“We had no clue that so much was going on at the university.”

On Monday, as outrage broke out across India over the suicide of 26-year-old Rohith Vemula apparently in reaction to his suspension by the authorities of the University of Hyderabad, the Dalit research scholar’s brother and other members of his family gathered in a tent on campus, trying to make sense of the tragic events.

“Rohith hinted us that there are some issue,” said Raja Vemula, the scholar’s younger brother. “But weren’t aware that he and his friends had been expelled from the hostel and were sleeping in makeshift tents. Even the news about the suicide was conveyed by his friends and not the administration. We want the vice chancellor to come down and explain what happened and why it happened.”

Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room on Sunday, hours after starting a hunger strike along with other members of student groups to demand a revocation of the suspension orders issued in August to the young man and four other members of the Ambedkar Students Association. The university authorities had barred them from entering the administrative building, hostels, libraries, mess and other common areas. For the previous two weeks, Vemula and the other suspended students had been sleeping in the open to protest the decision.

Minister's intervention

According to a statement issued by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice at University of Hyderabad, the five Dalit students had been suspended after a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad falsely accused them of having assaulted him. Matters escalated after the BJP’s Union minister of labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya sent a letter to the ministry of human resources, indicating his personal interest in the case.

On Monday, the police registered a case under Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and for abetment to commit suicide of against Dattatreya and the university vice chancellor, P Appa Rao.

None of this seemed to offer any consolation to Rohith Vemula’s family and relatives, as they waited for more than five hours before being taken Osmania General Hospital where the postmortem was being conducted.

While Raja Vemula patiently answered questions from sympathisers, his mother and grandmother were sobbing silently. Earlier during the day, his mother had to be taken to the university hospital after complaining about a chest pain.

“My mother had shifted with me recently and Rohith had informed us that he would be home on Sunday,” said Raja Vemula, who is a project fellow at Hyderabad’s National Geophysical Research Institute. “When we didn’t get a call from him, we started calling his friends as Rohith doesn’t have a phone. At around 7 pm we were informed about his death.”

He added: “We knew that he wasn’t getting his fellowship amount for the past few months. But he used to send money to home and told us that he had made some arrangements.”

Heavy security

On Monday, the University of Hyderabad campus resembled a war zone. Nearly 200 members of Rapid Action Force stood by, along with a riot-control vehicle Vajra and tear gas machinery. This only served to anger the protestors. “Why does the University need tear gas, riot control, local cops and Rapid Action Force to control peacefully protesting students?” asked Dontha Prashanth, a friend of Rohith Vemula and another Dalit research scholar who was expelled. “We don’t have Bandaru Dattatreya’s to back our demands.”

The University released a press note saying that the news of Vemula’s death had left it “in a state of extreme shock and sadness”.

The ministry of human resource development has constituted a two-member committee to look into Vemula’s death.