With heavy hearts, a sense of frustration and a deep feeling of hopelessness, people affected by caste, concerned students, teachers, citizens and organisations were gearing up to observe Rohith Vemula's death anniversary on 17 January, 2017. At the same time, the government of Andhra Pradesh was set to send a report to the central government, based on revenue officials' "findings" that Rohith Vemula and his family could not be identified as "Dalit".
These kinds of "findings" are nothing new. Time and again justice has been denied to people who have suffered caste atrocities. In fact, such findings are expected from a state that is blatantly casteist, patriarchal, corrupt and run according to the Hindu lawmaker Manu's values.
The government went on a warpath... attempting to "prove" that Rohith Vemula was not a "Dalit". In the process, they brutally demeaned the efforts of Radhika Vemula.
However, for those who continue to fight, 17 January 2016, is not just a day that marks the death—the institutional murder—of one Rohith Vemula or even the existence of intense levels of caste-based discrimination. As Kula Nirmulana Porata Samithi (Committee for the Struggle of Annihilation of Caste) rightly declared, it is nothing less than the day of annihilation of caste with the spirit of Rohith Vemula's struggle.
Rohith's death brought to light the sharp injustices that exist on college and university campuses throughout India. In particular, it brought into the open, the roots of the corrupt collaborations between the ruling political parties and university administrations. It forced people to reckon with the triple Manuwad rule of Narendra Modi, Smriti Irani, and Appa Rao Podile. These associations are working relationships, whose conflicts of interest are invisibilised by the use of brute force by local BJP leaders and party stooges.
Memories of the events preceding Rohith's death are still fresh for many of us. After five Dalit students were expelled from their hostel facilities and suspended, they erected a velivada (Dalit ghetto) on campus, out in the open air, where they slept in the cold winter. The velivada was visited by representatives of organisations and people showing solidarity daily. At the time he passed away, solidarity programmes were still taking place at the Velivada. When someone announced that Rohith had hanged himself in a hostel room, thousands of students ran there. But it was too late.
Soon after, Radhika Vemula, who had brought up her son with her sweat and blood, came into the picture. The grieving mother left no stone unturned in order to get justice for the institutional murder of her son. She approached political parties, organisations and the state. However, each one of these avenues failed her. Party members and organisations tried to gain political mileage out of the tragedy. The government went on a warpath, using every piece of state machinery at their disposal to remove culpability from themselves by attempting to "prove" that Rohith Vemula was not a "Dalit". In the process, they brutally demeaned the efforts of Radhika Vemula.
It has to be noted that winning any battle against caste has never been easy in India. Caste-based discrimination and violence is denied outright by the people and the state alike. Efforts by some individuals have ensured that the international community is apprised of and recognises caste as a form of racial discrimination. Despite such efforts, the biggest blow to Dalit movements is that it allows the Indian state to record caste-based atrocities, make policies, implement reservation... and yet deny the existence of the caste problem!
Her entire life was scanned by two different forces—one under the excuse of carrying out justice, and the other, to discredit Rohith's struggle.
Here, Dalit women bear the maximum brunt of caste violence. To be true to the memory of Vemula, we need to look at the #JusticeforRohith movement through the lenses of both caste and gender.
The world stood witness to how Radhika Vemula was harassed to reveal her caste identity and continues to be pressurised to accept that she, her family and her late son were not Dalits. Her entire life was scanned by two different forces—one under the excuse of carrying out justice, and the other, to discredit Rohith's struggle.
As a result of the intense students' struggle, the #JusticeforRohith movement forced the police to file the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989. But this was soon turned into a diversionary strategy with the state turning its full attention to the singular and false attempt to "establish[ing] their (caste) identity". The actual case itself was conveniently ignored. This lies at the crux of the problem for the Vemulas. If attention is not diverted to excavating Rohith's caste background, actual action can be taken. Questions such as why the velivada came to exist and why Rohith hanged himself on campus could be answered. Ministers, university officials, BJP party people and members of their affiliated organisations could be arrested. The search into the Vemulas' identity is a way to defend and exculpate those who are responsible for the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula.
In the face of serious and perhaps insurmountable opposition, Radhika Vemula is fighting tooth and nail, risking her life, facing a hostile society, media and corrupt political parties. She received several promises from many quarters but failed to see justice. Her health deteriorated due to the sudden demise of her son. Despite that, she continued to support all kinds of struggles for justice—against caste, for adivasis, for the trans community, for Muslims. She was physically present supporting the protests against the murder of Jisha in Kerala, she joined the crowds in Una, Gujarat, and she is now standing with the mother of Najeeb, a student who mysteriously "disappeared" from JNU. As she travels across the country to support different struggles, she has become an ambassador for the anti-caste struggle in her own right.
Radhika Vemula, as a mother, does not have any rights over her son. His caste status is determined by the word of his father, validating a Manuwad, patriarchal and Hindu standard...
Why is the government of Andhra Pradesh in such a hurry to establish a report stating that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit? What does it convey to the people of India who are fighting caste? What is the perception of caste and gender in the Indian context, through its judiciary or bureaucracy? Here it is! Dr. B.R. Ambedkar designed the Constitution to enable the "untouchables", the most depressed classes, women, and minorities to get justice in this Hindu society. However progressively the Constitution was written, it failed to provide any justice for these sections—one need only look at the status of Dalits and women in this country to see that. The Hindu Code Bill, proposed by Ambedkar, which was to give equal status to women, was never really tabled in the Parliament, and scrapped. After that, we haven't seen any man in this country talking about the rights (including political rights) of women and other oppressed subsections of the population.
So here we are. Radhika Vemula, as a mother, does not have any rights over her son. His caste status is determined by the word of his father, validating a Manuwad, patriarchal and Hindu standard according to which the father is the owner of his children, who get his status, caste, property etc. Then who is a mother? What about the woman who bears a child in her womb for nine months and risks her own life to give birth? When a father leaves his Dalit wife and children to their destiny, how can the boy claim his father's caste status? Who even decides the status of one's own caste in this country? Evidence, meanwhile, can be altered to suit any one. But, let's be clear: Rohith's entire life was lived as a Dalit. His mother lived in a Dalit basthi, and they faced caste discrimination throughout their lives. Rohith's life on campus too was that of a Dalit student. But all these facts are being discounted in front of a Hindu mindset and power politics. In a bid to let the perpetrators go scot free, mud is being thrown on Radhika Vemula from all directions.
She was not allowed to pay homage at her son's stupa located in the velivada in HCU, yet Rohith's father was escorted to the site in a police vehicle.
Instead of enquiring about his life in the University of Hyderabad, where Rohith lived, Revenue officials were scouting in Gurajala village for information about his antecedents. Instead of understanding a mother's struggle for justice, they are blaming Radhika Vemula for acquiring a Scheduled Caste certificate. They are not only denying justice to Rohith Vemula but continuously targeting Radhika Vemula—the entire system is united in this. The whole world knows that Radhika Vemula single-handedly brought up her children. But her account has no value—government officials dismiss her because she is a Dalit, a woman, poor and without any political backing. When teachers and students associated with the movement were jailed under false allegations, the justice system did not seek any evidence or proof and they were simply put away behind bars.
Fathima Nafees, the mother of Najeeb Ahmad, a JNU student who has been missing for more than three months now, joined the struggle along with Radhika Vemula. Both mothers were harassed publicly by the police. The media captured images of them being dragged and beaten but they continue to be projected as poor and illiterate rather than as women who are leading battles. The quintessential media heroes are young, dynamic male voices shouting slogans and enjoying the support of political parties that are backed by the dominant castes.
Whether Rohith is declared a Dalit or not, he is and was a Dalit who fought for freedom and justice. His mother is continuing his struggle, inspiring many women and youth...
On 17 January, Radhika Vemula was detained by male police officers late in the evening and not allowed to enter HCU. Along with her son Raja, other students and activists, she was driven around and taken to different locations and police stations, signifying what a terror she had become to the university administration and the police. She was not allowed to pay homage at her son's stupa located in the velivada in HCU, yet Rohith's father was escorted to the site in a police vehicle. Why must the police resort to such politicking? A father who was never there in Rohith Vemula's life, never showed up when he ended his life, was suddenly discovered and pandered to by all state forces, as soon as the SC/ST PoA case was filed against the culprits. As an alcoholic father, he never cared for his children, but became the most prominent voice to establish evidence that Rohith was a BC child. Incidentally, he had never visited Rohith's stupa during the entire year-long protest, but was brought there on the anniversary. As an institution of higher learning, the University of Hyderabad had perhaps never before conducted research of such magnitude—involving the State, police, government officials and political parties—to prove the fixed hypothesis and lie that Rohith not a Dalit!
In the end, even if the Hindu, Manuwad and patriarchal mindsets have the final word, Rohith Vemula's death will not be easily forgotten. It will not go in vain. Radhika Vemula's struggle will continue. Caste oppression is not confined to caste alone—it includes gender too, as it targets women. Whether Rohith is finally declared a Dalit or not, he is and was a Dalit, an untouchable man who fought for freedom and justice. His mother is continuing his struggle, inspiring many women and youth to fight caste and injustice.