Now is the time for a ‘Rohith Act’

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

What can be a more comprehensive and democratic step towards achieving substantive justice for the Dalit students, fighting discrimination and marginalisation in academic institutions? The civil society must deliberate to devise a better constitutional mechanism to protect the rights, dignity and careers of the Dalit students in institutions of higher learning. In the context of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, based on the prima facie evidences, the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor of University of Hyderabad (UoH) and two ministers are the immediate political demands. However, the ongoing movement must show enough maturity to argue for an effective legislative mechanism to ensure that such cases of discrimination and violence against Dalit students should not take place in future.

The issue of discrimination against Dalit students never figured in civil society movements in India. It has been raised sporadically by Dalit students’ organisations on occasions. However, it has never been a central agenda of the Dalit movement.

In this regard, the demand made by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice (UoH) fighting to ensure justice for Rohith, is a valid and impressive proposal.

The Committee has demanded that the government must introduce a “Rohith Act” for a comprehensive legislative protection of Dalit students in institutions of higher education. In the absence of any influential statutory or legal body, it becomes extremely difficult to address the issues of caste-based discrimination and violence in such institutions.

The Dalit students’ participation in the corridors of higher learning is a reality now. A majority of Dalit students come from rural backgrounds with poor economic conditions. Their social and economic backgrounds, on multiple occasions, can be a hurdle while pursuing their career.

Dalit students are also involved in forming group solidarities, political activism and articulating their independent cultural values.

The environment in most campuses is more conducive for upper caste-Brahmanical cultural values, where Dalits are treated very badly. Caste-based discrimination has forced many to end their lives in some of the highly reputed institutes. In fact, before Rohith, there were 22 suicide cases in some of the major institutions, including IITs and AIIMS.

Multiple testimonies of Dalit students across universities have established the fact that the non-Dalit faculty members, authorities and other members of the institutions, discriminate against them.

For instance, a non-Dalit member changing his/her hostel room because the room-mate is a Dalit, giving minimum marks to Dalit students in viva-voce exam and hurling abusive comments against Dalits and Dalit icons. Further, political and social activities of the Dalit students are not taken in the right spirit by the university administration and by upper caste student organisations. The recent cases in UoH, AIIMS, IITs and JNU are classic examples of such incidents.