Four months later, with the appointment of a new VC, Appa Rao, an executive council was formed that decided to restore its earlier decision of suspending Rohith and four other ASA activists from the university and expelling them from the hostel. It was then that Rohith and the other expelled ASA activists protested against the decision.
“See, an expulsion from a hostel isn’t a big punishment,” says Saket Bahuguna, Delhi state secretary of ABVP. When it was pointed out that Vemula had come from a humble background and so an expulsion from the UoH hostel would have been considerably heavy on the student, Bahuguna becomes indignant: “So if a rape happens, must we look at the background? It is sad that we lost a bright scholar like him but if you look at the content of the letter closely, you can see that he had begun to doubt ‘the politics’ he followed on campus. In his words, he said that he was turning into a monster because of it.”
Criticism against the Sangh Parivar and its students’ wing, the ABVP, began flowing soon after news of the scholar’s death emerged. The main reason why much of the criticism was directed at the Centre for intervening in the university’s affairs were the flurry of letters exchanged between the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD), Minister of State for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, state BJP vice-president Nandanam Diwakar and the UoH administration.
The trail of letters that began with Diwakar’s letter to Dattatreya, started off by alleging that the Dalit activists had physically assaulted Kumar, the ABVP activist, and went on to elaborate on the ASA’s activities. Explaining how the organisation had been organising and conducting a series of “anti-national activities” such as “conducting open prayer meetings for Yakub Memon” and circulating posters “particularly with the suggestion that if one Yakub is hanged, 100s of Yakubs will rise”, the letter urged the government to “intervene” in the matter.
When Memon was hanged, a debate on capital punishment was thrown open in the country. Most mainstream Left organisations, including the CPM and its students wing, the SFI, maintained that capital punishment was wrong while shying away from speaking on Memon’s guilt or innocence in the 1993 Mumbai blasts.
However, there were also many political organisations that asked why death sentence was handed down to someone who had surrendered and aided the CBI and the Mumbai Police in its investigation. Claiming that Memon was an easy target because he was a Muslim, student organisations such as the Democratic Students Union (DSU) in JNU and the Students Islamic Organisation (SIO) had organised protests condemning his hanging. The Radical Study Circle in TISS, students from IIT-Madras and several other universities across the country protested against the decision.
What is more, editorials of several newspapers, statements from intellectuals and even the last words of late B Raman, who had headed the Pakistan desk in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), all raised doubts over the death penalty. Yet, it was the “anti-national” activities of one organisation at the UoH campus that led to a direct intervention from the MHRD.
“It is not that they have not tried intervening in JNU, but we have been resisting it,” says Umar Khalid, Left student activist in JNU and one of the co-organisers of the protest march on Memon. “There were attempts from ABVP to create issues, but what makes JNU and UoH get differential treatment could be two factors. One, the UoH has a strong right-wing presence and, two, the new VC is closer to the Narendra Modi government that is systematically pumping up the pressure on campuses.”
However, Chinmaya, president of Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) in JNU, says, “It is true that JNU might not have had such incidents (suicides) but that does not mean that the university has not seen any incident of caste discrimination. Recently, when they announced the direct PhD list, not even a single SC or ST student was admitted. This is in direct violation of the reservation policy. In addition to this, they take students from Hindi medium, expecting them to learn and write in English in four months. Also, if you look at the viva voce scores of SC, ST and OBC students at the time of the entrance, you will see that they have only been awarded single-digit scores.”
Popularly called the bastion of Left politics, JNU has been a haven for “anti-national” activities in the last two or three years alone. From marching in solidarity for Afzal Guru to inviting SAR Geelani to campus, JNU has done it all. But when it comes to addressing the administration’s lethargy in admitting students under reservation or the Academic Council’s attempts at ignoring poor viva voce scores, the otherwise radical Left student movement on campus is but a failure.