Social issues

‘I don’t want to bow down to higher castes anymore’

Print edition : June 24, 2016

Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula at the home of Sheikh Riyaz, Rohith's childhood friend, in Old Guntur. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Interview with Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula, Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother, on life after Rohith and why social activism has become a driving force in their lives.

AS we drive past Gonta Grounds in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, on April 3, Raja Vemula, Rohith Vemula’s brother, points to it and says: “That is where Rohith and I worked as part-time salesmen for three summers.” Gonta Grounds is where the annual exhibition is held in Guntur, and it was getting decked up for this year’s. Their salaries began at Rs.30 a day for Raja and Rs.40 for Rohith and went up by Rs.10 every year between 2006 and 2008 for working between 4:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. every day for two months. They were both in high school. Rohith manned a stall that sold women’s handbags while Raja sold belts.

We drive to the house where Rohith’s mother, Radhika, and Raja now live in Old Guntur with Sheik Riyaz, Rohith’s best friend from childhood. The house, located on a crowded lane next to Akbari Masjid, is simple and small. Radhika is inconsolable as she says: “It has been a while since I heard Rohith’s voice, but not a day goes by when I do not cry.”

Less than 48 hours after Rohith Vemula’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad (popularly known as HCU), his younger brother and mother found themselves in the midst of an upsurge of student protests, not only on the HCU campus but in higher educational institutions across India and abroad. This was followed by an intense and a debilitating public scrutiny of the family’s caste, forcing Radhika to acknowledge a tormented childhood almost entirely defined by her caste and gender.

Both Radhika and Raja were unwittingly catapulted into a position of being the legatees of Rohith’s ideals—his fight for Dalit empowerment. They have not only embraced it but become emblematic of a nationwide student-led movement to highlight the insidious nature of caste discrimination in institutions of higher education in the post-Mandal era.

A conversation with them gives one a sense of a clear political awakening. Supported by the University of Hyderabad’s left-leaning students’ groups and several other Dalit organisations, Raja and Radhika now make frequent trips to Hyderabad. They came down to meet Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar a day after the March 22 arrest of nearly 30 students on charges of vandalism at HCU. They surprised everyone that evening by reappearing outside the university’s gates to be part of a protest against police action. A week later, they visited the bail hearing of the students, and the next day, they came to the city’s central prison to receive the students after they were released.

In Guntur, away from the public gaze, Radhika says with quiet determination that she will be part of this movement “until her last breath”. She has been unwell. Raja says the doctors believe it to be a slow “paralysis of her right side”. Explaining her decision to support the students’ movement, Radhika says: “Rohith came to meet me on December 29, two days after I had moved to Hyderabad. He promised to buy a car within a year and to show me around Hyderabad. I imagined that situation and I looked forward to it fondly. But 20 days later, he was gone. This should not happen to any mother.”

Radhika has plans which go beyond seeking justice for her son’s death. She wants to form a trust in Rohith’s name which would “adopt Dalit children and inculcate Ambedkarite thoughts right from kindergarten so that they are equipped to fight injustice wherever they see it”. She wants them to gain higher education and occupy positions of power so that they can later become enablers for others in the community.

But bread-and-butter issues now stare the family in the face. Raja’s two-year contract at Hyderabad’s National Geophysical Research Institute has ended and he is now looking for work though he is still immersed in activism. He is seriously considering Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s offer of a job in the State government but is reluctant to move there without his mother. Radhika believes she still has unfinished business in Guntur and, indeed, in the students’ movement.

On April 14 this year, the 125th birth anniversary of Dalit icon and India’s first Law Minister Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the family converted to Buddhism. The ceremony in Mumbai was organised by the Buddhist Society of India and Prakash Ambedkar, B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson and president of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh. The symbolism was not lost on anyone, but Raja says this was one of Rohith’s unfulfilled dreams. He adds, “We are not doing this to become famous”, not realising how quickly they had already become widely known. Excerpts from the conversation.

Things have been so hectic with the protests and the controversies in the aftermath of Rohith’s death. Have you had the time to grieve?

Radhika: I have not heard his voice for sometime now, but not a day goes by when I don’t cry (crying).

Have you had the time to think of what the future will look like without Rohith?

Radhika: I have not had the time to think. Even when I do, I am unable to think of what to do next. I just start crying.

Raja: Frankly, as a brother, I can say we have not had the time to sit together for an hour and think about my brother.

He was a source of strong financial and moral support for you. It must be quite hard.

Raja: I can say that Rohith is my inspiration. I don’t know what happened in my childhood, what we did and how we played. That can be done by all brothers. But when I started doing my intermediate course, he became a role model for me. Because he had already gone through all the levels; he was then doing his BSc. He had already faced discrimination. But I was facing it for the first time in higher education. Of course, I had already faced all of it earlier. We were never allowed to sit inside my maths tuition class. We weren’t allowed inside homes, and people didn’t use or touch the glasses we used—because Hindu College (Guntur) is full of Brahmins, it is controlled by Brahmin teachers. We both studied there. I told my brother then that I was willing to quit and get a daily-wage job. He asked me not to do that. He said we are at least able to study. Think of those who cannot even do that. We should help them by getting ourselves into high positions. We were born to help others in our community who are suppressed like us. From then onwards, you might find this funny, but I wanted to get better marks than my brother every year. Although I have not been able to do that till now; his motivation, his studies, the way he thinks and the way he inspires people and friends, it is a big loss for our family, because we are the only three who lived like this in this family.

I can say we lost a family member who could support us morally and financially. It is not just financial, but psychological. For example, he knew everything, but he would still ask our mother what should be done. And my mother’s word was always final, for me and my brother; that was Rohith’s personality.

Would you agree that Rohith’s death has created something much bigger and that now you are a part of it?

Radhika: That’s right. He died for a good cause. He may have thought that people will come out after his death and so would his family. He must have thought that there has to be some sacrifice and that’s why he sacrificed his life to uplift those who are oppressed. He wanted to unite many people. I definitely agree that a day will come when there will not be any discrimination, definitely.

Was that his intention? Your participation in this movement?

Raja: My brother may have wanted the family to be part of this, may be he did, may be he didn’t. I don’t know what he died for, but we think he had a few dreams, that’s what I realised from the letter he wrote; that’s why we are a part of this movement.

Some people on the HCU campus say that about a month before Rohith’s death, he kept saying that he believed the movement required a martyr. Did you know of this?

Raja: As far as I know, people said he was depressed because no one was coming out to protest and fight discrimination at the university. That’s the reason he sacrificed his life. I didn’t know that he thought a martyr was required. You could say that it is our fault that we never inquired more about what was happening at the university. Because I have also been a student and I am aware that clashes between students’ unions are common, but we didn’t know to what extent this was going on. If I did, I would have taken my mother to the university to meet him.

[To Radhika] You were close to Rohith. Didn’t he ever tell you what was going on?

Radhika: He didn’t tell me because he didn’t like to see me cry.

Raja: He was very close to my mother, but he also knew that she gets upset easily.

Others in your position would have accepted the Rs.8 lakh offered by the university. Why did you reject it?

Radhika: We refused the money because we have struggled a lot without money all these years. And if we accept the money now, that would mean that we are bowing to them. Vice Chancellor Appa Rao deliberately boycotted Rohith socially, and forced my son to commit suicide. And, therefore, Appa Rao has to face justice. He should be arrested and put in jail.

We don’t need that money. I have never seen a wad of a lakh of rupees. Neither do I want to see it in future because what would I do with his money? That Rs.8 lakh cannot get a breakfast for Rohith, a fruit, at least a chocolate or a biscuit. So what will I do with the 8 lakh now? That’s why I refused the money. I don’t want to bow down to the higher castes anymore.

You now seem to be actively involved in all that is going on in the aftermath of the suicide—from taking part in the protest meetings outside the university, to meeting political leaders to give representations, and even showing up at the Cherlapally Central Prison where the students were detained. Why?

Radhika: He came on December 29 last year to Uppal, where I was living then. He promised to buy a car within a year and show me around Hyderabad. I imagined that situation and looked forward to it fondly. But 20 days after he said that, he was gone. This should not happen to any mother. No mother should be given this hope and then have it all gone. No mother should cry the way I do. And I do not want to see another student do what my son did; and for that reason, we are supporting those who supported him when the going got tough and the university took action against him. These are also the ones who are now supporting us after Rohith’s death. That is why I was there at the jail and also at the bail hearing in court. For me, they are all my children now, an extension of Rohith. I did that despite being unwell and despite being advised against travel.

Raja: I also go there as Rohith’s brother, because I feel the same way. No brother should die like my brother.... No brother should sacrifice his life. My brother should be the last. There should be an Act—“the Rohith Act”, especially for those who feel severely persecuted and are thinking of taking their own lives. This Act should give them courage, should give them hope. They should think of my brother’s sacrifice when they decide to take the extreme step. That is why I have been part of the movement for a Rohith Act.

What should that Act be about?

Radhika: Dalit children should not feel discriminated against by upper-caste children right from preschool to PhD. This Act should protect them from that. It should protect them from feeling a sense of persecution or helplessness. Also, Dalit and Adivasi members on all university committees on any issue should become mandatory.

There are some who criticise your involvement in the movement. They feel that everyone involved—your family, the students who support you and politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury and Nitish Kumar—is making a career out of a tragic event. How do you react to that?

Radhika: After Rohith died, people from across parties extended support to us, except the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Telugu Desam Party and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. That is because they are now the ruling parties and it does not mean that all the other parties are politicising this issue.

They took it as a moral responsibility to extend support because of the tragedy. Both Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury told me personally that they didn’t come here as politicians but as human beings, not only because my son was a Dalit but because he was brilliant, which was clear from the letter he wrote. They said it changed their hearts and that’s why they were there. They may well take this issue forward and politicise it, but first they had the moral courage to personally come and meet us.

Would you rest with the passing of “the Rohith Act”? Or is this fight restricted to the sacking of the HCU Vice Chancellor?

Radhika: Until my last breath, I will be part of such movements. “The Rohith Act” is only a part of it, and that also involves punishing those who pushed my son to take his own life. But this Act should extend to all those who push lower-caste students to take such extreme measures. The Act alone will not change the system, and so wherever and whenever such incidents surface, I will extend my support. As long as my health permits, I will be part of Dalit rights movements.

Will you join a party or accept overtures by the Left or the Congress? Would you be willing to contest elections?

Radhika: I do not have any intention to join any party, nor do I hanker after power. Political parties often lie. And I do not know how to lie. So I will only continue to be part of movements but not party politics. They may well take this issue forward and politicise it.

But a political party wields more influence on issues, more power to effect change, like passing “the Rohith Act”.

Radhika: If somebody joins a party, Dalit students, or university students who are inclined towards social justice, I will extend my support.

How did the intense scrutiny of your caste and the digging up of your past affect you?

Radhika: Of course, it bothered me a lot. A boy has died and we are grieving, but there is no action against those who caused this. Instead, there is an extended inquiry into our caste identity right from Delhi to here in Guntur and Gurajala. And this has been going on for the past four months. But action has not been taken against Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani; Vice Chancellor Appa Rao; Bharatiya Janata Party Member of the Legislative Council Ramachandra Rao; president of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in HCU Susheel Kumar; and Central Minister for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya, despite there being an FIR [first information report] that has named all of them. They have not even been interrogated for 15 minutes.

Lawyers who have worked on cases under the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, say that seldom do people in high offices get punished and even filing an FIR tends to be a struggle. There usually follows intense scrutiny, as is happening now, to determine the exact caste of the victim, which often defeats the purpose of the Act. Four of the six named in the FIR have been granted stay of arrest. How confident are you that the courts will give you justice?

Radhika: I have absolutely no confidence in the judiciary. None even if there is a judicial commission. Because, recently, students and two professors were taken into custody and we expected them to be released in 24 hours, but, instead, they were released after eight days. The magistrate did not even grant the students bail. But when Kanhaiya Kumar came to Vijayawada and a member of the Gau Samrakshana Samiti [Cow Protection Committee] threw a shoe at him, he was taken into custody and granted bail within four hours, only because he was a Brahmin affiliated to a Brahmin party. Is there no difference between protesting PhD students and someone who is a cadre of an openly political outfit who has also indulged in violence? How come the same leniency was not extended to the students? This is only because we are Dalits and we are fighting for justice. And that is why they are trying to disprove our Dalit identity. Let them decide we are Backward Caste. Our fight will continue till the end.

Did you know that the accused had approached the court?

Raja: We got to know of the stay of their arrest only from a TV news channel. Nobody, not even the Joint Action Committee students, knew of their petition in the court.

[To Raja] How has all this affected your career?

Raja: My tenure at the National Geophysics Research Institute ended on March 31. I have not been asked to rejoin, and my contract has not been renewed. I would say that this was my fault. My guide is a gem of a person. He is very understanding. He knows the upheavals that I have had to face after Rohith’s death. I took two months’ leave and it could not be extended. Despite this being a contractual job, I was granted those two months. So, I willingly came out of the institute and wanted to support my mother. I have to look for a job now. As you know, [Delhi Chief Minister] Arvind Kejriwal’s government has offered me a job. I am exploring the possibility of taking up the offer. I do not want to go to Delhi leaving my mother here.

[To Raja] Life has not been a bed of roses for you. Does Rohith’s death remind you of your own ordeals? Would you be willing to talk about them?

Raja: Yes, I am willing to talk about them. When I was studying in Class X, I got to know that my mother was an adopted child, because it is only around that age that one gets conscious and starts asking questions. So we asked her about this when we saw my grandmother and my uncles and aunts repeatedly ill-treating her at home—my grandmother would treat my mother and us differently from her other children and grandchildren.

My brother was studying in a residential school in Anantapur district. Rohith did his Class XI and XII there. The fee was Rs.5,000, and when I asked my grandmother for the money to go to the same school, my grandmother, uncles and aunts scolded me. They refused to send me to that private school despite the fact that their families were all well settled. When I was in Class IX and X, I used to go for construction work during the summer holidays and on weekends from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. My daily wage was Rs.70 in 2006-2007, and later I began working as a salesman at Gonta Grounds, where an exhibition is held every summer. My brother and I worked there. Our salary was Rs.30 a day for working from 4.30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.

I used to work as a courier delivery boy from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The salary was Rs.680 a month, but I got only Rs.350 because I worked only till 4 p.m. When you go to college, you have this great urge to be independent and make money, so I would cut class and go to work. I did that for about five months, but I never neglected my studies—I got first class in both my bachelor’s and master’s, but I am still only average compared with my brother and sister—they hold a distinction. I asked for money for my master’s again from my aunts—one is a lawyer and one is a geologist. I asked for Rs.14, 000 in 2011 for my admission fee. They refused. One of them said: “Why do you want to study when you don’t have money?” They are well settled.

There are two gates for Pondicherry University, where I did my master’s. I used to come in from the first gate and look at all the food stalls lined along the road till the end of the second gate and would never buy anything during the day. It is about half a kilometre long. I would come back in the evening with some money and buy the food. I worked as a waiter in a restaurant for Rs.50 a day when I was doing my MSc first year. I did it after class in the evenings. I used to rearrange the books for an hour in the university library for another Rs.40. I would go out of the university after that and eat around 9 p.m. I borrowed laptops from my classmates to finish my work after they had finished theirs. Sometimes they would want to work when I wanted to borrow the laptop, so they stopped sharing the laptops. There were very few people who helped me in Pondicherry. Very few.

[To Radhika] Why do you want to continue living here in Guntur?

Radhika: Because there is a lot of injustice and discrimination here against students and I want to be here to support them. My intention is to begin a trust in Rohith’s name which will adopt Dalit children. I want to inculcate Ambedkarite values and thoughts in these children right from kindergarten so that they are equipped to fight injustice wherever they see it. I want them to go on to do PhDs. I also want to provide a home for the neglected elderly left behind by their children who have gone on to do other things.

How are you managing financially?

Raja: Students give us money to visit them in Hyderabad and to support us as well. Several Dalit organisations have also extended support. We are managing with that for now. But after a month or two, I will have to find a job. Of course, we have turned down the offer of money from a lot of people because we didn’t come into the movement for that.

Radhika: Here in Guntur, it is Sheikh Riyaz [Rohith’s friend] who has been taking care of us. It was he who took me to hospital two or three days back.

Raja: Riyaz anna [elder brother in Telugu] did not allow us to live in Hyderabad alone. He was my brother’s best friend and he has known my family’s situation for the past 10 to 12 years. He is like my brother. There is no difference between Rohith and Riyaz for me.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×