The Big Story: One year later

University of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula died a year ago today, taking his life by hanging himself in a friend’s hostel room. Vemula, a Dalit who had a clash with the right-wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and was expelled from his hostel because of it, wrote in his suicide letter how for some people life is a curse. “My birth is my fatal accident,” he wrote.

Vemula’s death sparked off a huge movement, inspiring students both at his university and across the country to take up cudgels against caste discrimination. Vemula himself became an icon, one that people would rally around in subsequent political situations such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University crisis and the Una Dalit-flogging incident later in 2016.

But the administration and the public also spent much of the last year in a debate over whether Vemula was Dalit at all. Because he had become a focal point of anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party and its broader Parivar, authorities sought to undermine this by pointing to his mixed parentage, even though Vemula self-identified by his mother’s scheduled caste. That continues today, with the Andhra Pradesh government saying certificates from his father’s village confirm that he was a Vaddera, not Dalit.

Since then, the broad agitation against caste discrimination that seemed to be building in the aftermath of Vemula’s death and the Una incident disappeared in the distress that was created by the demonetisation move. The nation has moved quickly from demonetisation to the coming elections in five states.

Even though these states have substantially large Dalit populations, with Punjab’s proportion being the highest in the nation, there is little talk of taking on caste discrimination at the ballot box. In a year when the Bahujan Samaj Party seems subdued, the progressive energy and anger of 2016 seems to have dissipated in the tidal wave of distress caused by demonetisation.

But we cannot allow ourselves to forget Rohith Vemula. Criticism from those who believe his memory is being exploited or questions about his father’s parentage miss the point: Casteism is real and it is a problem that, seven decades after Independence, we are still barely able to address. It doesn’t disappear simply because of development or, for that matter, economic distress. Those things only heighten the disparities it caused. Addressing casteism means acknowledging the problem for what it is and then taking it head on.

As we remember Vemula, and all his death means to people, it’s worth going back to his words: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

The Big Scroll

Subscribe to “The Daily Fix” by either downloading Scroll’s Android app or opting for it to be delivered to your mailbox. If you have thoughts or suggestions about the Fix, please email


  1. Data suggests that all parties in Uttar Pradesh tend to fall back on caste to build a loyal vote bank, while relying on the moneyed caste groups to win elections, finds Roshan Kishore in Mint. 
  2. Shashank Joshi in the Hindu looks back at former Iran President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani’s influence on Indo-Iran relations, and how those will hold up in the age of Donald Trump. 
  3. In the drought crisis, Tamil Nadu has an opportunity to disrupt the role of water in its economy and build consensus for water-saving innovation that could secure its future, writes Jessica Seddon in Mint. 
  4. Jack Shafer in Politico argues that, by being openly hostile to journalists, Donald Trump is giving them a chance to brush off the cobwebs and go to war with the administration, as adversarial journalists ought to. 


Don’t miss

Vinita Govindarajan reports on how drought in Tamil Nadu has plunged rural women into a debt trap.

“V Geetha had borrowed Rs 25,000 from Muthoot Finance four to five months ago to lease a plot of land to sow paddy and buy pesticides. She subsequently borrowed an additional Rs 15,000 from Gram Vidiyal Micro Finance Limited to manage her household and repay previous loan amounts.

‘Loans from these financial institutions are very helpful for our daily expenses,’ said Geetha. ‘But even though we borrow with the intention of using the money profitably, when something like this drought comes in the way it is impossible to repay the money.’

Even after her crop has failed, she has to continue paying Rs 2,500 every few weeks to the financial institutions she is indebted to.”