Vemula was a Dalit (once known as an Untouchable) which placed him at the very foot of the social hierarchy. While laws have long been in place that ban discrimination against him, it is the atavistic prejudices and hatreds, still embedded in much of Indian society, which finally drove him to take his own life.
The fact that he was studying at an advanced level at one of the country’s most prestigious universities might suggest some relaxation in the strict code of the castes, but while legislation can force openings and opportunities for Dalits, it is of limited effect against the bigotry that many Indians still see as simply a predestined way of life.
As journalist Dhrubo Jyoti so eloquently wrote in a recent article, most Indians, at least in the big cities, think of caste oppression as a thing existing in remote rural areas.
“But caste is alive in our homes and streets, simmering just underneath the surface of our glitzy malls, in our schools and colleges, in our glass and steel workplaces and inside our gentrified gated colonies,” Jyoti writes.
“It is alive in who we marry and fall in love with, in who we talk to and befriend, in who we employ and who we mourn.”
Even so Vemula might have survived if he had kept his head down and worked quietly to get his qualification, but he was an activist and a leading member of the Ambedkar Students Association, which promotes the rights of Dalits on campus.
He wrote a sarcastic letter to the Vice Chancellor stating that the university might just as well set up euthanasia facilities for Dalits and he and four others were suspended after allegedly being involved in a punch-up with leading members of the right-wing All India Student Council.
When university authorities stopped paying Vemula his monthly stipend, friends said the student sank into depression.
Inevitably, the issue has become a political football with a leader of the Opposition Aam Aadmi Party and Chief Minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, blaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi for failing in his constitutional duty to protect and promote Dalits.
Meanwhile, the initial stunned reaction has developed into violent student protests both in Hyderabad and elsewhere around the nation.
The water has been further muddied by charges that Vemula and his friends were suspended only after the Federal Minister for Labour, Bandaru Dattatreya wrote a letter to a colleague describing the University of Hyderabad as “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”.
Of course, none of this will have any immediate effect on the situations of Dalits in India. As Joyti writes in his article, a more worthy response would be a national conversation “around the cast discrimination that surrounds us, in the monopolisation of academic spaces and teaching positions by upper-caste scholars”.
Joyti feels that only then would Rohith Vemula’s life — and death — be given some meaning.