Print edition : March 03, 2017

RRadhika Vemula and Raja Vemula in New Delhi on February 26, 2016. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

The state machinery is being systematically used to disprove Radhika and Raja Vemula’s Dalit identity.

FOR the Vemulas, it is back to square one. Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother, Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula, face a fresh set of challenges. Another inquiry into their caste identity has been initiated on the basis of a complaint filed by one Darsapanu Srinivas, who claims to be a “member of the Scheduled Caste Community working for the welfare of the community”. Whenever they come “across false certificates we [sic] take up the cause and see that the false certificate is cancelled and ensure that a genuine candidate is benefited”. Srinivas accuses the family of having obtained a false community certificate for Raja Vemula.

The complaint was filed on June 17, 2016, around the time of the endorsement of Rohith’s Dalit identity by the Guntur District Collector, Kantilala Dande, following an inquiry, which was sent to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. There has been a subsequent official reversal of this position, and media reports suggest that the family may be declared as belonging to the Other Backward Classes.

Bhim Rao, the family’s lawyer, said: “We have sought a quashing of the complaint, questioning the locus standi of the complainant.” In lay parlance, this means questioning the complainant’s personal interest in, or relevance to, the case. “We fear this is a deliberate attempt to open a fresh probe into Rohith Vemula’s caste as the police complaint against Union Cabinet Ministers and the Vice Chancellor was based on that. Moreover, exactly how Raja Vemula’s parents committed ‘fraud’ in obtaining this certificate has not been explained in the complaint. This implies a circumvention of procedures to obtain a certificate. And that further means a probe into the issuing process itself.” Indeed, the Guntur district authorities could not have taken action on their own into allegations of wrongdoing in obtaining false caste certificates. They require an excuse in the form of a complaint.

An ordeal

The inquiry, which was to be conducted by the Joint Collector, was, instead, presided over by 15 men and women, comprising Mandal Revenue Officers (MROs), Revenue Divisional Officers (RDOs) and Revenue Inspectors (RIs).

Soon after Radhika Vemula went in, her divorced and alcoholic husband, Mani Kumar, arrived. Her objections to his presence were brushed aside by one of the Dalit RDOs, who said: “Leave it to us to take the decision whether to allow him to stay or leave.”

Over the next few hours, Radhika Vemula’s character was questioned. The RDO, Radhika Vemula said, asked in a derogatory tone: “Your husband says you refused to live with him. It should have been difficult to raise these kids all by yourself [her son Raja Vemula and daughter Neelima were also present in the room]. Who helped you?” The room then burst into peals of laughter.

Rohith Vemula’s paternal grandfather, 70-year-old Venkateswarlu, had explained the discrepancy in his younger grandson’s caste certificate to Hindustan Times. He said: “Raja was born in my village, Gurajala, not in Guntur. Radhika, who had separated from Mani Kumar two months after Raja’s birth, had asked me to help get his birth certificate. I asked the Village Revenue Officer to fill in the details in the certificate and said that the boy was my grandson. The officer assumed that my grandson would be a Vaddera [the stone crusher’s caste to which the family belongs]. But that was not the case. My son broke up his marriage with Radhika Vemula when he discovered that she was a Mala.” Venkateswarlu went on to say in the statement: “I strongly state that she [Radhika] belongs to the Scheduled Caste and her children also get the same caste since they have been brought up by her all alone.”

A landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in 2012, now considered settled law, ruled that children born out of inter-caste marriages must be allowed to “lead evidence to show that he/she was brought up by the mother who belonged to the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe. By virtue of being the son of a forward caste father he did not have any advantageous start in life but on the contrary suffered the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged.”

Citing a strikingly similar example like that of the Vemula siblings, Justice Aftab Alam, who authored the judgment, said: “Take for instance the case of a tribal woman getting married to a forward caste man and who is widowed or is abandoned by the husband shortly after marriage. She goes back to her people and the community carrying with her an infant or maybe a child still in the womb. The child is born in the community from where her mother came and to which she went back and is brought up as the member of that community suffering all the deprivations, humiliations, disabilities and handicaps as a member of the community. Can it still be said that the child would have the caste of his father and, therefore, not entitled to any benefits, privileges or protections sanctioned by the Constitution?”

Devious designs

This correspondent’s visit to Gurajala in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh on January 20, 2016, three days after Rohith Vemula’s death, clearly revealed the devious designs employed by the Bharatiya Janata Party to convince Mani Kumar and his family to contradict the claim to Dalit identity by his children (“Who was Rohith Vemula?”, Frontline, February 19, 2016).

Events over the course of the past year confirm that Radhika Vemula, Raja Vemula and Neelima are caught in a textbook case of what happens when a charge is made under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against powerful people.

Instead of investigating the alleged offence of abetting Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Andhra Pradesh’s state apparatus is being used extensively to disprove assertions of their Dalit identity by Rohith Vemula’s brother and mother.

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