Six weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide in a hostel room of Hyderabad Central University, his memory is palpable all across campus.

In the “shopping complex” area where students snack and hang out, the Dalit PhD student’s face smiles down from a giant flex poster. Under a large shamiana, a simple concrete slab has been marked the “Rohith Smaraka Stupa”. Swinging gently in the wind, Vemula’s photographs hang from the branches of trees, as do scores of origami paper cranes honouring his memory.

Busts of Vemula, sculpted by Hyderabad University’s fine arts students, appear unexpectedly in several places. And splattered across the walls of the shopping complex, even more of his photos jostle for space along with caricatures of former vice chancellor Appa Rao, posters demanding justice and graffiti of a hand with a chopped-off thumb – the symbol of mythological lower-caste student Eklavya.

Vemula's friend and fellow Ambedkar Students Association member Sunkanna Velpula at the memorial erected on campus.
Vemula's friend and fellow Ambedkar Students Association member Sunkanna Velpula at the memorial erected on campus.

Much before the scholar's suicide hit the national headlines, this part of the campus was the site of a month-long protest against the University’s decision to put Vemula and four other Dalit students on indefinite suspension for allegedly assaulting a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. After Vemula died on January 17, the agitation took on a life of its own, prompting an improbable alliance of disparate student political factions at Hyderabad University against the ABVP, which is the students wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

“I have never seen a front bringing together students from Dalit groups, Left groups and the Congress,” said Zuhail KP, president of the Hyderabad Central University's Students’ Union and a member of the Students Federation of India, the student wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “It gives hope to students that unity is actually possible, despite differences, when the fight is for a larger cause.”

The front includes all 14 of Hyderabad University's student parties, except for the ABVP. “We came together because of the realisation that it is high time we fight against Right-wing forces that have been interfering on campus in the ugliest forms,” said Zuhail. Even before Vemula's suicide, students from these 14 organisations had come together to form the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice to independently inquire into the matter of the suspended Dalit students.

Zuhail KP, president of Hyderabad University's Student Union.
Zuhail KP, president of Hyderabad University's Student Union.

To be sure, the fervour of the protests has waned with each passing week. But last month, the agitation got a shot in the arm from the Delhi police’s crackdown on students of Jawaharlal Nehru University. For now, the students of Hyderabad University say that they are determined to maintain the unexpected and precarious alliances between a range of non-ABVP political groups.

The backstory

The incident that triggered the agitation took place on the night of August 3, 2015, soon after the Ambedkar Students Association (of which Vemula was a member) had organised an event to protest the hanging of Mumbai 1993 blast convict Yakub Memon a few days earlier. Susheel Kumar, a PhD student and president of the ABVP, wrote a Facebook post attacking the Ambedkar Students Association and the event. In response, around 30 members of the Ambedkar Students Association showed up at the door of Kumar’s hostel room, demanding an apology letter.

Kumar eventually wrote the apology – in the presence of security guards and the campus’s police personnel – and posted it on Facebook. He immediately had his brother pick him up and left the campus. He deactivated his Facebook account within minutes of putting up the apology.

In the Ambedkar Students Association’s version of the events, there was no physical violence of any kind that night. In Susheel Kumar’s account, he agreed to apologise only because he had been beaten by the Ambedkarite students, so much so that he had to be admitted to hospital to have his injuries treated.

Kumar filed a complaint with the university administration, and in mid-August, a university proctoral board let off both the Ambedkar Students Association and Kumar with warnings. But Kumar had also filed a police complaint against the Ambedkar Students Association members. On September 8, a second proctoral board punished five students – including Rohith Vemula – with an academic suspension for a semester. After three days of protests, the suspension was revoked, but a new inquiry committee was appointed to look into the matter. Three months later, in December, the five students faced a new punishment – they were barred from living in the hostels, from voting in student elections or even entering the administrative buildings on campus.

In reaction, the five students set up a small makeshift shed in the middle of the university’s shopping and canteen area. They lived in the shelter for the month and used it as the site to protest against the discrimination they were facing. The shed, which still bears a sign called “veli vada” or Dalit ghetto, now houses large photos of BR Ambedkar.

The 'veli vada' or Dalit ghetto where Vemula and other suspended students lived for a month.
The 'veli vada' or Dalit ghetto where Vemula and other suspended students lived for a month.

Ministry letters

On January 17, Rohith Vemula hung himself in a fellow student’s hostel room. He had not received his student fellowship for seven months and had written a letter asking Vice Chancellor Appa Rao to give Dalit students pieces of rope with which to commit suicide. As his suicide became national news, the media revealed the high-level interest of the BJP government in Susheel Kumar's dispute with the Ambedkar Students Association.

On August 10, Kumar’s uncle N Diwakar – the vice president of BJP in Hyderabad – had written a letter to party MP Bandaru Dattatreya informing him about the alleged attack on Kumar and alleging that the Ambedkar Students Association was involved in “anti-national activities”. Dattatreya in turn wrote a letter to Union Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani. Over the next three months, senior officials from her ministry sent three letters to the university seeking its response to Dattatreya’s allegations.

Although the suspension of the other four students punished along with Vemula was eventually revoked two days after his death, his suicide not only changed the colour of the protests but also gave a new purpose to the diverse student factions.

One of many murals on the Hyderabad University campus.
One of many murals on the Hyderabad University campus.

Student politics

The two strongest political factions at Hyderabad University are the Ambedkar Students Association and the Students Federation of India. The former was founded in 1993 by a group of Dalit students in response to several instances of alleged caste discrimination by the university administration. The Ambedkar Students Association has been contesting student body elections for the past 10 years, but the only time it managed to win was when it allied with the CPM’s Student Federation of India in 2011-'12.

But that alliance was rare and short-lived. One reason, according to Zuhail, is the SFI’s discomfort with the Ambedkarite group’s recent alliance with the Students Islamic Organisation, the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind.

KS Roychowdhury, an SFI senior and a member of the Joint Action Committee, elaborated on the complex dynamics between various student bodies.

The SFI, he says, is currently in alliance with the Telangana Vidyarthi Vedika, the Tribal Students Front and the Dalit Students Union – a coalition that makes them the largest student faction on campus. After Vemula’s death, this coalition has been working in association with the Ambedkar group, the Bahujan Students Front, the Jammu and Kashmir Students Association and Pehel, a cultural leftist party founded last year. More strikingly, all these student bodies also joined hands with the National Student Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, to put up a united front against the ABVP and its parent party, the BJP.

“The NSUI brought Rahul Gandhi to give a speech at HCU during the protests,” said Roychowdhury of the SFI. "When he came, one of the students told him upfront that we would accept his support only if he doesn’t make it a Congress versus BJP issue."

SFI member KS Roychowdhury with a giant 'Eklavya' hand that has come to symbolise caste oppression on campus.
SFI member KS Roychowdhury with a giant 'Eklavya' hand that has come to symbolise caste oppression on campus.

During the protests after Vemula’s suicide, the SFI’s large cadre provided the foot-soldiers responsible for shutting down the campus and cancelling classes for two weeks. Even though Roychowdhury believes it is a failure on the part of the alliance not to reach out to more students than they did, he is also certain that the unlikely alliance between Left, Dalit and secular groups will last as long as the controversy remains around Vemula’s death.

Campus policing

“What we need is a Left-Dalit unity that can last,” said Roychowdhury. “Somewhere, we are still not being able to resolve our differences, because of the history between the two movements. For too long, the Left was busy with the class fight and left out the caste factor. The CPM has accepted this failure but this build-up of history cannot be forgotten overnight.”

For the past year or two, however, the rise of the Right wing has pushed the Left and Dalit groups together. Since then, a number of issues have ensured that the two factions continue their engagement.

“Months before any of the ASA students were suspended, students got together to question the presence of police patrolling cars on campus,” said Firdaus Soni, a member of Pehel and the Joint Action Committee. Across almost all political camps, students were indignant that police personnel would comb the campus roads at night and ask wandering students for identity cards.

He added: “For the freshers’ event last year, the administration invited the Cyberabad police chief as the chief guest, and he made a speech telling students not to put up anti-national posts on Facebook because everything was being monitored. This was clearly an attempt to scare the freshers, but it also emphasised for us that student political organisations are very important in order to question these things.”

A mural of Vemula along with caricatures of former Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile.
A mural of Vemula along with caricatures of former Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile.

Precarious unity

But, as Roychowdhury points out, maintaining functional ties even within the spectrum of leftist groups is difficult, because of ideological differences that haven’t ever been bridged.

“The Left needs to get more consolidated or else the Right will take advantage of us,” said Roychowdhury. He cited the example of the All India Students Association, an affiliate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninst) Liberation, inviting Bihar parliamentarian Pappu Yadav to participate in last month’s protests in JNU. “AISA let Pappu Yadav come and share the stage even though he was responsible for killing a communist leader," Roychowdhury said. "The Democratic Students Federation and the SFI have condemned this, because such moves can weaken the larger movement.”

Similarly, in Hyderabad, the SFI has not been entirely comfortable with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, or MIM, joining in the “Justice for Rohith” movement. “We need to align ourselves with minorities but the MIM is a rightist Islamic group, even if it is positing itself as anti-BJP,” said Roychowdhury. Despite this, he admits that MIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s speeches at the university have been consciously moderate and politically correct.

Said Roychowdhury: “He did not polarise anyone, so in a way, his coming to the campus has served to scare the BJP.”

How long will the unity last?

Among Hyderabad University’s politically active students, there is both determination to stand together in what is now a national fight against Hindutva forces, and a degree of scepticism about how long they will be able to keep it up.

“In the student election in September, as an SFI member, I don’t see a full unity of all these fronts,” said Zuhail. “We can tie up with the Dalits, but not with the NSUI. That unity is restricted to the Rohith issue for now.”

According to Kancha Ilaiah, the noted Dalit rights activist and professor at Hyderabad’s Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Rohith Vemula – and the stirring thoughts expressed in his suicide note – is a powerful force that compelled university students to fashion a united response against the Hindutva groups that are relatively stagnant in its intellectual contributions on campuses.

“Student politics are constantly shifting politics,” said Ilaiah. “The majority of students are indifferent. Those who are politically active would like to interact with those who talk about change, not those who talk of maintaining the status quo.”