Universities are supposedly places where the status quo in Indian society is challenged, where structural inequalities in society that we take for granted can be challenged and where we are taught to question, where considerable intellectual energy is expended to make us self-aware individuals with sound critical abilities. However, my experiences and the experiences of many other students have been those of struggles: struggles to keep our motivation and grades floating in the face of systemic violence. Rohith’s suicide and the suicides of many other students from marginalized and disenfranchised sections of society are a stark reminder of lives that were lost in this struggle. It is sad that it takes the death of a student to shake us. Those of us who are privileged along the lines of caste, class, religion, race, and gender apparently need a murder or a suicide to feel the violent inequalities in society. The fact that some of us fail to see them, or perhaps choose to not see them even then is very chilling and does not bode well for our future as a country.
As we students at the University of Hyderabad continue our protests, the official reactions (the MHRD, the university admistration) to Rohith’s suicide and to these protests have been apathetic if not downright malicious. It is this hostile attitude that I want to talk about. I want to talk of how official apathy and blatant callousness drives students, particularly those from minority and oppressed communities, to despair. We all come to the protests with our own experiences and what is expressed here is just my own position. I do not claim to speak for anyone else.
Many of us protesting here today have had our fair share of confrontations and injustice meted out in varying degrees, with and by the Administration. Too often, this has gone to a degree that strips us of the will to fight. Apathy and disregard are methods used by institutions like the university administration to silence dissent. For example, when the evicted students went to the Vice Chancellor to inquire about the status of their case, a day before Rohith committed suicide, he responded saying “I cannot do anything, it is not in my power”. We see this game being played out even now, when the BJP and the MHRD blame the University, the University blames the court and the recent Executive Committee decides to terminate the case not because of the mistakes the University made but because of the ‘extraordinary’ situation on campus. Most of the people in power know fully well that that this method can risk the loss of life through suicide. If the people who are supposed to work with our well being in mind respond with callous disregard to our repeated queries and petitions for a fair enquiry, it dissolves the remaining will to fight. I have heard Professors say things like “haan, if students decide to commit suicide, what can we do?” As a female student from the North East of India, I unfortunately know too well that the Administration, as one of my friends puts it, “buries justice in files and procedural guidelines”. I want to state that despair and a thoroughly demoralizing sense of powerlessness are very common experiences amongst students because of how the University Administration treats us.
There is apathy to students’ welfare even when it comes to basic necessities. Many of our hostels don’t have clean drinking water or clean, nutritious food. In the case of a protest outside a warden’s office, sometime in 2010, concerning clean water, the response was “buy Bisleri if you need drinking water”. As almost every student will tell you, we don’t get our UGC/ICCSR fellowships on time. When we challenge the status quo, things gets worse. The general response from authorities is stonewalling, in the hope that the complaints will get silenced as students realise that they will not get justice. When we keep at it for a while, we are put through a number of threats. Challenging the administration or people in power means risking our place in this University. That, for most people from oppressed or disenfranchised communities, means losing something we fought hard to get in the first place. Some of us who come from lesser privileged backgrounds share our families’ financial burdens and losing our fellowship or our place at the University thus affects the whole family. Beyond these main burdens, we also bear the brunt of accusations ranging from “These Dalits don’t study, they are always looking for an opportunity to protest’ to ‘This person actually asked for it because of x,y,z’.
As a result, we cannot work. We cannot continue our studies because those of us who are disprivileged are held back academically and socially at every juncture and, ultimately, cannot study and build a future for ourselves that will help disempowered communities to enter the mainstream. This inability to work because of the cases which no one wants to resolve leads to a spiral of insecurities and to the loss of trust in our own capacity to work. In a discussion with one of the students who was evicted from the hostel, he pointed out that when we are told again and again that we don’t know how to work and cannot do anything else either., we lose faith in ourselves. Implicit in these accusations is our identity as a Dalit, as a woman,as North Easterner, as a Bahujan, as a muslim, as a Kashmiri, as a queer or transgender person.
In the midst of all these debilitating accusations, pending cases and irregular fellowships we also know that the people we challenge will use their influence to try to crush us. Yet, the offices they hold supposedly exist to resolve cases. So we go to these institutions, no matter how cynical we’ve gotten. We go there because we know that there is a possibility that they could ensure that justice happens if they only want it to. if they only wanted to. It is devastating when institutions first callously crush a student’s academic dreams, and use the structures placed to protect students to prof the university to further stomp on them instead of providing a fair investigation and justice. It is dizzying to realise how entitled the ones in power must be to think a protest against the hanging of Yakub Menon or the screening of a film are reasons to throw students out of their hostel. Neglecting all evidence staring at them in the face, the Administration decided to throw students out, literally make the students “outcasts”, and when one of them sends a letter in sheer desperation asking and asks for the means to commit euthanasia, they ignore it.
On the part of the administration, it is not ‘We don’t care’, it is ‘We won’t care’. I know cases where people in the Administration actually want people to leave: they want us to either abandon the case and put up with discrimination or just leave the University itself. This attitude kills not just our hope but our anger too. Some of us kill ourselves because we cannot take it when we cannot even feel angry anymore.
Now, with the support of so many people, there is potential for changes in the University. The students who have personally faced this institutional discrimination and apathy tell me that they feel hopeful and so do I. However this hope hinges on our willingness to move on beyond some of the explanations and dismissive conclusions being circulated. There are also those who respond with offensive nastiness by conveniently simplifying the problems involved. They say things like ‘this is a psychological issue, why are you politicizing it’ or ‘ this is not dalit-vs non-dalit’. These reactions – which include those of the Government, the BJP and the administration – drives home to us, a very unsettling realization of their twisted logic. The government has been trying to blame the suicide on Rohith’s mental health. First, this is a gross simplification of the situation; it is a poor attempt by our leaders to absolve themselves in this case. Second, even if we were to accept that Rohith was depressed, no one can deny that being expelled for not fault of your own, being socially boycotted and, thus, humiliated as a Dalit, and sleeping under the cold night sky with no money from your hard-earned scholarships are very good triggers for such depression. The mental health of a student has everything to do with the social health of the University and the country in general. To blame a student’s suicide on his individual psychological health is to willfully ignore the social and mental health of our society. It is to choose to ignore the disease of caste that afflicts the most influential people in our country. It is to allow our collective futures to be planned, designed and cemented with exploitation and oppression. If the official response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the suicides of so many other students in the past are the conclusions we draw from these cases, I fear for the state of students and campuses ten years from now.