Why Justice Roopanwal's Report in the Rohith Vemula Case is a Travesty

Measured against the high principles of justice that some of the judges of this country are capable of upholding even in the face of an increasingly authoritarian state, the Justice Roopanwal report is a travesty.

In February 2016, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) appointed Ashok Kumar Roopanwal, a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, as a one-man commission of inquiry to look into the facts and circumstances leading to the death of Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad. This created a strong sense of apprehension amongst the faculty and students of the University of Hyderabad—those who had all along felt that the tragic loss of Rohith was caused by serious institutional lapses and biases. 

First, Justice Roopanwal was appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) at a time when Rohith’s aggrieved friends lodged a case under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act which was pending against the then HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister Bandaru Dattatreya and other prominent BJP functionaries apart from Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile. Second, the commission had no Dalit member in spite of it being mandatory to look into the facts surrounding the death of a Dalit scholar, purportedly due to the actions of the University of Hyderabad. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader, Mayawati had protested against this glaring omission in Parliament. 

Notwithstanding these misgivings, most of us—the SC/ST Teachers Forum and other concerned faculty members and students—decided that all procedural mechanisms must be given a fair chance. We hoped that the facts of the case would ultimately prevail. In the days preceding our depositions before the Commission, scheduled to be in Hyderabad between 23 and 25 February 2016, we spent a lot of time and effort in organising and sequencing documents and evidences that pointed to the institutional lapses. 

However, as we read the Report by Justice Roopanwal, made public on 15 August 2017, we were left shocked and disappointed by its blatant disregard of objectivity and selective highlighting of evidence. Released on the day marking India’s independence, it appears as a cruel joke, without even the pretense to appear balanced. A cursory reading of the report will reveal that Roopanwal transgresses the terms of reference of the Commission (i) to enquire into the facts and circumstances leading to the death of Chakravarti R Vemula, a research scholar at University of Hyderabad and fix responsibility for lapses if any and (ii) to review the existing grievance redressal mechanism for students at the university and suggest improvements. Far exceeding this mandate and with no legal authority on this issue, the judge spends an inordinate amount of time adjudicating Rohith’s caste. 

In the face of this, it is incumbent upon us to point out the inaccuracies and omissions in the report. 

The “Background”

The report begins with a “Background of the incident” that mirrors the version of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student leaders and the BJP ministers who had written letters to the Vice Chancellor in August 2015, alleging that the University of Hyderabad had become a place of casteist and anti-national activities. It states that the students belonging to the Ambedkar Student’s Association (ASA) had conducted a namaz-e-janaza on 30 July 2015 in the campus for “a terrorist Yakub Memon who was involved in serial bomb blasts which took place in Mumbai in March 1993.” As a response to the event, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, an ABVP activist, had posted on Facebook the following remark: “ASA goons are talking about hooliganism–feeling funny.”

This narrative (a) successfully paints the ASA students as “anti-national” by association with Yakub Memon and (b) suppresses the fact that Susheel Kumar’s social media post was in fact a disrespectful reference to the ASA protest against the disruption of the screening of Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baki Hai at Kirori Mal College, Delhi, by ABVP activists. The ABVP leader was clearly not in sync with the spirit of dissent reflected in the oft-quoted words: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Further, the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the suicide call for more meticulous attention to facts and details. Let us start with the events of early August 2015.

Proctorial Investigation

A proctorial board inquiry took place on 10 August 2015 following an alleged altercation between Susheel Kumar and the members of the ASA on the intervening night between 3–4 August. While listing the members present in the meeting, Roopanwal has omitted the names of the then Teachers Association (UHTA) office bearers, the president, and general secretary, who were invited members. Further: “The submissions made by ex office bearers of University of Hyderabad Teachers Association did not throw any light as to what were the circumstances leading to the death of Rohith Vemula.” This is surprising because the ex office bearers had presented a strong dissenting view while deposing, with respect to the constitution of the proctorial committee as well as the manner in which it was conducted. They were not allowed to vote at the end of the meeting. They had then submitted an independent report to the then vice-chancellor wherein they stated that none of the testimonies, the documents submitted, including the medical report filed by the chief medical officer of the university health centre, proved physical violence against Susheel Kumar. This was further corroborated by the report filed by the Deputy Security Officer, Dileep Singh, who was present during the verbal altercation. The hospital reports ruled out internal injuries or bleeding. The UHTA had also objected to the intimidatory tactics adopted by MLC Ramachandra Rao during a visit to the Vice Chancellor on 4 August, 2015, pressuring the latter to take action against the ASA students. The depositions of several other concerned faculty also clearly pointed to the fact that the autonomy of the university was being interfered with at every point since early August 2015. In fact, the police had arrested four students of the ASA on 4 August despite the fact that internal mechanisms were already in process. 

That the UHTA office bearers were right in their observations and assessments is borne out by the fact that the interim report submitted by the proctorial board on 12 August 2015 merely issued stern warnings to both Susheel Kumar and the ASA students. There was clearly no evidence during the first meeting on the basis of which they could mete out dire punishments to the ASA members. However, in a subsequent report on 31 August 2015 following a second meeting, the proctorial board reversed its earlier decision and unilaterally punished the Dalit students by completely suspending them for the ongoing semester. A question that begs to be asked is: what transpired between the first and the second meeting? The statements from the medical and security officers remained the same. What other new evidence emerged that compelled the proctorial committee to so drastically alter its earlier position and recommend such severe punishment? With all other factors remaining the same, we can safely surmise that the proctorial board’s reversal rested solely on the statement of Susheel Kumar, who had appeared during its the second meeting. However, the concerned students of the ASA were never called for cross-checking his version. I may draw attention here to the fact that as per University norms, any grievance by a student or faculty must first be referred to the grievance redressal committee that usually attempts to resolve issues through dialogue as much as possible. Instead, in this particular case, the matter was directly placed before the Proctorial Board which is more of a disciplinary body, and was clearly oblivious to the academic, social or economic impact that its decision might have.

On 10 August 2015, Nandanam Diwakar, Vice President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Ranga Reddy District, wrote a letter to BJP MP Bandaru Dattatreya, State Minister for Labour and Employment, with the subject line: “Anti-national activities in Hyderabad Central University premises—violent attack on Nandanam Susheel Kumar, President of ABVP by Ambedkar Students’ Association upon hanging of Yaqub Memon—terrorism.” On 17 August 2015, Dattatreya wrote to Irani insisting on action against students and defaming the University as having become “a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.” Taking cognisance of this letter, the MHRD wrote to the University on 3 September 2015 to look into the matter, with a subject line echoing the one used by the local BJP leaders. Notably, the proctorial board's recommendations in its second report were implemented by the University on 8 September 2015, coming closely on the heels of the above-mentioned letters.

The EC Sub-committee 

When the suspended students appealed on 10 September 2015 pointing out the inherent contradictions in the proctorial board report, the then VC convened a meeting of deans and heads to discuss the issue. In this meeting, several senior faculty members expressed their reservations about the inquiry and the nature of punishment. Following this, the University administration passed an order for revocation of the suspension on 11 September 2015. It also announced that a fresh committee would look into the matter afresh. Subsequently, the Executive Council of the University (EC), chaired by VC Appa Rao Podile who was then recently appointed, constituted a sub-committee of the EC, headed by Vipin Srivastava, to look into the issue. This sub-committee met on 23 and 24 November 2015, and endorsed the proctorial report and the punishment recommended in it. 

Did the sub-committee look at the matter afresh as was its mandate? Sadly, all evidence points to the contrary. It did not take into account the counter affidavit filed by CV Anand (2015), the Commissioner of Police, Cyberabad, to the High Court on 3 October 2015 wherein he stated that there was no evidence of assault upon Susheel Kumar. The sub-committee did not seek statements from the suspended students nor from other stakeholders such as the office bearers of the UHTA whose dissenting report was already available. 

Roopanwal unquestioningly accepts the EC sub-committee’s claim that Susheel Kumar was forced to write an apology letter and Deputy Security Officer Dileep Singh was made to counter-sign it. In an incident report filed by the university security on 5 August 2015 as well as during the proctorial board meeting, the very same security officer had maintained that the argument between ASA and Susheel Kumar had ended with the withdrawal of a derogatory post by the latter on Facebook and an apology letter. In all his earlier statements there is not even a hint of the ASA students forcing him to countersign the apology letter. Curiously, after a gap of three months, Dileep Singh’s version, as presented to the EC sub-committee, drastically changed. Why did he have to wait until the EC sub-committee meeting of 23–24 November 2015 to declare that he was coerced into countersigning Susheel Kumar’s apology letter? 

The MHRD wrote five email/letters by way of reminder to the University between 3 September 2015 and 19 November 2015, with three of them having “anti-national activities in Hyderabad Central University premises and violent attack on Susheel Kumar” as the subject line. Given the flurry of reminders, the University was obviously under a great deal of pressure to act against the ASA students. Sadly, despite having the required documents pointing to lapses in the conduct of the EC sub-committee, Roopanwal unequivocally upheld his judgment: 

“In my opinion, the view taken by the executive council was the most reasonable one in the circumstances prevailing at that time. The executive council mainly focused that the students should keep concentration on their academic career and not to the other things. The leniency shown by the executive council itself shows that the university administration was not functioning under any influence or pressure.”

Ironically, the “leniency” ensured that students from extremely underprivileged backgrounds were suspended from hostels for all times and not just during the current semester, as recommended by the proctorial board. 

The Punishment and its Implications

A number of faculty members had pointed out to the commission that the punishment mirrored the social boycott and spatial exclusions that students from marginalised social communities routinely experience in their villages. Indeed the suspended students’ protest had also taken a unique shape—they set up a make-shift tent, naming it the velivada (the untouchable ghetto on the margins of the village) in the shopping complex of the university. The cruel irony of the velivada in the heart of the liberal University was lost on the honourable judge. For instance, as the report itself states, the deposition of the then Finance Officer, B Pandu Reddy “consisted of a detailed status report on the payment of fellowships made to the PhD scholar, late Chakravarti R Vemula along with the supporting documents.” According to him, Rohith was not paid ₹1,77,403 for a period of six months and 16 days till his death.” How could the judge gloss over the disastrous implications of this for a student from a deprived background?

There is documented evidence that the fellowship availed by poor Dalit students often becomes the means of subsistence for the entire family.

In March 2013, Andhra Pradesh High Court took suo moto cognisance of a report in Times of India about the large number of student suicides in various universities in Hyderabad. Following this, a group of 29 senior teachers from these universities impleaded themselves into the writ petition. Their implead petition (Anveshi Web 2013) stated that failure, administrative apathy, humiliation, academic and social stigmatisation and hostile regulations were some of the causes of student suicide. The Andhra Pradesh High Court, in its Order dated 1 July 2013, recognised that the report filed by the implead group was “very exhaustive to resolve the issue” and directed the Universities to implement its recommendations. Among the many incisive insights in the report on the problems and issues of socially and economically marginalised students is the idea of “failure”:

“Failure has a specific meaning for these students. Due to many reasons, ‘discontinuing’ and going back home is not a viable option for poor, rural students, who may choose death over a future in which they must stare at their inability to provide for miserably poor families that have staked everything to educate them. In many cases they were also the academic ‘toppers’ in a village or a community and the ignominy of returning as failures would also be unbearable.”

It is an established fact that most Dalit students are from extremely poverty-stricken families. Part of their fellowship money is sent home regularly for the survival of family and siblings. The above mentioned high court order had directed the vice chancellors of universities in the state to “implement the suggestions and scheme given in the said report.” While Roopanwal half-heartedly plucked out some of the proposals in the report to complete his final recommendations towards grievance redressal (which incidentally consists of less than a page of his roughly 40-page report), he elided over its fine print and spirit. This lack of empathy would explain the judge’s casual dismissal of Rohith’s letter of 18 December 2015 to Vice Chancellor Appa Rao simply because his suicide happened after the gap of a month since it was written. In this searing, agitated letter Rohith proposed that the Vice Chancellor should “serve 10mg Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission;” “supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students” and provide “the facility of euthanasia for students like me.”

Roopanwal is equally dismissive about the final note written by Rohith before his suicide: 

His suicide note is on the record which shows that Rohith Vemula had his own problems and was not happy with the worldly affairs. He was feeling frustrated for the reasons best known to him. He wrote that there was no urgency for understanding love, pain, life and death but he was rushing after them. It indicates that he was not happy with the activities going around him. He also wrote that he was all alone from the childhood and was an unappreciated man. This also indicates his frustration. (Roopanwal 2016). 

Perhaps Roopanwal is not aware, but the phrase “the personal is political” has galvanised feminist and other movements of the marginalised around the world. Rohith’s final letter has by now acquired iconic status. The evocative phrase “My birth is my fatal accident” has moved hearts and inspired Dalit–Bahujan/student/left movements across the nation. As the judge records in his report, Sheshaiah Chemugunta,, one of the other suspended students, had deposed that Rohith Vemula was anxious about his livelihood after his expulsion from the hostel. He was worried about his financial condition and scared of politicians and whether under these circumstances he would be able to complete his PhD. Faced with these poignant testimonies and evidences, it is perplexing that Roopanwal presents Rohith’s suicide note as the rant of a frustrated, unappreciated individual. He is clearly ignorant of the complexities of social and economic structures in India. 

Rohith’s Caste

Finally, let us come to the issue of Rohith’s caste status as it figures centrally in the report despite the fact that this entails a blatant transgression of the terms of reference of the commission. Additionally, the SC/ST/BC issuance of Community Certificate Act, 1993, and the rules following that in 1997, stipulate that only the revenue department is competent to go into the issue of caste status. Section 17 of this Act prohibits civil courts from examining the matter. Further, a specific law of the state of Andhra Pradesh prohibits the jurisdiction of civil courts on this issue. Hence, Roopanwal’s investigation and declaration of Rohith’s caste as non-Dalit/OBC is at once illegal and unethical. 

Based on the affidavits filed by individuals claiming to represent three organisations with absolutely no locus standi in the case, Roopanwal deems it fit to inquire into the caste of Rohith, going beyond his mandate. With no known presence in Dalit activism and struggles in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, the claims of these individuals appear clearly politically motivated, with the sole intent of discrediting Rohith's caste. There is no attempt on the part of the judge to test these claims against the incontrovertible legal evidence before him as well as the lived experience of Rohith, his mother Radhika Vemula and siblings. A large number of Dalit and other marginalised groups across the country, with proven credentials at the grassroots level, have demonstrated overwhelming solidarity with the cause of Rohith. Yet, Roopanwal places a disproportionate amount of faith in the claims of obscure groups, even if this entails a transgression of his terms of reference. 

If we are willing to overlook for a moment this trespass of law by a man of law, serious omissions still emerge. The statement of Rohith’s paternal grandfather, Vemula Venkateshwarulu to the Collector of Guntur on 10 June 2016 categorically states that Rohith’s mother Radhika Vemula belongs to the Scheduled Caste—Mala. Radhika’s adoptive mother, Banala Anjani Devi, had stated in a declaration before her death before the Joint Collector of Guntur on 2 February 2016 that she had adopted Radhika from migrant construction labourers of the Mala caste. Furthermore, Radhika’s abuse at the hands of her husband Mani Kumar upon finding out that she was Dalit, her subsequent separation from him and struggles to bring up her three children with her meagre earnings from a sewing machine in Prakashnagar, a Dalit locality of Guntur, inhabited by daily wage labourers, are by now well documented. Citing prior legal judgments, Dalit–Bahujan feminists and other women’s groups have repeatedly asserted that the caste and social experience of Radhika Vemula alone should determine her children’s caste because it was she who single-handedly raised her children battling domestic violence and poverty. Most notably, a recent Supreme Court judgment (Rameshbhai Naika v State of Gujarat and Others, 2012) has clearly stated that the caste of a child, born of a marriage transgressing the barriers of caste, would not automatically be determined by the caste of the father instead of that of the mother. It would depend on the circumstances in which the child was brought up. Feminist groups denounced the antiquated patriarchal law that automatically traces the child’s identity through the father’s bloodline. Moreover, Rohith consistently wrote about the caste discrimination that his mother and he suffered. His lived experience, his social identity and his membership of Ambedkar Students’ Association affirm his Dalit identity beyond a shadow of doubt.

Yet, Roopanwal discredits Radhika Vemula with impunity, disregarding his mandate and indeed, the law of the land. In the recent past, we have seen the courts delivering certain progressive judgments—upholding the fundamental and inalienable rights of individuals to privacy, to dignity and against exploitation and violence. These verdicts renew our faith in democracy and the Constitution. Measured against the high principles of justice that some of the judges of this country are capable of upholding even in the face of an increasingly authoritarian State, the Justice Roopanwal report is a travesty. It only strengthens our resolve to struggle collectively—for the cause of Rohith and for a more democratic, humane, and inclusive idea of the University. 

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