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The Continuing Harassment Of Radhika Vemula Must Stop

27/01/2016 6:12 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NOAH SEELAM via Getty Images
Radhika Vemula, the mother of a student who committed suicide on January 17, sits during a protest at Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad on January 21, 2016. Rohit Vemula, a 26-year-old doctoral student at the university of Hyderabad, was found on January 17, triggering protests in the southern city and New Delhi. He was one of five students, all from India's lowest Dalit social caste, to be suspended by the university after they were accused of assaulting the head of a right-wing student political group -- a charge they denied. AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM / AFP / NOAH SEELAM (Photo credit should read NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

Rohith Vemula left his body in protest against caste discrimination in Hyderabad Central University. He left a message that higher learning centres are killing fields for Dalits and marginalised groups. While many in the country mourn the loss of the brilliant young man who aspired for the stars, the casteist state media is smelling blood and going after Rohith's family, in particular his mother Radhika.

Radhika was in the University Health Centre, when I visited. Her daughter, Rohith's sister, said she has high blood pressure and needs rest. I wanted to hear directly from her what her experience has been since Rohith's death and what she would ask of the world in the wake of this outrageous tragedy. Here, I want to do more than issue a call to action. I want to focus on the specific forms of violence that Radhika has endured and how that is reflective of the experience of Dalit women.

She is under surveillance by the state, the media, and also wings of the BJP and RSS... it is vital to bring Radhika's experience front and centre to our outrage.

Radhika is a 44-year-old mother who without question is still deeply in shock. She is under surveillance by the state, the media, and also wings of the BJP and RSS. This is in part due to her son's foresight. The Student Joint Actions Committee, on the day of Rohith's suicide did not allow the police to touch body until they filed a case against those they held accountable. They managed to file an SC/ST atrocity case against the Union Minister, the BJP MLC, the Vice Chancellor and all of the others who were involved. Perhaps he knew that if he was alive, he wouldn't have been able to do so in this great secular democratic country.

Unable to digest this, upper caste elites began digging into Rohith Vemula's background and past. Their immediate goal was to discredit him by attacking his Dalit identity.

First, they went after his father.

Rohith's father belongs to the Vaddera caste which falls in the OBC category. He had left Radhika and his children many years ago. Acting with great insensitivity, the media brought this man forward. His appearance caused great pain to Radhika and forced a needless public reliving of past humiliations and wrongs. His grandmother was also brought into the picture. In the interim, they searched Radhika's home for his birth certificate and the probing and intrusive "research" continues. What was even more hurtful to Radhika was that most of the media channels did not ask her about Rohith's life and death, prioritising his caste instead. She's angry about this. "Why are the media and public not discussing my son's death on campus? Why is my Dalit identity more important?"

The media's role in further traumatising Radhika cannot be overemphasised. They started invasive investigations, insinuating in one breath, ingratiating the next.

One of the main accused was Vice Chancellor (VC) Prof. Appa Rao, and it is widely believed that he was installed in his position by BJP Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu. Both Naidu and Rao belong to the Kamma caste, the dominant social group in Andhra. All of the institutions are dominated by them, from the university, the courts, the police, and the media - most of the electronic media, in particular, is owned by Kamma caste.

The media's role in further traumatising Radhika cannot be overemphasised. They brought the camera to her home. They started invasive investigations, insinuating in one breath, ingratiating the next. The attempts to dissect every detail of Rohith's life to prove that he was not Dalit were heartbreaking. And in the constant flood of breaking news alerts, scrolling headlines and news leaks in all the newspapers, Radhika was overwhelmed by the rumours, lies and innuendo. Lost in this was the very real fact that Radhika is a mother who lost her child. The pain of that is immeasurable and she has now, in fact, been hospitalised due to the toll that the stress and grief have taken. .

Rohith's story is now well known, and one can easily see the caste discrimination, class elitism and Brahminical domination he had to endure. He took his last breath on a campus where the power elites and Hindutva brigade made it impossible for him to live.

But now it is vital to bring Radhika's experience front and centre to our outrage. On the day of his death, the body of Rohith, along with Radhika and the family, were virtually kidnapped by a police that wanted to rush the post-mortem and cremation without involving anyone from the university. They did not allow her to have a say in his last rites: the cultural practice for Dalit families in Andhra is burial not cremation, so it was another violent shock when the police began to intimidate the family to cremate his body in Hyderabad. With few resources and crippled by grief she had no choice but to do as the police said.

Radhika was pressured to reveal intimate details about her marriage and children for the purpose of establishing Rohith's caste background.

Meanwhile, Radhika was pressured to reveal intimate details about her marriage and children for the purpose of establishing Rohith's caste background. It became public knowledge that she was adopted at very young age by a Vaddera family, but despite that, she says, she was treated as a Dalit woman. She was then married at a very young age to a womanising alcoholic and after years of abuse she had no option but to leave him. It was at this time that she came to know that she belonged to a Dalit Mala caste and armed with that knowledge she fled to a Mala locality. There while all the children got Mala certificate, none of her family bothered at that time. For in villages one can't really hide anything; all details, good and bad, are transparent. So too it was with Radhika and her family's troubles.

Radhika was not only traumatised but now she is humiliated, insulted, and without question one of the accused. Publicly, her reputation was challenged and people began to gossip that "if her husband wasn't there, whose three children did she bear?"

How is it that in this country Dalit women end up being dissected so viciously for the atrocities where they are the survivors? From her life, her loves, her professions, her relationships, her children, why is nothing sacred?

These attacks seem motivated by the BJP leaders and their cadres. They need to save face and to do so a vile and despicable harassment of Radhika is taking place publicly and no one is talking about it. If she belonged to a wealthy and upper dominant caste, would anyone dare do what they have brazenly done to Radhika? Of course not! Rohith's sister, too, is having trouble coping with the tremendous pressure.

How is it that in this country Dalit women end up being dissected so viciously for the atrocities where they are the survivors?

Yet, Radhika is also resilient. As much as she shared her grief she also shared her memories of struggle. She remembered how she brought up her children by toiling hard, doing daily wage work, tailoring at home and in a shop. Every paisa she earned was earned with her sweat and blood. She never depended on her husband and there was nothing to claim from her parents. Alone, she was a rock to her family and her children. This is why it burned so deeply that her sacrifice, her love for her child was being brutally disregarded by the university. Why did this institution, which was supposed to nurture and care for her son, suspend and instead punish him so viciously?

The issue of compensation is disgusting to her. She does not want government charity and jobs for her other children. She wants only justice for Rohith. She wants an end to the institutional murders of our Dalit Bahujan children. She never wants to see another suicide at any other educational institute. Just as in the case of the Nirbhaya rape, and the legislation that followed, she wants a law in Rohith's name that would help deal with caste discrimination.

Dalit lives matter. We must also remember, specifically, that Dalit Women's Lives Matter. Radhika is a survivor. But she is now coping with greater challenges than ever before. Housing is a big concern. Her whole life she has lived in rented houses, but now because of the political pressure she and her family are now homeless. She is still having to deal with threats from RSS politicians and local goons who threatened her and her landlord. Now she must search for a new place for her family to live.

In saying Dalit Women's Lives Matter we must call out the Brahmin-patriarchal, Manuwadis, and Hindutva mentalities that would destroy a woman...to search for her birth certificate and lineage

In saying Dalit Women's Lives Matter we must call out the Brahmin-patriarchal, Manuwadis, and Hindutva mentalities that would destroy a woman and her family to search for her birth certificate and lineage instead of facing their own bloodied legacies. We have to also look at how these ideologies go into the insisting upon a father's name to attribute caste background. Is Radhika not self-determined enough to assert her own identity? And don't her children have this same right to assertion?

I call out to women's empowerment groups who have stayed silent on the issue of Radhika and the violence she and her family are facing. This is intersectional violence of the worst kind. Rohith suffered as a Dalit, but Radhika and her daughter are suffering as both Dalit and as women. And yet where are the voices of your leaders? Will you call out your own institutions and networks of power or is the truth too uncomfortable to bear?

I strongly condemn the casteist and Brahmin-patriarchal treatment of our Dalit sister. We must stand against the abuse of the government's power to harass and investigate Radhika and her family for personal and political purposes. This too is an abuse of Ambedkar's Constitution.

It is unfair to remove Radhika's history of holding her family together as a single mother.

I also call out the vultures of the media (though there are a few exceptions) -- these casteist entities must focus on the perpetrators and the structural reasons for Rohith's death. It is disrespectful to obsess over the details of his birth and to further give space to his father, who was never the head of their family. It is unfair to remove Radhika's history of holding her family together as a single mother.

I finally call upon us all to reflect on Radhika's story as one example of how Dalit women are treated in our country. Let us stand behind Radhika and remind this vicious country that Dalit Bahujan women must have dignity. It is something we will fight for as we battle alongside Radhika and her daughter justice for Rohith and the entire family.

Jai Bheem Comrade!

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