On January 17, 2016, Rohith Chakravarathi Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad in southern India hung himself from a ceiling fan in his friend’s hostel room. Two weeks earlier, Rohith
and four of his friends, all Dalits and associated with a campus political group called the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), moved out of their hostel rooms after being suspended by the university administration.
They were allowed to attend classes and other academic sessions, but were barred from entering the hostels and common areas in groups and participating in the students’ union elections. Lacking the means to afford private housing, they pitched a camp in front of the university shopping centre and sat on a relay hunger strike protesting their ‘social boycott’. They named their camp 'Velivada' or Dalit Ghetto.
The ASA and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ASA’s main rival on the campus, have had frequent clashes including when ASA supported the Kiss of Love protest and condemned the ABVP’s disruption of a documentary screening in Delhi University.
But the entire sequence of events that led up to Rohith’s suicide was set in motion after ASA organized protests in August 2015 against the hanging of Yakub Memon, who was convicted of being a conspirator in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993.
Susheel Kumar Nandanam, an ABVP leader, had accused the five suspended students of assaulting him following which the Vice-Chancellor constituted an inquiry committee. Students allege that the university’s final decision to bar the students from hostels and public spaces on January 03, 2015 was heavily influenced by a series of letters written by union ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani describing the ASA students as “anti-national” and “casteist”.
The university was rocked by protests soon after Rohith’s suicide, with angry students terming it yet another case of discrimination against Dalits in the campus.
A portrait of Rohith Vemula at an art show put up by students at the protest site in the University of Hyderabad on January 21, 2016. “I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write,” he wrote in his suicide note. “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. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In (e)very field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”
The funeral pyre of Rohith Vemula at the Amberpet crematorium in Hyderabad on January 18, 2016. Fearing a law and order situation, police have secretly cremated his body in the presence of a few family members, against their wishes and tradition of burying their dead.
The shopping complex area, where Rohith and four of his friends pitched a camp after being suspended, turned into a protest site after his suicide. Twelve Dalit students have killed themselves since the university was established in 1974 and an alarming six of them since 2008, claim students affiliated with the Ambedkar Students Association. January 21, 2016.
A portrait of Dr. BR Ambedkar lies among Rohith’s other possessions at Velivada, where he camped for two weeks before killing himself. A photo taken on January 04, 2016 shows Rohith walking out of the hostel along with his friends, holding the oversized portrait in his left hand.
Raja Chaitanya Vemula, Rohith’s brother, holds their mother Radhika as she broke down upon seeing the memorial erected at the protest site on January 19, 2016. Born into a Dalit family but adopted by a Vaddera family, Radhika was married off when she was 14. A single mother, she worked as farm labor and tailor to provide for her three children and even studied together with her sons to finish her graduation.
An information desk was setup by students at the protest site. January 21, 2016.
A friend accompanies Vaikhari Aryat, one of the seven students who sat on an indefinite hunger strike, at the protest site on January 21, 2016.
Students form a barrier around the freshly erected memorial for Rohith Vemula to protect it from the crowds as Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi was about to arrive to console Rohith’s family on January 19, 2016.
A poster portraying Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani as a demon lies abandoned after a protest by NSUI on January 30, 2016. The students have been demanding the resignation of the Vice-Chancellor Podile Apparao and action against ABVP leader Susheel Kumar and Union Ministers Bandaru Dattatreya and Smriti Irani.
A group of students sing protest songs in between speeches at the protest site on January 21, 2016.
Students break into tears as Vijay Kumar, one of the five students barred from public spaces in the university, talks emotionally about the hardships he had to endure growing up as a Dalit on January 22, 2016.
Students manning the information desk look at a poster that was taken down by volunteers for using offensive language on January 21, 2016.
Students from the Arts Faculty at University of Hyderabad work on an art installation at the protest site on January 25, 2016
A student raises slogans as some faculties visit the protest site on January 21, 2016. The students argue that Rohhith’s life could have been saved had the faculty intervened during the period when Rohith and his friends camped at the shopping center for two weeks.
Angry students watch other raising slogans against a section of the university faculties’s visit to the protest site on January 21, 2016.
A volunteer tries to push away a protester who was raising slogans against some faculties’s visit to the protest site on January 21, 2016.
A little away from the protest site, some students read Anton Chekhov’s The Lottery Ticket on January 30, 2016.
A blood pressure monitor is attached to the arm of a student on hunger strike on January 23, 2016.
University police discuss strategy to move fasting students on the University Health Centre on January 23, 2016.
Students warn university police against making an attempt to move fasting students away on January 23, 2016.
University police forcibly move a fasting student from the protest site on January 23, 2016.
Uma Maheshwar Rao resists as doctors try giving him food and medicines at the university medical center after the police disrupted their fast on January 23, 2016.
Students from other universities raise slogans in support of the protests, responding to the Chalo HCUcall given by the Joint Action Committee of student bodies demanding justice for Rohith Vemula on January 25, 2016.
A visitor writes a postcard to the President of India seeking his intervention at the protest site on January 30, 2016.
Volunteers of the Samata Sainik Dal (Army of Soldiers for Equality), a social organization founded by Dr. BR Ambedkar with an aim to establish equality among Indians by annihilating caste, pay their respects to Rohith Vemula on what would have been his 27th birthday on January 30, 2016 at the protest site.