India rocked by suicide of Dalit PhD student

Allegations of mistreatment by university raises questions of discrimination against 'untouchable' caste

January 26, 2016
Indian flag

There is fierce debate in India over the suicide of a Dalit PhD student in a case that has ignited concerns over discrimination against lower castes in the country.

Rohith Vemula, who was studying life sciences at Hyderabad Central University, died on 17 January after the university stopped paying him scholarship money and suspended him after a political clash with the student wing of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), newspaper reports say.

His death has triggered protests by students across the country and calls for the vice-chancellor of Hyderabad to resign.

Mr Vemula was a member of a pro-Dalit group, the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), which clashed with the BJP-linked Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the summer of 2015, during which the head of the ABVP claimed that he was assaulted by Mr Vemula’s group.

An investigation into his death by the Indian Express claimed that following this incident, the university stripped him of his stipend because of his political campaigning.

He was “steadily isolated by campus authorities and his appeals – many of them anguished and sometimes cloaked in irony – went largely unheard”, the newspaper claims.  

In the months leading up to his suicide, he was short of money and had borrowed from a friend, according to the newspaper.

A university official responded that Mr Vemula’s stipend had become “stuck” due to “lapses in processing the paperwork”.

Mr Vemula and four others were suspended from the university in September 2015. Earlier this month they moved out of their university rooms to tents on campus, and started a hunger strike.

On January 24, Hyderabad’s vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile went on leave, according to the university.  

Earlier today, Hyderabad appealed to students, who have blocked the campus in protest, to allow the university to return to normal.

Following the uproar over Mr Vemula’s death, Hyderabad has dropped punishments against the other four ASA students and paid Rs 8 lakhs (£8,235) to his family. It pointed out that there had been no court case filed against the university.

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