By Seema Guha
On one side is Smriti Irani, the powerful Human Resources Development minister, confident larger than life, breathing fire and brimstone as she takes on the opposition in Parliament and defends her action in the Rohith Vemula case. Prime Minter Narendra Modi himself applauds her performance in a tweet.
Ranged against her is Radhika Vemula, a poor Dalit woman. A woman who kept the home fires burning with the help of a sewing machine. Her son, Rohith had a picture of her sewing machine in his facebook page with the caption: "This is my mom's favorite occupation... she used to say 'machine' can make women powerful... she is a teacher now, she teaches sewing and embroidery to the women around...."
The shock of her son’s suicide had brought her out of her comfort zone. She is in Delhi seeking justice for Rohith and taking on the fiery HRD minister. Extreme grief and a burning desire to fight those opposed to her son, has given her a sense of determination. She is calm and, controlled while talking about Rohith. She speaks firmly about the injustice done to her son and calls the minister "a liar." She wants Smriti Irani to explain "how my son had become an anti nationalist.’’ Her demand to the PM is simple: sack Smriti Irani for lying to Parliament.
But this is where the David and Goliath comparison ends.
Taking on the high and the mighty in India is not easy for any one, more so for a person of Radhika Vemula’s background. All the cards are stacked against her. Smriti Irani has the backing of the entire government as well as the larger Sangh Parivar with her. The mother's plea to sack the Irani and others responsible for driving her son to suicide, will never happen. Nor will those who promptly took orders from the HRD ministry in Delhi be punished. Neither the Vice Chancellor, Bandaru Dattatreya, the ABVP students, or even the MLC who backed them will suffer.
Yet the resentment against the high handed attitude of the HRD ministry against Dalit students is resonating across the country. The bush fires it is stoking may spread in the least expected ways and jolt the government's complacency.
Radhika Vemula is bitter about the conduct of the Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile and the university authorities: "The vice chancellor did not bother to meet me even after my son died.’’ She went on to speak about the letter he had written to the VC a day before he committed suicide, when Rohith asked Podile to provide all dalit students with 10 mg of sodium cyanide and a rope at the time of admission, pointing to the discrimination lower caste students faced in the university. The letter gave an indication of Rohith’s state of mind that day, and yet the authorities did not think it fit to alert the family.
The press release issued by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, which is spearheading the movement for justice said : "This letter expresses the anger and disgust over the injustice meted out to the five dalit research scholars. This explains what Smriti Irani meant when she stated in the parliament, “I am not going to apologise for doing my duty.” Yes, her duty was to impose Angavastra on students attending the Convocation in University of Hyderabad. Yes, her duty was to scrap fellowships and sell education to WTO. Yes, her duty was to send five letters to the Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao Podile to push for the order of social boycott on the witch-hunted five Dalit research scholars. Yes, her duty has been to hoist a 207 feet Indian flag to instil nationalism among the “antinationals”… We are in shock looking at the statement made by the Prime Minister of India on twitter. His statement “Satyameva Jayate” for Smriti Irani’s dramatic and shameless outcry exposes yet again the larger conspiracy behind the witch-hunting of dalit students.’’
At the press conference, Rohith's fellow researchers took on the HRD minister point by point. They said that Irani’s statement in Parliament that students did not allow the doctor to reach him was a lie. She also said that a Scheduled Caste representative was part of the committee that recommended action against Rohith and his fellow students. The decision to rusticate the students was taken by Executive Council where there were no schedule caste member. They have asked her to disclose the names of the members of the Executive Committee. They also took journalists step by step through the process which led to Rohith’s suicide and showed how Smriti Irani, Bandaru Dattatreya and the ABVP students joined hands to punish the Dalit students. "It is these ministers and the BJP whose political interference and the casteist attitude of the VC and other complicit administrators that led to the politicisation and death of Rohith,’’ the students said.