Social issues

Show of solidarity

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Radhika Vemula (centre) at the gates of the university. To her right is Rohith Vemula's friend Dontha Prashanth. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Ramesh Sarvaiya, one of the Dalit men who was flogged by upper-caste men for skinning a dead cow in Una, Gujarat, addressing the gathering. Photo: Kunal Shankar

One year after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, survivors of communal violence assemble at the gates of the University of Hyderabad as a mark of remembrance.

AT about 5 p.m. on January 17, a year after the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the main entrance of the University of Hyderabad bore witness to a unique coalescing of disparate groups from across India on a single-point agenda to end all forms of hate crimes nationwide.

Piyush Sarvaiya, whose family members were savagely beaten up for doing their job of skinning dead cows in July last year in Una, Gujarat, summed up the mood of the gathering to thunderous applause: “Rohith’s mother, who is here with us, might have lost her son, but now she has gained lakhs of sons in all of us. We must take this movement forward.” About 500 people were gathered at the gate, as the university management had not granted permission to “outsiders” to enter the campus.

Jan Muhammed Saifi, the youngest brother of the 2015 Dadri lynching victim Mohammad Akhlaq, came with his lawyer. He spoke with great eloquence and equanimity. Though one of his sons was not well, he said, the minute he got a call from the Ambedkar Students’ Association activist Dontha Prashanth seeking support, he decided to come down from Delhi. Dontha Prashanth was one of the five students, including Rohith Vemula, against whom the University of Hyderabad had taken a hard line for what were widely viewed as minor confrontations in campus politics.

Azeem and Hasim Khan, cousins of Najeeb Ahmed, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student who has been “missing” since October 15, 2016, also came from Delhi. In his speech, Azeem Khan said, “Regardless of whether Najeeb, Rohith and Akhlaq get justice or not, we must ensure that such incidents do not happen in future.” Najeeb’s mother, Fatima Nafees, could not travel because of ill health but sent her salutations to the gathering.

The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, or BAPSA, the latest entrant in JNU’s campus politics, was represented by Rahul Sonpimple, one of its organisers. “Those who have been attacked belong to the Dalit and Muslim communities and there is an organic linkage between these two communities. Right now, these protests are confined to universities, but we hope it goes beyond them as well,” said Sonpimple.

A large number of policemen had taken position outside the main entrance. By the time Radhika Vemula and her younger son Raja Vemula arrived, at about 5:45 p.m., a couple of police trucks had arrived, indicating the possibility of detentions.

Radhika Vemula’s startling disclosure of the manner in which the family was questioned during a fresh probe into Raja Vemula’s caste drove home the point that nothing had really changed in the past year for them. Breaking down several times, Radhika Vemula said she was called by the Guntur Collector to depose for the probe. As the evening slipped into night, one question was in everyone’s mind. Would the Vemulas and Riyaaz, Rohith’s best friend, be allowed to visit the place where Rohith Vemula had spent his last days in protest at the shopping complex courtyard situated almost at the entrance to the university and where the students had installed his statue?

After much wrangling with the internal security guards and the police, it looked like a deal had been struck close to 8 p.m. Some faculty members suggested forming a human chain around Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula as a measure of precaution, but it was rejected by the campus security staff. Finally, the Vemulas and some activists, along with Hindustan Times reporter Sudipto Mondal, were detained and then let off close to midnight.

At half past eight, a research scholar, Aruna Gogulamanda, and another person from the press who did not wish to be identified said they spotted Rohith’s father Mani Kumar placing flowers at Rohith’s bust. They said they had about “seven photos to prove that Mani Kumar indeed sat on one of the benches at the shopping complex and attempted to strike a conversation with those around”. The police, who had allegedly brought him in a patrol vehicle, quickly whisked him away, they said.

The message was clear. If Raja Vemula and Radhika Vemula had also sought a private visit to Rohith’s bust, they might have been allowed, but not as part of a student-led demonstration.

But the takeaway from that night was not this disappointment for those assembled there. It was really the culmination of a year-long show of solidarity by survivors of varying types of hate crimes, cutting across urban and rural India, from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi to Gujarat and Hyderabad.

It was the coming together of people for whom the wounds of acts of injustice were fresh but who understood that standing together meant greater strength, which would eventually permeate the country’s several public, private, political and social spaces.

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