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opinion

Amrit Dhillon is a New Delhi-based writer

A young man's suicide has catapulted him from anonymity into a symbol of protest against India's relentlessly cruel caste system. Rohith Vemula was just one of thousands of Dalit (formerly known as "untouchable") students who get into university through the country's policy of affirmative action. Sadly, they soon realize that university life is just a microcosm of the wider society where they are still looked down upon as inferior.

The 26-year-old PhD student killed himself on Jan. 17 in his friend's room at Hyderabad University in south India. In his suicide note, he wrote, "my birth is my fatal accident" and touched upon the misery of Dalit students pursuing higher education.

Having made it to university from unbelievably deprived backgrounds, they suffer the jibes and abuse of high-caste students (and often faculty, too), who ridicule them as "quota students," exclude them and humiliate them. Matters are made worse by the fact that most schools – even though they know these students come from a 180-million strong community that has been oppressed for centuries – make no effort to give them some extra help. Their English is weak, their social skills are sometimes lacking and their finances are terrible because of the demands that family members, immersed in poverty back in the village, make on them. In Rohith Vemula's case, life became even harder when he became embroiled in a campus dispute with the local student wing of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The dispute, bizarrely, reached the desk of a BJP cabinet minister who wrote several times to the Hyderabad vice-chancellor urging him to stamp out the activities of Mr. Vemula and his group of Dalit friends.

His death has rocked the nation for two reasons. The first is anger over a BJP minister interfering in a campus dispute, egging on the authorities to be stern with Mr. Vemula and contributing to his suicide. When Mr. Vemula's stipend was stopped, it plunged him into debt, which depressed him. The second is that his experience has exposed once again that the upper castes have not let up in their contemptuous treatment of Dalits, even at university, which is meant to be a place for free thought, experimentation, curiosity and intellectual honesty.

Something about his note struck a chord. He comes across as a sensitive, thoughtful and idealistic young man whose feelings were deeply hurt by the discrimination he faced from other students. After Indians have finished debating his death, the country has to tackle the disgraceful treatment of Dalit students at university. In an earlier letter to the vice-chancellor, Mr. Vemula had asked for "a nice rope" to be put in the rooms of all Dalit students. "Please give us poison at the time of admission itself instead of humiliating us like this," he wrote.

What is the point of reserving a certain number of seats for Dalit students if they are going to be treated with hatred? It is up to the campus authorities to ensure that the environment is kinder, more supportive and more alert to the difficulties they face.

Secondly, the traditional habit of ministers in New Delhi meddling in the running of universities must stop. It defies belief that a minister had the time – and the inclination – to get involved in a campus dispute between two groups of students. And it was precisely this interference that led to the chain of events that prompted the vice-chancellor to suspend Mr. Vemula.

One more thing. The minister in question, Bandaru Dattatreya, should be sacked.