Quoting officials in the University Grants Commission, the Indian Express reported on Wednesday that the one-man judicial panel formed to investigate the suicide of Rohith Vemula has ascertained that the Hyderabad Central University research scholar was not a Dalit.
By doing so, the Justice AK Roopanwal commission seems to have resurrected a controversy considered long buried. Vemula's suicide in January led to protests across the country, bringing to focus institutional discrimination against Dalit students. At the peak of the storm in February-March, senior BJP leaders, including External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, had also asserted the 26-year-old was not a Dalit.
The reported findings of the Justice AK Roopanwal commission could put the BJP, already reeling under the impact of mass Dalit protests in Gujarat, under serious political pressure
PhD scholar Rohith Vemula and four other members of the Ambedkar Students' Association had been expelled from the University hostel last year as a fall-out of an altercation with members of the the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Vemula's suicide led to widespread agitations by students across the country.
Students alleged that the University's actions had been precipitated by letters sent by BJP Minister for Labour and Employment Bandara Dattatreya to the Human Resource Development Ministry complaining about "anti-national, casteist" elements at the institution.
The unrest following Vemula's death was considered a key element in the government's decision to remove Smriti Irani from the HRD Ministry.
In a seemingly pointless diversion, questions about Vemula's caste surfaced a few weeks after his death when it was found that his father belonged to a community categorised in Andhra Pradesh as being among the Other Backward Classes. However, his mother, who brought him up, is a Dalit. Vemula's parents separated in 1990, when he was six.
In light of this dispute over Vemula's caste identity, the Guntur District Collector in June filed a report to the National Commission of Scheduled Castes asserting that the research scholar was indeed a member of the Dalit Mala caste. However, the Collector did a U-turn days later, seeking a fresh investigation into the matter since there was "contrasting" information flowing in.
On Wednesday, Rohith Vemula's brother Raja Vemula criticised the "perverse political strategy" of the HRD Ministry. "The whole idea behind questioning the caste background of my brother is to help BJP leaders wriggle out of cases booked under the Prevention of Atrocities Act," he told Scroll.in. He added that the commission's report would be challenged when it is officially released.
HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar has said the commission's findings have not reached him, PTI reported.
The Justice AK Roopanwal commission's conclusions would seem to run contrary to the law book. A clutch of cases have already answered the question of what the caste of the child born to an inter-caste couple should be.
In Rameshbhai Dhabhai Naika vs State of Gujarat in 2012, the Supreme Court made it clear that the caste of the child would depend on the circumstances of the family. The child of a forward-caste father does not necessarily "have any advantageous start in life" and on the contrary could suffer "the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged", the court ruled. The child's caste need not always be that of the father's.This ruling was reiterated by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in Sabbella Siri Majoosha Reddy in August.
There was also the larger question of whether the caste of a person can be disputed and changed posthumously, something Vemul's lawyers maintain has no precedent in law.