Minister charged over Dalit student's suicide

NEW DELHI • A federal minister and three others have been charged in connection with the death of a young scholar who committed suicide after he was suspended from university, a case some have blamed on caste- based discrimination.

Mr 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 junior federal minister Bandaru Dattatreya, who had called for the university to punish the five. Two right-wing Hindu student leaders, Sushil Kumar and Vishnu, were also included in the police charge sheet.

All face charges of abetting a suicide and under a prevention of atrocities Act that is designed to protect low-caste Hindus who have historically faced discrimination and abuse.

Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, are frequently the victims of violence and prejudice in many Indian states and cases of discrimination against them are often treated as a low priority by the local authorities.

"Student activists from Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad - a right-leaning national student organisation - came to me with a representation," Mr 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. Hundreds more protested at the university, where police briefly detained eight students.

The government said it has sent investigators to the university to look into Mr Vemula's death.

Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, are frequently the victims of violence and prejudice in many states and cases of discrimination against them are often treated as a low priority by the local authorities. There are approximately 180 million Dalits in India's 1.25 billion population.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Minister charged over Dalit student's suicide'. Print Edition | Subscribe