At Campus Where Rohith Vemula Died, New Tension For ABVP And Dalit Group

What has pulled the trigger on the new unease is a Facebook post from two months ago that abuses K Laxminarayana, a professor in the school of economics who is a Dalit.

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At Campus Where Rohith Vemula Died, New Tension For ABVP And Dalit Group

Rohith Vemula was found hanging in a hostel room on University of Hyderabad campus. (File Photo)

Hyderabad:  Next week, Hyderabad University will hit a sombre milestone: the second death anniversary of 26-year-old Dalit student Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide on campus after alleging that he was being persecuted by university officials on account of his caste.

As Vemula's friends plan to commemorate his death, the sprawling campus is witnessing a new rotation of caste tension between Dalits and the ABVP, the student party that is affiliated to the BJP and which clashed physically with Vemula ahead of his suicide.

What has pulled the trigger on the new unease is a Facebook post from two months ago that abuses K Laxminarayana, a professor in the school of economics who is a Dalit.

"Bastard Laxminarayana now preaching what is saffronisation. He even don't know basics of Economics and now preaching about Saffronisation. He has became professor only because of his blackmailing tricks." The invective is the offering of Karan Palsaniya, a PhD student in the History department. He is also a senior leader of the ABVP, not just in Hyderabad - he is a national co-convenor.
 
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The comment was posted on a Facebook page handled by a group of students from the university which Professor Laxminarayana has been associated with for nearly 30 years. He is also a former president of the University of Hyderabad Teachers' Association. Days after the Facebook post, he wrote a formal letter of complaint to the Vice Chancellor, describing it as "highly derogatory, objectionable and targeting my dignity and humble social background from which I rose to the post of professorship".

He requested the university to initiate action against the student. He has received no response from the Vice Chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, or any other official. 

The ABVP student's abuse followed an exam paper set by Professor Laxminarayana in which he included two questions that appeared critical of the national government's policies including the "saffronisation of education."

The professor says "The questions were in the context of the present government's educational policies. No one from the University teaching faculty or its officials raised any objections to the questions. So how can a student of some other discipline attack me in this vicious manner? The intent was to humiliate me publicly by using abusive language. It vitiated the atmosphere on the campus. Surely the officials recognise the urgency of resolving such matters especially after Rohith Vemula's suicide... we have zero tolerance for physical or verbal abuse of faculty members or administrative staff."

A university spokesperson told NDTV that the winter break prevented urgent action as requested by the professor and that Mr Palsaniya has been asked to explain his comments to a committee on Wednesday: the second-year anniversary of Rohith Vemula's death.

In August 2015, Vemula was suspended along with four other Dalit students for being "casteist, extremist and anti-national." The action followed a complaint against him by the ABVP. Vemula was a member of the Ambedkar Students Association. There was a history of strain between the two groups that had been getting tauter. The ABVP said that one of its leaders had been so badly injured by Vemula and his group that he was hospitalized. After his fellowship payment was suspended, Vemula was told to leave his hostel. He moved into a tent on the campus as part of a sit-in protest. In January 2016, he was found dead in a friend's room in the University; he had hanged himself.
 
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There were massive protests in Hyderabad University after Rohith Vemula's suicide

Across the country, the ABVP's rivals claim that emboldened by the rise to power of the BJP, the group is brazen in its harassment of other student associations like Left-affiliated ones at Delhi's famous JNU, and that universities funded by the central government are quick to indulge its requests for punishment against those it decrees "anti-national".

"I had written a complaint to the Vice Chancellor that Professor Laxminarayana's questions were political and not part of the syllabus and should never have been in the exam paper," said Uday Inala, the president of ABVP at Hyderabad University. "While we condemn Palsaniya's comment, and will support any punishment meted out to him, we also demand that at the same time action be taken against the professor for politicising the whole teaching process."

Professor Laxminarayana says this sort of vendetta has ensnared him after an article that he wrote in November for The Economic and Political Weekly. It was published just before exams were held and Karan Palsaniya's rant against him.

The article criticized the investigation into Rohith Vemula's death that was ordered by the central government. A former judge was tasked with the investigation; there was no committee; he concluded that Rohith did not face any discrimination at the university and was depressed for personal reasons, which finally pushed him over the edge. "The government is also trying to prove now that my brother committed suicide because he was fed up with his family," said Rohith's brother, Raja Vemula.

Rohith's mother and members of the Ambedkar Students Association have also decried the investigation for focusing heavily on determining whether he was indeed a Dalit. The judge decided that he wasn't and was instead a member of an Other Backward Caste (Dalits are classified below these in the group of castes discriminated against). Critics say that establishing an OBC identity for Rohith allowed ministers accused of contributing to his suicide from being prosecuted under the tough SC/ST act which provides a jail term for atrocities committed against the weakest sections of society. 

Professor Laxminarayana's article pointed out that no Dalit was made part of the investigation "in spite of it being mandatory to look into the facts surrounding the death of a Dalit scholar". He also revealed that several faculty members had spoken to the judge who handled the investigation of the burden of "failure" that is felt by socially and economically marginalised students. In 2013, the Andhra Pradesh High Court acknowledged this as a genuine contagion. Rohith Vemula's' teachers and friends believe it drove him to kill himself after his suspension. "Failure has a specific meaning for these students. Due to many reasons, 'discontinuing' and going back home is not a viable option for poor, rural students, who may choose death over a future in which they must stare at their inability to provide for miserably poor families that have staked everything to educate them," the High Court had found.

In his article, Professor Laxminarayana also referred to a Supreme Court verdict in 2012 that said in the case of an inter-caste marriage, the child's caste would be determined not by that of the father's but on the circumstances in which the child was brought up. Rohith's father was an OBC; his mother is a Dalit. Rohith had written often about rejecting his father's bloodline and sharing the caste discrimination that his mother suffered.

But the investigation chose to ignore both judgements claimed Professor Laxminarayna in his article, describing its findings as "a travesty" that catered to "an increasingly authoritarian State."

The Ambedkar Students Association says that the professor is being vilified for taking a frontline role in the movement for justice for Rohith Vemula. The University says that accusation has no merit and that it will now study the complaint against the ABVP student.

"The University was on a winter break and therefore the proctorial committee which addresses all disciplinary issues could not meet. If Professor Laxminarayana wanted to pursue the matter in a court of law, he was free to do so. But the University has to follow a certain process. As of now, the student has been sent a show cause notice and will have to appear before the committee on January 17," spokesperson for the University, Dr V Pavarala, told NDTV.

The professor says that approach underscores the discrimination against the Dalits on campus. "The committee could have met with a few members. But they kept quiet, allowing positions to harden. I have been living with this threat for more than a month. What I want to know is whether they would have got away with this long period of silence if the professor had been a non-Dalit".

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The assertion of rights by Dalits is gaining ground, says Jignesh Mevani, the 37-year-old Dalit leader who has just been elected to the Gujarat legislature. He says Professor Laxminarayana's case will serve as a major rallying point for Dalit youth which is upending tradition by using WhatsApp and social media to quickly mobilize protests across states. The new year began with lakhs of Dalits converging 30 kilometres away from Pune to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Koregaon battle, which saw Dalit soldiers fighting with the British army against the Peshwa upper caste rulers who subjected Dalits to public humiliation day after day. Violence erupted at the gathering on January 1, and an upper caste Maratha was killed. 
 
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Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani with Rohith Vemula's mother, Radhika

The crowd that gathered in the town of Bhima-Koregaon was a show of strength, Jignesh Mevani and other Dalit leaders have asserted, while denying that they instigated the violence. They pledge that cases like the professor's will not be allowed to play out in isolation on the Hyderabad University campus.

"The person who abused him should have been in jail by now. But it is not surprising that nothing has happened so far. Everywhere you see the same pattern," said Mevani about Professor Laxminarayana. "In Bhima Koregaon, the main accused who instigated violence against Dalit celebrations are roaming free while a case has been filed against me when all I did was appeal for peace."

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