The Price of India’s Caste System: The Case of Rohit Vemula

One day, I arrived at the office of Prajwala Sangham, listening to Kendrick Lamar while eating a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, only to be greeted by a passionate and active discussion among my colleagues. I couldn’t engage as I had to finish a report, but I remembered the name Rohit Vemula. 

Source: Vemula, Rohit. The Wire. January 17, 2019. https://thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices

Vemula was a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hyderabad. He was suspended from his education, fellowship, and hostel due to his involvement in the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) with four other ASA members. On January 17, 2016, Vemula committed suicide with a banner of ASA and left behind a searing note including the infamous quote: 

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

Vemula was a Dalit, the lowest caste of the ancient social structure in India, perhaps the world’s longest surviving social hierarchy. The caste system orders social groups based on the Hindu concept of ritual purity. Representing over 1/6 of the Indian population, Dalits face social ostracization and suffer from the practice of untouchability, the imposition of social disabilities due to their caste (HRW). 

Bhimrao Rami Ambedkar, the main creator of the Indian Constitution and a Founding Father of India, was a Dalit, too. He believed that the political revolution leading India to her newfound freedom from the British Empire had to be accompanied by a social revolution, which including destroying the caste system, to have a truly equal society. 

In addition to abolishing untouchability in the Constitution, he also drafted the reservation system which reserved access to seats in the government jobs, educational institutions, and legislatures to the most marginalized. Ambedkar stressed the importance of higher education within the Dalit community so then selected talented individuals can reach important positions in the government and society to act as a shield and advocate for the interests of their community. He thought the reservation system would become not necessary after a decade or two when the caste system is wiped from society. But, the concept of purity and pollution still dominate the thinking of people today making the reservation system necessary (Stigmatization). 

Vemula’s suicide represents the problem with the reservation system in that despite there being reserved seats for the marginalized, society still is not equal. Dalit students still come from severe poverty, face segregation on campuses, and encounter job discrimination even after graduating from prestigious educational institutions. The ability of these individuals is always doubted despite their performance due to their caste. 

Lessons in caste differences start early. For example, in schools of Tirunelveli, about 400 miles south of the capital of Tamil Nadu, elementary students wear colored wrists bands to indicate their castes (Janardhanan). Caste-based discrimination affects students even in the premier medical school of India, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). In 2006, a government committee looked at the complaints of caste-based harassment against marginalized students in AIIMS. Some of their findings include teachers blatantly avoiding students due to their caste background, test examiners asking students for their caste, upper-caste students forcing lower-caste students to shift to particular hostels. Many Dalit students who enter higher educational institutions are typically first-generation graduates, coming from poor families, and often struggle to fit in (Thorat et al). 

Vemula was more than his caste. He was a popular and diligent student leader informed and highly articulate about various social injustices. He was a brilliant scholar, securing admission to a prestigious graduate science program as well as a highly competitive national research fellowship. Vemula was admitted through general admissions, not through a reserved seat. Politically and socially aware, Vemula did not follow the expected script: he was a Dalit but refused to be a victim (Chukka). 

“My birth is my fatal accident.”

Source: Trivedy, Shikha. NDTV. January 15, 2018. https://www.ndtv.com/hyderabad-news/at-campus-where-rohith-vemula-died-new-tension-for-abvp-and-dalit-group-1798961

Unfortunately, Vemula is not the first and most likely will not be the last Dalit student to be pushed to commit suicide due to systemic oppression and institutionalized discrimination. But his funeral propelled the issue of caste to become a part of the national dialogue. His death sparked protests and outrage across India. Media portrayed his death as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits (Shantha). Much to do so because of the beautifully written letter he left behind. His words are a strong reminder that despite merit, a Dalit still has to face prejudice and worse, even in educational institutions where liberal and humanist ideas are supposed to prevail. Everyone took notice of his letter, including the liberal upper caste. 

“Know that I am happy dead then being alive.”

India has failed in providing her citizens with justice, liberty, and equality, and by doing so, she has failed herself. 


Work Cited:

  • Caste Discrimination: A Global Concern. A Report by Human Rights Watch for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Durban, South Africa, September 2001. www.hrw.org/reports/2001/globalcaste/index.htm#TopOfPage.
  • Jones, Hannah. Stigmatization of Dalits in Access to Water and Sanitation in India . National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights , Stigmatization of Dalits in Access to Water and Sanitation in India , idsn.org/wp-content/uploads/user_folder/pdf/New_files/UN/HRC/Stigmatization_of_dalits_in_access_to_water_sanitation.pdf.
  • Thorat , Sukhadeo, et al. Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in All India Institute of Medical Science, Delhi. National Lutheran Health & Medical Board , Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in All India Institute of Medical Science, Delhi, www.nlhmb.in/Reports AIIMS.pdf.
  • Janardhanan, Arun. “Wearing Caste on the Wrist — Green for Dalits, Red for Thevars.” The Indian Express, 5 Nov. 2015, indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/wearing-caste-on-my-wrist-green-for-dalits-red-for-thevars/.
  • Shantha, Sukanya. “Rohith Vemula’s Suicide Triggered a New Political Wave.” The Wire , 17 Jan. 2019, thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-suicide-triggered-a-new-political-wave.
  • Chukka, Vikram. “Scholar’s Suicide: Discrimination in Higher Education Reflects the Violence of a Casteist Culture.” The Wire , thewire.in/education/scholars-suicide-discrimination-in-higher-education-reflects-the-violence-of-a-casteist-culture.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Nithya graduated from Santa Clara University (SCU) in 2018 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychology. While at SCU, she was awarded the Global Social Benefit Fellowship from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Nithya and her research partner conducted action research to assess the social impact of Awaaz.De, a Gujarat-based social enterprise that created a mobile communication platform for other organizations in the development sector. They travelled to three Indian states, visited over 20 communities, and conducted 55 interviews over the span of two months. With that research, they developed social impact case studies detailing how clients use Awaaz.De's services, prepared recommendations to Awaaz.De, and created a mobile social impact assessment framework. Thrilled to return back to India as an AIF Clinton Fellow, Nithya can’t wait to return to Hyderabad, hone her Telugu speaking skills, and reconnect with family. In her spare time, she loves watching the Golden State Warriors, petting baby goats, and mastering the art of making dosas.

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