HYDERABAD, India: Indian police on Monday fired water cannons to disperse students protesting the death of a young Dalit scholar who committed suicide after he was suspended from university, a case some have blamed on caste-based discrimination.
Rohit Vemula, a 26-year-old doctoral student at the university of Hyderabad, was found hanged on Sunday evening, triggering protests in the southern city and New Delhi.
He was one of five students, all from India’s lowest Dalit social caste, to be suspended by the university after they were accused of assaulting the head of a right-wing student political group — a charge they denied.
Hyderabad police have registered preliminary cases against the university’s vice-chancellor Appa Rao and Bandaru Dattatreya, a junior federal minister who had called for the university to punish the five.
They face charges of abetting a suicide and under a prevention of atrocities act that is designed to protect low-caste Hindus who have faced historic discrimination and abuse.
“Student activists from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — a right-leaning national student organization — came to me with a representation,” Dattatreya told reporters while dismissing allegations of his role in the controversy.
“They were being beaten, assaulted in the university, there were reports of anti-social and anti-national activities. I just forwarded their representation to the ministry and don’t know what happened after that,” he said.
On Monday police fired water cannon to disperse hundreds of demonstrators who had gathered outside the government building where the minister works.
“This is not a suicide but a murder. There was too much pressure from the administration on the five students,” said Ravneet Param, a graduate student in Delhi.
“They were framed and the people who were behind the fabricated case should face action.”
Hundreds more protested at the university of Hyderabad, where police briefly detained eight students.
The government has said it has sent investigators to the university to look into Vemula’s death.
Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, are frequently the victims of violence and prejudice in many Indian states, cases of discrimination against them are often treated as a low priority by local authorities.
There are approximately 180 million Dalits in India’s 1.25 billion population.