Mumbai: Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's family on Thursday converted to Buddhism nearly three months after he committed suicide that unleashed a firestorm of protests with his brother declaring they want 'azadi' (freedom) from the "oppressive" caste system.
On a day that marked Dr B R Ambedkar's 125th birth anniversary, Rohith's mother Radhika and brother Naga Chaitanya Vemula, also known as Raja Vemula, were given 'deeksha' by Buddhist monks at a function in Mumbai in the presence of the Dalit icon's grandson Prakash Ambedkar. Rohith, 27, a student of Hyderabad Central University (HCU), had committed suicide on 17 January inside the campus.
Raja hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the NDA government for trying to "suppress" people who are raising their voice while at the same time invoking Baba sahib's (Dr Ambedkar) name using his birth anniversary events.
"We are against the caste system in Hinduism and have, therefore, decided to embrace Buddhism which does not have such an oppressive system of castes," Raja said, adding, "We want 'azadi' (freedom) from the caste system."
"From today, my mother and I will be free from shame, free from the daily humiliation, free from the guilt of praying to the same god in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries," he said at the function.
Dr Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution, had converted to Buddhism at a grand ceremony in Nagpur in 1956 as he was strongly opposed to the caste system in Hinduism.
"My brother Rohith was a Buddhist at heart although he did not convert. He took his own life as he was discriminated because he was a Dalit. We performed his last rites according to Buddhist traditions, honouring his love for Buddhism."
"Rohith used to talk of Buddhism a lot. He had also written a letter to the Vice Chancellor about how Dalits are discriminated against on the campus. My mother feels that we should honour Rohith by embracing Buddhism," he said.
Prakash Ambedkar said the function for the duo was organised after Radhika Vemula approached him and conveyed their wish to embrace Buddhism when he visited Hyderabad recently.
He said for the first time liberty and the way of living is being "challenged".
"Even Dr Ambedkar admitted during his days when he was in Cabinet that right wing leadership will create difficulties later on to impose their views on the society," Prakash said.
Raja and Radhika Vemula, along with Rohith's childhood friend Riyaz Shaikh and Hyderabad university student Charbad Raju were present at the function.
Rohith's elder sister, who is married, has not converted to Buddhism.
"My brother wanted to be a Buddhist. He tried to take up Buddhism but couldn't make it," Raja said.
In a statement, Raja said, "Had my brother been alive, he would have been proud of the steps we have taken today."
"From today, my mother and I are going to start the kind of life that he always dreamt of."