Over the years, Hyderabad Central University has earned itself much disrepute by doing little to check recurring cases of suicides by Dalit scholars on the campus.

Vice Chancellor Appa Rao went on an indefinite leave, following protests asking for his resignation in the wake of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide last week. The appointment of the senior most faculty member Vipin Srivastava as interim vice chancellor has, however, added to the anger of the protesting students.

Protesters claim that Srivastava isn’t the best choice to be the interim VC because of his alleged involvement in another Dalit student’s suicide at the university which goes back to the year 2008, when 25-year-old Senthilkumar, a PhD scholar was found dead in a hostel room. According to reports, the physics researcher hailed from Salem and belonged to "Panniyandi" sub-caste, known for pig-rearing, among Dalits.

“It’s unbelievable that they couldn’t find anyone else to be the interim VC,” said a student from the Joint Action Committee which is at the forefront of protests at the campus. “His hands are stained in blood already and he is the one who ordered Vemula and his friends to be punished.”

Students are unhappy with Srivastava’s appointment because he chaired the Executive Council Sub- Committee which has been held responsible for Vemula’s death by many groups including the SC/ST Faculty Forum at the university which expressed “shock” over the university’s decision to appoint him as the temporary VC. Srivastava didn’t respond to Scroll’s requests for comment over phone and email.

"The agitation is now only going to expand and further intensify because the university has shown utter disregard for our demands," said Sannaki Munna, a member of the Ambedkar Students' Association, of which Vemula was also a member. "We can't let a murderer rule over the institution. It has happened time and again here. Students lose life, committees are formed, people are indicted but no action is ever taken. Mr Srivastava is still the dean of the physics department like he was in 2008."

As more details relating to the circumstances leading to Vemula's suicide emerge and protests turn into an impasse, it’s worthwhile to revisit the 2008 suicide case and examine the interim VC’s role in Dalit scholars’ alienation on the campus.

History repeats itself

In February 2008, Senthil’s post-mortem report found poisoning to be the cause of death, causing much furore among the student community. It took one month of protests by scholars and a pressure from the larger Dalit community to force the university to set up a fact-finding committee to investigate the death. The report of this committee wasn’t released at first and was only made public through a Right to Information application.

While the report didn’t name Vipin Srivastava directly or accused him of playing a “deep role” in Senthil’s death as alleged, it did note that the physics department as a whole was perceived to be “acting against the interests of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes students.” According to an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly about the report and influence of caste in marginalising students from educational institutions, Srivastava was the Dean of the physics department at that time.

Various available accounts suggest that Senthil’s scholarship was stopped before his death because he had failed in one of the four courses, presumably causing him much distress as it was his only source of income to support his family and fund his own studies. Moreover, four students in his batch including him, were not appointed supervisors. All four of them, as it happened, belonged to the reserved category.

Eventually, Senthil lost his life, two students dropped out and one was assigned an academic supervisor.

Later, the university's internal fact-finding committee, in its report said that there may not be a deliberate attempt from the school of physics to discriminate among castes, but the feeling was strong among students who spoke to the panel.

“He [Senthil] was not only beginning to believe that the SC/ST [Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe] students were "being targeted" in the School, but was also getting anxious about it,” the report said. “All the Physics students that this Committee could meet have reported their sense that the School was acting against the interests of the SC/ST students.”

The report also noted that several students expressed dissatisfaction on the way they were being treated by the authorities. The report added that some students even claimed that irrespective of their performance, reserved category students were given admission only in the reserved category and barred from climbing to the open list.

Jumping off from this report, the EPW piece detailed how caste hierarchy was being maintained at the university, specifically in the physics department and that it was proving to be a “huge cost” to science and higher education, including the nation.

“The arbitrariness in the procedures of the school, then, is quite systematic; it seems designed to push out those Dalit students who have managed to gain entry,” the students’ solidarity committee was quoted as saying in the article. “Reservations may provide access, but as Senthil’s death shows, the battle for democratising our institutions - and a genuinely progress oriented science - is of a different order altogether,” it concluded.