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Student's Suicide Ignites Public Debate Over Indian Caste System


In India, the suicide of a university student has led to a very public debate about one of that country's most sensitive issues, the caste system. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi that the case spotlights the treatment of the lowest class in the Hindu hierarchy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The body of 26-year-old PhD student Rohith Vemula was found hanging in a student hostel Sunday. He was a member of the Dalit community, once known as Untouchables. His death touched off a furor on social media. His Facebook profile reveals he was a fan of B.R. Ambedkar, the Dalit who helped write the Indian Constitution. Vemula was among five Dalit students at Hyderabad University, members of the Ambedkar Student Association, who were suspended for allegedly brawling with a conservative student group aligned with the ruling BJP party of Narendra Modi. University officials had earlier cleared Vemula but reversed their decision in December. His stipend withheld, he had been living in a tent outside the campus gate since his suspension. Vemula's appeals to the University went unanswered. Delhi University political scientist Narayan Sukumar says on campuses across India, complaints by Dalit students about discrimination frequently go unheeded.

NARAYANA SUKUMAR: There is a systemic segregation of these particular students, and they are not able to enjoy the equal status of the other upper caste students that they are having in the classroom and outside the classroom.

MCCARTHY: Protesting students say pressure from a federal minister persuaded the university to punish Vemula. The minister alleged that the school had become a den of casteist, extremist and antinational politics. He's since been charged under the law preventing atrocities against castes such as the Dalits. Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde says that while he believes Vemula's suspension did trigger his suicide, a legal case against the minister is unlikely to succeed.

SANJAY HEGDE: Legally there may not be a case. But ethically, morally, politically, there definitely is a case.

MCCARTHY: On the defensive, the government said today, quote, "there has been a malicious attempt to ignite passions and present this case as a caste battle. It is not." Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.