersed, skeptical of both their motives and their commitment to the cause.

“[The politicians] have to tell us how they are going to show us solidarity,” said Dalit filmmaker Gurinder Azad, from Punjab province. “If they are trying to sympathize, then what is the process of de-caste-ing themselves? They are looking at us as a vote.”

It might seem like a cynical attitude on a day of progress, but for those who’ve been oppressed by the centuries-old caste system, realism trumps optimism.

“This is a 3,000-year-old problem,” added Azad. “In one day, nothing happens. But we are marching ahead.”