AN Ambedkarite-Marxist, as he liked to identify himself, Rohith Vemula Chakravarti would have turned 27 on January 30. He was one of the anchors of the University of Hyderabad’s (also Hyderabad Central University, or HCU) vibrant multicultural, inclusive and radical student polity. While Rohith spoke openly about a personal life fraught with suffering, he did not allow it to define him.
“He wanted to bring the university to the people and not the other way round,” said Dontha Prashanth, his friend and comrade of the organisation Rohith was last associated with, the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). Consider some of Rohith’s random thoughts, which he shared on social media, particularly Facebook. On October 22, critiquing the decision by some Students Federation of India members who allegedly attended a friend’s Durga Puja celebration, Rohith wrote: “He [Marx] scorned religion as a wicked comforting business which is promoted by [the] ruling class to subvert the revolutionary vigour of [the] proletariat. Keeping Karl Marx aside for a moment, as far as the other titans are concerned in this subject, Freud said that religion is a neurotic psychological need, for Bakunin religion is a product of fancy and credulity of [an] underachieved man and for Dr Ambedkar it is the doctrine of alienation and inequality.” That sums up Rohith’s fight for the pre-eminence of science.
His Facebook posts are filled with such thoughts with a sprinkling of movie posts and profile pictures. But most of his posts reflect his purposeful activism and show his constant engagement with the debates of the day, which range from remembering the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to the recent Canadian elections.
Rohith’s brilliance and determination to connect science with the public interest secured him the coveted University Grants Commission (UGC0 Junior Research Fellowship with a monthly stipend of Rs.25,000 for two years. His area of research was science, technology and society in the university’s Centre for Knowledge Innovation and Culture Studies.
But this came to Rohith through assiduous self-teaching. Friends remember him as someone who always had a book in hand and was constantly on a mission. In his suicide note, Rohith said: “There was no urgency. But I always was rushing, desperate to start a life.” For life itself was a curse, a fatal accident, for him.
Rohith was perhaps referring to his growing-up years in the many shanties of Guntur town, raised by a single mother, while his maternal grandmother lived in a relatively comfortable house in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood called Prakash Nagar. A family member, not wishing to be identified, broke down and said they treated Rohith like their own son. But the person was not clear about Rohith’s caste. The family member said they were not close to Rohith’s mother, Radhika, and her family. The person, however, said Rohith was academically brilliant and exceptionally caring.
This was on January 21, four days after Rohith’s death. The raging debate to determine Rohith’s caste had just begun. His grandmother Anjali Devi, Frontline was told, was in Hyderabad to be with Radhika. Radhika had been living with her second son, Raja, who is a Project Fellow at the National Geophysical Research Institute. Raja said his brother “took care of everything at home. We don’t have any property. He was our only support. He was very strong.”
Recent media reports claim that Anjali Devi adopted Radhika from a Mala Dalit family as she was reminded of her own girl who had died by the time she saw Radhika. Hindustan Times quotes Anjali Devi as saying: “It was around lunchtime. The sun was very hot and a few children were playing under the neem tree outside our house in Prashanth Nagar. I spotted a really beautiful little baby girl among them. She was barely able to walk. She must have been a little more than one.” Anjali Devi retired as the headmistress of the Kasu Sayamma Memorial Municipal High School eight years ago. The newspaper report also narrates a sordid tale of caste discrimination, with Radhika being confined to domestic chores and not treated on a par with Anjali Devi’s other children.
Gurajala town in Guntur district is the hometown of Rohith’s father, Vemula Naga Manikumar. It is 4 p.m. on January 20, and Manikumar, 49, is having a late lunch on the verandah of his parent’s house in an inebriated state. He said he had named Rohith “Mallik Chakravarti”, in memory of his grandfather Mallaiah. But when Rohith was in class 10, his name was changed to Rohith, and since then “they became Mala”. “I am a Vaddera [a Backward Caste, its members traditionally employed in stone quarries], but they [his wife and children] are Malas. Raja [his other son], too, is Mala. I don’t go to their house. They go to church, they go to temples.”
Manikumar’s father, 69-year-old Venkateswarlu, said in English that Rohith was born in Gurajala and that Rohith’s parents separated when he was very young, and so Rohith and his siblings (a brother and a sister) moved to Guntur along with their mother. Venkateswarlu said the two families lost contact. Asked about the controversy surrounding Rohith’s caste and his mother’s claim that they are Dalit, Venkateswarlu said: “Actually, until today I did not know about this matter. They belong to Vaddera, that is all. About ML [he meant Mala Dalit], I did not know. The grandmother of that child was a teacher. She retired as a headmistress. They all go by her advice. I don’t know what happened after they left Gurajala.”
Other members on both sides of the family said Rohith’s parents divorced in 2004, but Manikumar often visited Radhika in Guntur. He did odd blue-collar jobs in the city, from being a security guard near a college Rohith went to, to working in a liquor store and assisting a chef in a restaurant. Both Rohith and HCU Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile graduated from Guntur’s Hindu College. Said a relative not wishing to be named: “Right from the start they [Rohith’s parents]were not a good match. Many issues happened between them, one of them was Mani’s alcohol problem.”
Manikumar has a background of modest affluence. His grandfather Mallaiah was a well-known personality in Gurajala. He constructed a public marriage hall in 1955. He owned and cultivated 40 acres (16 hectares) of land. Venkateswarlu blames his sons for squandering it all away. But he says the family still owns “13 portions of homes”, which fetches them a modest rent. He hopes he will find a good tenant for his rice mill, which has been vacant for over a year now. Just as this correspondent was leaving Venkateswarlu’s home, three men—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Gurajala mandal adhyaksh Radhakrishnamurthi, the party’s Gurajala Assembly convener Pangudi Venkatramaiah, and a functionary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)—were visiting the Vemulas. When asked the purpose of their visit, they cryptically replied that it was to “inquire into the facts of the suicide”. On the same day, a Central intelligence team was at the town’s panchayat office.
Justice K. Chandru, a retired judge of the Madras High Court, told Frontline : “For maintaining a complaint of atrocities against Dalits, the complainant should belong to the list of Scheduled Castes as notified by the President. And a Mala Dalit is a notified Scheduled Caste.” Rohith’s caste certificate identifies him as a Mala, one of notified Dalit castes in Andhra Pradesh. His mother said she raised all her three children in the traditions and cultures of the Mala community. But the Telangana police sources, not wishing to be named, said investigations were going on and that “some more evidence is required, as Rohith’s caste identity is not watertight”. Chandru said: “The Supreme Court has said that when a Hindu converts to Christianity or Islam, it takes away his/her original caste identity. A Dalit should be a Hindu for the purpose of being notified as an S.C., which is why the police often attempt to claim that the victim is a Christian, because converts cannot avail themselves of the benefits. Therefore, obtaining a certificate has not always solved the problem.”
Lawyers dealing with cases of atrocities against Dalits say that the usual practice in police stations is not to file first information reports (FIRs) when they receive a complaint. Police stations maintain a notebook called Community Service Register, where the cases are noted and parties are called for mediation. When the accused hold powerful positions, it becomes hard. An attempt to malign the complainant begins. Justice Chandru said: “For the purpose of filing an FIR though, the certificate is enough, but at the time of trial the defence can contest the Dalit identity of the victim. This often happens.”
Investigation and trial in the Rohith case are expected to be conducted on an urgent basis as there is a presumption of guilt against the accused. There is an assumption that the accused holds positions of power and privilege with the ability to influence witnesses and tamper with evidence. After the charges are framed, offences are generally non-bailable, unless bail is obtained from an authority no less than a judicial magistrate. Going by the letter of the law, Rohith Vemula’s suicide case fits the narrative. The persons named in the FIR include people in high positions right up to the Union Cabinet. And that is also the reason why there is so much scrutiny into his caste identity.
The issue has also touched the underbelly of the Hindu Right as it goes against the BJP/RSS project of social engineering, like its attempt to appropriate B.R. Ambedkar, which reflects a realisation that winning elections means winning over the lower-caste vote bank, which in turn means overcoming the perception of representing only the “upper” castes. This is a crucial year for the BJP, with elections coming up in some key States. The BJP is already trying to influence Rohith’s father’s family.
There are other political implications as well. If Rohith is found not to be a Dalit, then the political ammunition that almost the entire opposition in the country has gained will be ridiculed by the BJP-led government as empty threats. The Narendra Modi government is trying hard to convince the nation that Rohith’s suicide was not a case of discrimination against a Dalit but of a person who was deeply disturbed.
Rohith would not have wanted any of this theorising. If anything, he would have wanted to find ways to overcome the injustice, to reach the stars from the shadows.