SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. January 26, 2016: A group of Indian American activists rallied outside the San Francisco Indian Consulate Jan. 22 to draw attention to the plight of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad Central University student who committed suicide a week earlier allegedly because of caste-based discrimination.
Amidst a heavy downpour of rain, the Northern California activists rallied for more than two hours and spoke about the alleged ill-treatment of minorities in India. Similar rallies were planned for the weekend in Boston, Mass; Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich; and Washington D.C.
“We are failing young rising stars like Rohith,” said Bhajan Singh, director of the Organization for Minorities in India, adding: “There are hundreds of Rohiths in India. We hope to bring peace to the soul of Rohith – his sacrifice did not go to waste,” said Singh.
Rohith Vemula, 26, was working on his Ph.D. at Hyderabad Central University. Last August, he and four fellow Dalit students – Dalits are the lowest caste in India’s traditional caste hierarchy – clashed with a group of students supporting the majority BJP party. After the clash, Telengana politician Bandaru Dattatreya, currently the minister of Labor and Employment in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, wrote to the Minister of Education, allegedly complaining about anti-nationalist activity occurring on campus.
Vemula and the four students were expelled from the college hostel last December and denied entry into the university’s library. The five set up a tent just outside the university campus and lived there until Vemula’s death.
Dalit activists have directly blamed Dattatreya and HCU vice chancellor P. Appa Rao for Vemula’s death. In his suicide note, Vemula wrote: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing.”
Vemula’s suicide has sparked outrage across India. Writers and activists proclaim the circumstances surrounding the young man’s death continue a long history of discrimination against Dalits.
Carmel Christy, a visiting scholar from Delhi University currently in residence at UC Santa Cruz, told India-West at the San Francisco rally: “There has been a longtime struggle of keeping Dalits away from the halls of higher learning. Rohith realized he did not belong to a certain segment of society and fought bravely for equality,” she said.
Christy said she had studied at the same university and proclaimed HCU to be one of the more enlightened campuses in India. “I have been part of many such protests in the past,” she said, noting that discrimination against minority students happens on campuses across India – including her own college, Delhi University – but is rarely brought to light. She stated that Appa Rao should be sacked, alleging that the vice chancellor has had a history of not dealing well with Dalit issues. “The boy is gone. But the system should be changed to make sure there is impartiality in the way all students are treated.”
Benjamin Kaila, one of the organizers of the rally, told India-West the new Narendra Modi administration has brought on a fresh wave of caste-based ideology, but noted that discrimination against Dalits has been a long-standing issue prior to the rise of Modi. Kaila, a Dalit, said he faced discrimination as he was growing up, but didn’t recognize it until he read the works of B.R. Ambedkar, who crusaded for equality for Dalits and women. “I realized what was happening around me in the name of caste,” said Kaila.