Rohith Vemula: The student who died for Dalit rights

By Omer Farooq

Image source, Rohith Vemula's Facebook page
Image caption, Rohith Vemula was a PhD student

In his death, Rohith Vemula has emerged as a symbol of protest against injustice and indignity.

The 26-year-old PhD student killed himself on Sunday inside the campus of Hyderabad Central University.

Mr Vemula was a member of the Ambedkar Students' Association, which fights for the rights of Dalit (formerly known as untouchable) students on the campus.

He was one of five Dalit students who were protesting against their expulsion from the university's housing facility.

The five faced allegations last year that they attacked a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) - the student wing of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

They all denied the charge and the university cleared them in an initial inquiry, but reversed its decision in December.

P Vijay, a close friend of Mr Vemula, described him as a "hard-working and a brilliant student and a kind-hearted soul".

Mr Vijay added that "he used to spend most of his time in the university's library".

"I cannot believe what has happened. He was a source of inspiration for others. But he was also very sensitive and was depressed over what was happening around him."

Mr Vemula was studying for his PhD in sociology. A keen reader of revolutionary literature, he aspired to become a writer.

Image source, SnapsIndia
Image caption, Students of Hyderabad Central University want justice for Rohith Vemula

"I always looked at the stars and wanted to be a writer, a writer of science like Carl Sagan. But in the end, this is the only letter I am going to write," he said in a suicide note.

"I loved science, stars, nature - but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second hand. Our love is artificial, our beliefs [are] coloured. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt," he wrote.

'Treated like a pariah'

The letter was an outburst of a thinking mind.

Though he did not blame anyone for his death, the contents of the letter show that he was upset over the discrimination shown to Dalits like him.

In an earlier letter to the vice-chancellor of the university in December, he had requested that a "nice rope" should be supplied to rooms of all Dalit students.

"Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this," he had written in his letter.

In his suicide note, he expresses similar pain.

"For some people life itself is a curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. I am not hurt at this moment. Not sad, just empty. That is pathetic. That is why I am doing this."

Mr Vemula's mother Radhika received the shocking news while she was expecting her son to come home next week.

"My son died because of the misuse of power and conspiracy by some powerful people. At least, now they should revoke the suspension of four other boys," she pleaded.

His friends said he was troubled by the treatment given to him at the university.

"Rohith was disturbed that the vice-chancellor was not responding to all the protest and the fact that he was being treated like a pariah," said D Prashanth.

"He loved reading poetry, but he was also a man of action participating in agitations for Dalit students and an avid rock climber."

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