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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Student's Suicide Leads to Protests in India

Neha Gupta

Feb. 23, 2016

The suicide of a graduate student in the Indian city of Hyderabad has sparked protests over continuing caste discrimination in the country.

Rohith Vemula, 26, was found dead in a dorm room on January 17. He reportedly hanged himself. A note was found at the scene. "My birth is my fatal accident," it said.

His death has triggered angry protests at Hyderabad Central University and many others.

The demonstrators say discrimination drove the social sciences PhD student to kill himself. They say the university and the government are both responsible.

Sannaki Munna, a friend of Vemula's, said people who knew him "couldn't even imagine that he would commit suicide."

Vemula came from a poor Dalit family and received a scholarship to study at the university. The Dalit caste has historically faced discrimination in India, and the discrimination continues today.

While at the university, Vemula joined a Dalit rights group on the campus with his friend Dontha Prashant.

Trouble for their group erupted last August when there was a disagreement with another group affiliated with India's ruling party. There were allegations things got physical.

The university responded by banning 5 Dalit students from dormitories and cafeterias. Their scholarships, including Vemula's, were terminated.

"University is supposed to be void of any differences to be inflicted," Prashant says. "But however on practical side, university is also part of the entire system."

A square at the university commemorates Dalit students who have killed themselves. A student leader said there were 10 such suicides over the last 5 years.

Students say Dalit freshmen are often denied the same support given to those from upper castes, leading them to feel excluded.

"Is it coincident that all the suicides are committed by students coming from marginalized communities or is it a problem of the institution?" says student leader Arpita Jaya. "Is it some kind of institutional discrimination that has been taking place from several years and has not been addressed structurally?"

Some students say Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is responsible.

One of his ministers wrote a letter to the education minister saying the university had become a den of anti-national politics. He called for action to be taken. The education minister then contacted the university.

Student protesters say political pressure led to the Dalit students being punished inappropriately.

"This kind of uncompromised attitude of expressing our point of view against the government, against university, has actually made us to be victimization in this sort of fashion," Prashant says. "This is political, administrative, casteist victimization that has happened."

The ripples set off by Vemula's suicide are affecting the country and the Modi administration.

His death is shedding light on the continuing struggle against caste discrimination in India.

Neha Gupta joined anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio, from NHK World's New Delhi bureau.

Beppu: So Neha, India has abolished the caste system. But we're seeing caste discrimination is coming under strong fire. How persistent is this caste discrimination in the country?

Gupta: The Constitution prohibits caste-based discrimination, and things like Dalits being banned from entering Hindu temples are outlawed. But the fact of the matter is that these violations do continue. It's obvious that caste system exists. I visited a village where Rohith Vemula and others stood up for the rights of Dalit people. Until recently, the Dalits weren't even allowed to use wells in the village. They had to carry water from sources far away.

Last year, houses the Dalits had built in the village were destroyed one after another. They'd got permission from local government to construct them, but some upper caste people expressed strong opposition. The Home Affairs Ministry says more than 50,000 cases of caste-based discrimination are filed every year in the country.

Shibuya: So Neha, how is the Modi government handling this issue?

Gupta: Apart from expressing regret on student’s suicide, Prime Minister Modi hasn't commented much on the issue. Opposition parties and others have repeatedly criticized him for not proactively dealing with problems of caste-based discrimination and religious intolerance.

Beppu: What makes it difficult for the Modi administration to resolve these problems?

Gupta: In the background of these issues is tension between Hindus and Muslims. Vemula and others campaigned to defend the rights of the Muslim minority. Some leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who honor strict Hindu traditions, looked towards that campaign as an issue.

The BJP is supported by a Hindu nationalist organization, and the relations with Muslims have always been strained. The Muslim population in the country has been growing faster than Hindus. And analysts say some Hindus worry that the political influence of Muslims may increase if they join forces with the Dalits.

"So what's the fear now? If educated Dalit like Rohith Vemula pointed out towards a possibility of Dalit politics which should forge alliance with other oppressed minorities, especially Muslims, it would prove detrimental for the nationalist politics of BJP."

Apoorvanand / Professor at University of Delhi

Criticism against the BJP has been growing. Last week, there was a demonstration against the arrest of a student leader for allegedly chanting anti-national slogans. Protesters say that intolerance is rising because of the narrow view of nationalism that Hindu right-wing groups are propagating.

The Modi government received broad support in the 2014 election, bridging caste differences. But this support could wane if the hardline Hindu nationalist stance among some BJP leaders and supporters isn't reined in.