Dalit scholar suicide: HRD Minister Smriti Irani failed attempt to damage control

Hyderabad: Facing a raging protest coupled with onslaught by political parties over the suicide of a research scholar at Hyderabad university, Union Minister Smriti Irani on Wednesday alleged that a malicious attempt was being made to project it as a “dalit versus non-dalit issue to ignite passions” for political gains.

Irani, flanked by two senior Cabinet colleagues Thaawar Chand Gehlot and Nirmala Sitharaman, addressed a press conference where she strongly refuted allegations of interference and putting pressure on the university authority to take action against the dalit students.

Rohith Vemula suicide case: Students protest against HRD Minister Smriti Irani outside University of Hyderabad pic.twitter.com/7YhZ05NDip

Rohith Vemula suicide case: Students protest against HRD Minister Smriti Irani outside University of Hyderabad pic.twitter.com/eHJH839U6m

“This is not a dalit versus non-dalit issue as being projected by some to ignite passions…. A malicious attempt is being made to show it as a caste battle which it is not,” the Human Resource Development Minister said. She said even the suicide note by Rohith Vermula, the dalit student, did not mention any MP or political party responsible for his decision to take the extreme step.

Accusing the Congress of trying to use the issue for political gains, Irani also referred to a letter written to the Ministry by party MP Hanumantha Rao in September 2014 where he had talked about suicides by marginalised students in the university for over four years.

“Congress wants to shoot on this issue which is expected but unfortunate…. The Congress MP says that this problem persisted for four years. If they (Congress) had fixed the problem four years ago, perhaps Rohith’s life could have been saved,” Irani said.

The Minister said the two-member fact finding committee which was sent to the university by the HRD Ministry will return tonight and file its report after which further details will be known in the case which is sub-judice.

Countering the caste angle claims, Irani said the students, who were allegedly attacked by members of Ambedkar Students Association, also belonged to the Other Backward Classes. It was the Executive Council of the University that approved the expulsion of five students including Rohith and an Executive Sub-Committee, which included a senior Dalit faculty member, was subsequently constituted to go into the matter and it upheld the punishment, Irani said.

She also referred to the presence of a number of Dalit officials including hostel warden to counter the charge of any anti-Dalit bias in the matter and expressed confidence that justice will be done as a “fair probe” was being conducted.

Seeking to turn the tables on Congress, which has launched a strident attack against the government on the issue, Irani said, “The Executive Council was not constituted by this government. Members functioning in EC were nominated by previous UPA government.”

However, later at a meeting of the Executive Council, a lenient view was taken as expulsion would have deprived the students of the chance to continue pursuing their doctorate and it was decided to permit them into their departments, library and academic meetings but not in hostel, administration and other public places.

Irani said she did not want to indulge in political mudslinging but added that those criticising her and the government, “may be because of political compulsions”, needed to look at facts. Irani also showed copies of the suicide note of Rohith, and said that he had nowhere blamed the University or any official for the unfortunate step that he took. She, however, added that he had referred to the Ambedkar Students Association in his suicide note and mentioned that he was sorry to disappoint all of them but also added that “there is some bad water among us”.

Responding to criticism of her ministry for sending letters over MoS Bandaru Dattatreya’s reference, Irani said that this was the practice as per the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure. She said six reminders had even been sent over the letter by Congress MP Hanumantha Rao.

Responding to a question, Irani said that she is not planning to visit the University or the family members of the deceased as she does not want to give the impression that the government is in any way influencing the matter. Irani also added that the fact-finding committee established by her ministry will submit its report today.

Immediately after her press conference, students staged protests against Irani outside Hyderabad University.