Remembering Rohith Vemula

Print edition : February 16, 2018

Radhika Vemula garlanding her son Rohith Vemula's commemorative bust at the University of Hyderabad on January 17. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The social scientist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, B.R. Ambedkar's grandson Prakash Ambedkar, Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula marching into the University of Hyderabad campus. Photo: By Special Arrangement

RADHIKA VEMULA sobbed inconsolably as she hugged the commemorative bust of her son Rohith Vemula on the University of Hyderabad campus on January 17. Consumed by grief, she failed to realise that she had come to symbolise a unique, urban, pan-Indian Dalit empowerment movement.

But as she took her place on the dais among a star cast of speakers ranging from the acerbic social scientist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd to politician and B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar at the university auditorium, the formidable force was evident. Speaking in Telugu, she said: “It is [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi and [Union Textiles Minister] Smriti Irani who obtained fake educational certificates in order to prove their credentials. They are masters in the act of faking certificates, but their concern seems to be to discredit my Dalit identity so that Ms. Irani does not face prosecution. I would like to warn Ms. Irani that there are going to be several educated Dalit youths who are going to soon enter Parliament, and they will question her fake certificates.”

It was her first visit to the campus after those tumultuous weeks in 2016 when the country’s entire political opposition descended on the university to express solidarity with the students protesting against what led to Rohith Vemula’s death. She was accompanied by her second son Raja. (Raja has named his son, who was born on December 10, 2017, Rohith, after his brother.)

Smriti Irani was the Human Resource Development Minister when Rohith Vemula committed suicide on January 17, 2016. Five letters were sent by her Ministry to the university’s Vice Chancellor seeking updates on the action taken against students involved in a minor altercation in the intervening night of August 3 and 4, 2015. The letters obtained through Right to Information applications exposed the political pressure exerted by the country’s top higher education administration on the university’s management following a complaint by Bandaru Dattatreya, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Member of Parliament from Secunderabad.

Punitive action was taken against five Dalit students for allegedly harming Nandanam Susheel Kumar, a PhD student at the Life Sciences Department belonging to the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Susheel Kumar’s family is well connected to the ABVP’s parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). His uncle Nandanam Diwakar is the vice president of the Ranga Reddy district BJP in Telangana, and it was at his initiative that Dattatreya sought action through the Ministry. A day after the 2015 altercation, a BJP Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), Naraparaju Ramachandra Rao, visited the university to impress upon the then acting Vice Chancellor to initiate action against the five Dalit students. Speaking to Frontline in January 2016, Ramachandra Rao said his “role was confined to visiting the boy [Susheel Kumar] in hospital, and the same day I went to console his mother, who was then with the Vice Chancellor. At our meeting, the Registrar and the Dean of Students Welfare [DSW] were also present. I told the Vice Chancellor that such activities were not good for student life on the campus.”

Rohith Vemula was one of the five Dalit students against whom actions such as rustication for a whole semester and revocation of residential and canteen facilities were taken. All of them were first-generation college-goers in their families, and four of them depended on the monthly scholarship for sustenance. It is a well-known fact that students from poor backgrounds save the grants and send money home. The punishment resulted in the withdrawal of the monthly scholarship of Rs.25,000 Rohith Vemula was receiving as a Junior Research Fellow. University Grants Commission grants are given to students who display exemplary academic work.

A police complaint was filed after Rohith Vemula’s death for abetting suicide and listing other charges under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act. Smriti Irani, Dattatreya, Ramachandra Rao, Podile Appa Rao, Susheel Kumar and his uncle Diwakar were named as the accused.

The deft use of social media by students and social activists, backed by several faculty members and administrative staff brought global attention to Rohith Vemula’s death and the discrimination faced by Dalit students in India’s higher education system.

The death and the police complaint provided the textbook experience of a Dalit family’s fight for justice. The Centre, aided by the university authorities and the Andhra Pradesh government, made every effort to discredit the family’s Dalit identity, using Radhika Vemula’s mixed marriage as a tool. Coming under intense media scrutiny, and unable to bear slander from right-wing groups, Radhika Vemula revealed her slave-like upbringing by a Guntur-based government school headmistress who adopted her, and her sham marriage within her adopted community, Vaddera, a backward caste community traditionally employed in stone quarrying and crushing. Radhika Vemula divorced her husband in 2004 and returned to Guntur, where she lived in a predominantly Dalit neighbourhood.

Two weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, a one-man commission headed by a retired Allahabad High Court judge, Justice Ashok Kumar Roopanwal, was set up to “enquire into the facts and circumstances leading to his death and fix responsibilities for lapses; and to review the existing grievance mechanism for students at the university and suggest improvements”.

The commission went well beyond its mandate and made Rohith Vemula’s caste a central issue in its report submitted on August 15. It discredited primary witness statements of Rohith Vemula’s paternal grandfather Venkateshwarlu and maternal grandmother Anjali Devi, both of whom gave written depositions in February and June of 2016 respectively to the Guntur district authorities. The statements confirmed much of what Radhika Vemula had stated, but the commission concluded that Rohith Vemula was a Vaddera and not a Dalit. For Raja Vemula, his brother’s death was a political wake-up call, much like it was for his mother. But it has also turned the world as he knew it on its head. He had to give up his love for geology and a career in academia to care for his grieving mother. Last year, he enrolled in an undergraduate law course at a university in Guntur.

Raja Vemula said: “I can tell you the kind of rocks that form the earth, where they could be found and what it could be used for. But now my memory about all this is vague. I love geology, and I wanted to become a scientist. If I had continued in that field, it would have benefited only my family. I want to make at least a few other families happy, which is why Rohith shifted to the social sciences. I am struggling to understand all the subjects in Law, but I feel as a lawyer I can contribute more to society, and that’s what Rohith would have wanted.”

In April 2016, Radhika Vemula told Frontline that she would not join any political party but would be part of movements fighting against caste discrimination “until her last breath”. She has remained true to those words, participating in events in Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra. She showed up in Una, Gujarat, in August 2016, to support the Dalit upsurge against the flogging of six Dalit men by upper-caste men for skinning a dead cow.

Radhika Vemula was at Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra in the last week of December to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon in which Mahars (a Dalit community) had participated.

Describing Radhika Vemula as an inspiration, Jignesh Mevani, the Dalit leader and Member of the Legislative Assembly in Gujarat, “appealed to her to contest in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections”.

He was in Hyderabad to lend his support to the university students and was rumoured to visit to the campus. Students feared that he might be barred entry as permission for his visit had not been obtained. But Mevani met Radhika Vemula, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and others in the city.

For the second year in a row, the university authorities refused mediapersons entry into the campus. The Vice Chancellor, who was away in Delhi on that day, refused to explain why the media were being kept out. The grant of permission for holding the event just days ahead of January 17 took everyone by surprise.

The permission was specific only for the eight members invited by the Ambedkar Students’ Association, which organised the event. The university’s public relations officer said the Association approached “through proper channel this time” by giving a written request to the Dean of Social Welfare, which was forwarded to the Vice Chancellor. But the Association claimed that last year it had adopted a similar procedure but failed to get permission to hold the memorial event.

Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula’s return to the university campus and the show of support from former bureaucrats, academics, social activists and politicians from across the country contitute a demonstration of the fact that in death Rohith Vemula has ensured that the issues he raised on the college campus will live on.

Kunal Shankar

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