The “shop-com” is a popular hangout on Hyderabad Central University’s campus, where students lounge on benches, sip tea in the open-air foyer or troop in and out of the semi-circular shopping complex after which the zone was named. For the past few weeks, the foyer has been the site of several protests demanding justice for Rohith Vemula, the Dalit student who committed suicide on January 17 and became a national icon for the fight against caste discrimination.
The protests are now few and far between, but even today, every inch of the shop-com is covered with posters and artistic tributes to Vemula – from the trees to the benches to the paved ground itself.
It is no wonder, then, that Susheel Kumar keeps his distance from the shop-com whenever he visits the campus. A member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party – Kumar is perhaps the most hated student in HCU today, and he is acutely aware of it. He has been accused of abetting Vemula’s suicide, because of a chain of events that lead back to August 3, 2015 when Vemula and 30 other members of the Ambedkar Students Association allegedly assaulted Kumar outside his hostel room.
“The media portrayed me as the reason for Rohith’s death, but that is not the case. I want my name cleared,” said Kumar, speaking to Scroll.in at a quiet food stall behind the shop-com area. He has been living outside the campus ever since Vemula’s death, and has now begun visiting the university a few times a week. Except for his group of friends from the ABVP, students at the university are giving him the cold shoulder. “I cannot carry this blame all my life. Once the truth is out, people will come to me on their own.”
‘Of course they beat me up’
Kumar, a PhD student studying linguistics, has been an active ABVP member ever since he joined HCU in 2007. While the right-wing student party wins an average of 800 votes in campus elections every year, it is not the strongest student political faction within the university. Parties rooted in Leftist and Dalit ideologies are more popular on the campus, and the Ambedkar Students Association, to which Vemula belonged, is the largest among the latter.
On August 3, Kumar wrote a Facebook post calling the ASA “goons” for organising an event to protest the hanging of terror blasts convict Yakub Memon. That night, around 30 ASA members visited his hostel room and demanded a written apology. While ASA members maintain there was no violence involved, Kumar has claimed he was assaulted and had to be hospitalised immediately after he wrote the apology and left the campus.
“Of course they beat me up – why would I agree to write an apology for exercising my freedom of expression if there was no physical force involved?” said Kumar, who has also claimed that the assault was responsible for an appendicitis surgery he underwent two days after the incident. That claim was later refuted by BJP leader N Ramachander Rao – Kumar’s appendix operation, he said, had no connection with any physical assault.
After the incident, Kumar filed a police complaint against the ASA members, which led to the suspension of five students in the group, including Vemula. The suspension was revoked after three days of protests, but by then, Kumar’s uncle N Diwakar – vice president of BJP Hyderabad – had already written a letter to BJP MP Bandaru Dattatreya alerting him about the ASA’s “anti-national activities” on campus. Dattatreya then wrote a similar letter to union minister Smriti Irani. Over the next three months, her ministry of human resource development sent three letters to HCU seeking a response to the allegations.
In December, Vemula and four other ASA students were suspended again, and also evicted from their hostels. After a month of staying outdoors in a makeshift shed in the shop-com, Vemula committed suicide. While his eloquent suicide note did not blame anyone for his decision, a letter he had written to the university’s vice chancellor during his suspension spoke of caste discrimination against Dalits.
In a police complaint filed by ASA leader Dontha Prashanth, Kumar has been accused of abetting the suicide, along with HCU’s former vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile, Bandaru Dattatreya and Kumar’s uncle N Diwaker. On February 2, the Hyderabad High Court stayed Kumar’s arrest and directed the police to continue investigations in the case.
“The letter that my uncle wrote to Bandaru Dattatreya did not demand any punishment for any student,” said Kumar, who is waiting for investigations to prove that he had nothing to do with Vemula’s death. “Dontha Prashanth said in an interview that Rohith must have thought he would trigger a revolution by committing suicide. So who put such ideas in his head? And if he had written a letter to the vice chancellor displaying suicidal tendencies, why didn’t his friends in the ASA do something about it?”
Three weeks after Vemula’s death sparked nation-wide protests about caste-discrimination in universities, Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University took over the headlines. Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of JNU’s student union, was arrested while a group of other students were charged with sedition for allegedly chanting “anti-national” slogans.
Much like in HCU, the subsequent protests at JNU saw students from the Left and Dalit groups put up a united front against the right-wing ABVP. Susheel Kumar’s views on the JNU controversy are, unsurprisingly, completely in line with the views of the rest of the right wing.
“I am not blaming Umar Khalid or Kanhaiya Kumar in particular but it is clear that those anti-national slogans were called out,” said Kumar. “Even the High Court’s bail order for Kanhaiya mentioned that this is an ‘infection’ among students. Supporting anti-national activity is also anti-national.”
Kumar’s definition of anti-national is a familiar one. “Dividing India into many pieces is definitely anti-national for me. Generating Yakubs from every home is anti-national. In the past, we have had an HCU student get attracted to Naxalism. We don’t want that kind of thing to happen again.”
Religion or caste, according to Kumar, should not be dragged into every case of dealing with terrorism. “When a terrorist is being hanged one should not look at his caste or religion. In fact, [Nathuram] Godse was the first such person to be hanged in India,” he said.
So what does Kumar make of the increasingly vocal celebrations of Gandhi’s assassin by certain Hindutva factions? “I don’t know why the Hindu Mahasabha celebrates Godse. He was never part of the RSS or the ABVP,” said Kumar. “I think the government should probably take action against them.”
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.