"My name is Rohith Vemula… I'm a Dalit from Guntur district," asserted the PhD scholar in a video that his friends say they shot days before he hanged himself in his hostel room at the Hyderabad Central University in January this year.
Twenty-six-year-old Vemula committed suicide on 17 January, 2016 after he and four other students were suspended from the hostel following a disciplinary action initiated by the university administration based on a complaint of an ABVP student leader lodged in August.
The ABVP student had alleged that Vemula and other members of the the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) had roughed him up and demanded an apology for posting an 'angry' Facebook post, after the ASA protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon. After the ABVP leader's complaint, the university's proctorial board launched an enquiry into the matter and recommended strict action against Vemula and others.
In the video, Vemula claims that such skirmishes with ABVP weren't new and that in 2012, he was kept in policy custody for a couple of days. Vemula's suicide drew a lot of attention and ire from various student groups and led to violent sit-ins in the university campus.
The case gained importance because of alleged caste discrimination. Vemula's caste has been at the centre of the issue — with various parties claiming that he was not really Dalit and alleging that his family had lied about it. A one-man judicial commission set up to probe the circumstances surrounding Vemula's suicide submitted its findings in August, which stated that Vemula's mother had branded herself as Dalit only to obtain caste benefits and that the university was not at fault for expelling Vemula from the hostel.
According to this earlier Firstpost report, the 41-page-report puts the varsity authorities in the clear stating that the disciplinary action taken by the administration were "not politically motivated" and that personal frustration, not discrimination led to Vemula's suicide. The report also gave a clean chit to Union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani, who it was alleged put undue pressure on the university to act against Vemula, stating that they were "merely discharging their duties as public servants".
The one-man committee, constituted 11 days after Vemula's suicide by the then Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani to probe Vemula's death, is based on the deposition of close to 50 people, most of whom are University staff and teachers.
If it is established that Vemula was a Dalit and his suicide was due to discrimination, then legal action against all accused, including Dattatreya and university vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile will be taken as per the more stringent SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act. If found guilty, not only will the quantum of punishment be stringent, but according to the new law, there is a presumption to the offence clause in the Act according to which the court may assume that the accused was aware of the victim's caste identity unless proved otherwise.