Rohith Vemula's suicide: One year later, not much has changed at the University of Hyderabad

On Tuesday, Raja Vemula will travel to the University of Hyderabad, from where he got a phone call exactly a year ago informing him that his brother Rohith Vemula had committed suicide on the evening of 17 January. The University is familiar territory for Raja and his mother Radhika Vemula. The crusade for justice for Rohith made them household names in the country but it also brought them ridicule, abuse and name-calling.

On the one hand, they were feted for making Rohith the face of Dalit dissent in India against powerful men, women and administrative structures. On the other, they were accused of lying and cheating to get a fake caste certificate that said they are Dalits.

File photo of Rohith Vemula. @akslal/ Twitter

File photo of Rohith Vemula. @akslal/ Twitter

The mother and son now are back in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, where Radhika has returned to her vocation of tailoring. Raja, despite being a post graduate in Applied Geology from Pondicherry University, has taken up the job of an auto-driver so that he can be with his mother.

Raja and Radhika Vemula's present condition is an answer to those who ask them what has been gained in one year of struggle after Rohith's death. They could well read out these lines from Rohith's suicide note: "I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty."

On Tuesday, Rohith's family will be part of an event that will bring together similar aggrieved people. Jaan Mohammed Saifi is Akhlaq's brother from Dadri. In September 2015, Akhlaq was lynched to death by a mob on suspicion of storing beef at his home. There will be the Dalit victims from Una in Gujarat who were flogged in July last year for allegedly indulging in cow slaughter. As will be Fatima Nafees, the mother of Najeeb, the JNU student who has been missing since 15 October, allegedly following an on-campus scuffle with ABVP leaders. ABVP is the student wing of the BJP, which was also in the eye of the storm at Hyderabad university.

A year ago, slogans were in the air. A cry for justice. The villains were former Union HRD Miniser Smriti Irani and Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya for playing a part in expelling Rohith and four other Dalit research scholars from hostel. As was Vice Chancellor Appa Rao for ensuring the exit. The FIR mentioned the three names.

Wearing a sense of victimhood on their sleeve, Dalit students spoke out against perceived victimisation inside a "Brahmin agraharam-like campus". They called Rohith's suicide, ironically using the banner of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) as a noose, a "Brahminical institutional murder". "We do not want to do research on your Ram, Sita and Ganesh," the protesters said on stage, underlining the faultlines and the deep caste divide.

Us versus Them

A year later, Dalit professors and students point out that nothing much has changed in the last one year. Decisions, they say, are still taken by non-Dalits at the University. The change, if any, has been for the worse. Even those who were part of the protests last year, do not want to go on record now. The reason perhaps is that over 40 students and two faculty members were booked by the police, ironically after a lathicharge on them in March. "The powers that be have made one thing clear. That the University can suppress you," says a research scholar on campus.

If you analyse how events panned out post Rohith's suicide, you realise it was like a cat-and-mouse game being played out. The University and the governments — in New Delhi and in Hyderabad — waited and watched while non-BJP politicians trooped in to lend their support to the protesting students. Students are powerful shoulders and with the Dalit angle in the mix, politicians, from Rahul Gandhi to Arvind Kejriwal to Sitaram Yechury, saw in the agitation potential to label the BJP as anti-Dalit.

But once the TV cameras moved out, the University moved in. Outsiders were barred entry and Appa Rao who had proceeded on leave after the suicide, returned. Since then, normalcy — at least on the surface — has returned to campus, but everyone who was part of the protest, was a marked man.

The more important mission was to destroy Rohith's credibility. And here, the confusing story of his mother's early life came handy. Radhika, apparently a Dalit, was adopted as a baby by a backward caste family and also married to a man from the caste. But Radhika, after separating from her abusive alcoholic husband, had raised her three children according to Dalit customs. Rohith had submitted a Dalit certificate at the time of admission to the University but took admission under general quota, without availing of reservation.

So while the attempt all along has been to prove that Rohith was not a Dalit, the fact remains that till he was alive, everyone believed he was one and treated him as one. The non-Dalit student leaders on campus did not take kindly to Dalit aggression, the kind Rohith practised.

The jury is out on who was in the wrong — the ASA that organised a prayer meeting for Yakub Memon in August 2015, just after he was hanged on the orders of the Supreme Court or the ABVP leader Susheel Kumar who criticised them in a Facebook post or Rohith and friends who allegedly bullied and manhandled Susheel or the University that took disciplinary action by expelling Rohith and four research scholars from the hostel. The fact remains that caste has remained an underlying powerful narrative even as campus politics played out. The University officials did not cover themselves with glory by appearing to side with the ABVP.

If the agitation for justice for Rohith was meant to bring closure, it has not. Instead shrill rhetoric and finger pointing, bordering on unpleasantness and intolerance has marked the discourse over the last one year. Caste and religion and not academic brilliance, dominates campus chatter. Mistrust has its roots in a birth certificate. Friendships are homogeneous bonds, the varna the deciding factor in many cases.

The subject of the Tuesday meeting is to "reject victimhood and reclaim resistance". While no one denies that such resistance to authoritarianism of any kind is very important, it has only led to confrontation, increasingly replacing dialogue in India's polity. The only dialogue one hears are monologues. India at 70 deserves better.

Published Date: Jan 17, 2017 08:12 AM | Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 08:12 AM

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