Rohith Vemula's death anniversary: Dalit politics in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana has been sidelined

Had he been alive, 28-year-old Rohith Chakravarti Vemula, son of a Mala (SC) mother and a Vaddera (OBC) father, would have passed out as a PhD degree holder in Social Sciences with distinction in October 2016.

Many of his fellow scholars and his professors say that Rohith’s thesis in Social Sciences would have set a new milestone. “He had almost finished research, only drafting was left,” said one of his mentors Professor K Lakshminarayana.

A torch rally was taken out in memory of Rohith Vemula on the night of 16 January.

A torch rally was taken out in memory of Rohith Vemula on the night of 16 January.

Rohith Vemula's tragic suicide on 17 January, 2016 sparked off a movement that made him a symbol of protests against caste oppression. Since his death, his face and name have become familiar at national protests from JNU in Delhi to Una in Gujarat and the University of Hyderabad.

In November 2015, the University of Hyderabad’s Executive Council had expelled five students including Rohith Vemula, all Dalits, from the hostel and barred their access to public places on campus. The action came in the wake of their alleged support of a documentary screening of Yakub Memon on campus and allegedly assaulting an ABVP student leader.

They were only allowed to attend lectures and pursue their research but denied access to the library, hostels, canteens and also university hospital. The issue snowballed into a political storm after Vemula committed suicide in a hostel room on 17 January last year.

Vemula had been on the wrong side of the Human Resources Department and his scholarship money of Rs 25,000 per month (a CSIR-Junior Research Fellowship) was scrapped in July 2015. He was declared a non-Dalit after he became a champion of Dalit causes and emerged as a leader of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). His strong links with the ASA and his hard-hitting writing, his skills as an orator, earned him more enemies in the college and the ABVP camp but carved him a niche in the Dalit movement of the country.

A question of caste

“My son’s skills as an orator and his intellect turned out to be his bane,” rues his mother Radhika Vemula, speaking with Firstpost before she was detained by the Hyderabad police on the night of 17 January. She asserts that her son had never liked to claim his caste and that it was his talent and hard work that put him on the path of glory and envy of his detractors in the upper castes.

Rohith is also on record stating that he had not got his seat in UoH on the basis of his caste. His friends and family say that he never liked to be referred to as Dalit and got admission for Masters and PhD in Life Science from HCU in the Open Category. “I have not shared my family background with anyone,” he wrote in one of his Facebook entries. He changed from Life Sciences to Social Sciences following his entry into Dalit activism.

The controversial birth certificate

The status of Rohith’s suicide case now is centred on the certificate of his caste by the revenue authorities of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, where he hails from. The Cyberabad police who booked a case against University authorities under the Prevention of Atrocities towards SCs and STs Act say that they are still awaiting an official communication from Guntur revenue officials on whether Vemula belonged to the Vaddera Other Backward Classes (OBC) caste of his father or to the Mala Scheduled Caste (SC) as claimed by his mother. Guntur’s District Collector Kantilal Dande has already submitted a report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes that Vemula was a Dalit. All records and investigations proved he was a Dalit.

However, the District Collector’s version goes contrary to that of the findings of the one-man judicial committee led by former Allahabad High Court Justice AK Roopanwal set up by the Union Ministry of HRD. The Committee says that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit but a Vaddera (OBC). The Committee has even blamed mother Radhika and her social condition — poverty and the issue of being estranged from her husband, stating that it drove her to seek the SC caste certificate in order to claim the benefits for her children.

Dalit movement in Andhra and Telangana

As unbridled casteism surrounded the Telugu states in pre-independent India, the forward communities — Reddys, Brahmins and Kammas — dominated in Andhra and Velamas and Reddys dominated in the Telangana region. Dalits, tribals and BCs had survived through centuries in the Telugu lands dominated by these landlords.

Since 1995, the Dalit movement in the state has been caught up in the web of reservations-oriented activism. Dalit castes, such as Mala and Adi-Andhra, became socially and politically conscious and gained employment and education opportunities, using the benefits of welfare and reservations for Scheduled Castes.

On the other hand, Dalit sub-castes like the Madiga and Relli which lacked education had failed to grab advantages of the government welfare programs and reservation. “It is due to this reason that the benefits of SCs were taken largely by Malas and Madigas are nowhere in government jobs, higher studies and still remain as cobblers,” explains Manda Krishna Madiga, leader of the MRPS (Madiga Reservation Protection Samiti).

The MRPS wanted government to set up a committee to categorise SCs as per their social and economic backwardness and re-allocate the quota among all. “We want the SC quota to be categorised as ABCD so that the least developed castes could get better reservation and representation,” Dalit advocate, the late Bojja Tarakam, had said.

But the Malas opposed any reworking of the Dalit quota, contending that it broke the unity of Dalits and also that Madigas could complete and get education to get their share of quota instead. They also formed Mala Mahanadu, a frontal organisation for Malas. “Formation of Mala Mahanadu had exposed the Mala domination and also strengthened the Madiga charge,” said K Balagopal, who during his stint in APCLC (Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee) campaigned intensively for Madiga promotion in rural Telangana.

Left out by the Left

In pre-independent India, Left parties and the Marxist–Leninist (ML) sections supported the Dalit movements as part of their battle against the landed gentry. But over the years, Dalits were disillusioned with the Left parties led by prominent upper caste leaders. “How can we expect justice from upper caste leaders like Sudhakar Reddy (CPI) and P Madhu (CPM)?” asked Dr Siddoji, a Dalit teacher in Hyderabad.

After the Telugu Desam Party arrived on the political scene in the 1980s, the CPI and CPM became permanent allies of the regional party and their political agenda was just a photocopy of the larger party. These parties took advantages of the ruling party – MP seats in Rajya Sabha, land for party offices and other such perks, and did not differ with the ruling party on all issues of suppression of Maoists and quelling of rural upsurge. The ultras also gave up Dalit patronisation after the latter walked into the trap of quota, sub-plans and SC/ST welfare programs created by ruling parties.

The Dalit movement continued as a front for students and aggrieved farmers but never threatened the upper castes. “Caught in the vortex of quota raj, sub-plans and representations in Cabinet and Assembly, the Dalit campaign remained on paper and surfaced only during atrocities on Dalits,” said C Arjun Rao, a senior Dalit bureaucrat, who was denied the elevation due to him as Chief Secretary. Caught in these vicious circles, Dalit groups have all along been taken for a ride by their leadership. Social dignity continues to be a dream for them. “If a bright Dalit topped the merit lists, he is still tagged as a bright Dalit student and not a bright student,” laments Velupula Sunkanna, who in October 2016, refused to accept his doctorate from the hands of the controversial UoH Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile.

On his part, Podile has been reiterating that he was not anti-Dalit and that he was also not a pro-BJP guy as he has been frequently accused. “I am unnecessarily caught in student politics, as during my earlier stints in the university, I earned the grudge of students,” he says.

Published Date: Jan 18, 2017 08:47 AM | Updated Date: Jan 18, 2017 08:47 AM

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