Rohith Vemula
An unfinished portrait


His mother's adoption into an upper caste family which treated her as a servant contributed to what Rohith called "the fatal accident" of his birth

By Sudipto Mondal

T

he backstory of Rohith Vemula’s life starts in the town of Guntur in the summer of 1971, 18 years before he was born. That was the year Anjani Devi – Rohith’s adoptive “grandmother” – triggered the events that the scholar would later describe cryptically as the “fatal accident of my birth” in his suicide note.

“It was around lunchtime. The sun was very hot and a few children were playing under the neem tree outside our house in Prashanth Nagar (Guntur). I spotted a really beautiful little baby girl among them. She was barely able to walk. She must have been a little more than one," Anjani tells HT. That little girl was Rohith's mother, Radhika.

Cursing the local Telugu media for suggesting Rohith might not have been a Dalit, she continues to narrate the story in faultless English. "The baby belonged to a migrant labourer couple that was working on the railway tracks outside our house. I had just lost a baby girl. I was reminded of my own girl.”

Strangely, Radhika, sitting beside, doesn’t speak a word of English. In fact, Anjani’s English appears better than Rohith’s.

Anjani says she asked the labourer couple to “give” her the child and they “happily agreed”. She says there is no record of the transaction. “As simply as that”, little Radhika became the “daughter” of the house, Anjani Devi claims.

“Caste? What is caste? I am a Vaddera (OBC). Radhika’s parents were Mala (Scheduled Caste). I never bothered about her caste. She was like my own daughter. I married her to a man from my caste,” Anjani says and explains how she achieved the feat of the inter-caste marriage between Radhika and Mani Kumar.

Rohith Vemula (in blue a shirt) with his friends, including Sheikh Riyaz during their BSC days in Guntur. Riyaz says Rohith, his siblings and his mother were treated no better than servants at his adoptive grandmother's house. (Photo provided by Sheikh Riyaz)
Rohith Vemula (in blue a shirt) with his friends, including Sheikh Riyaz during their BSC days in Guntur. Riyaz says Rohith, his siblings and his mother were treated no better than servants at his adoptive grandmother's house. (Photo provided by Sheikh Riyaz)

“I had a talk with Mani’s grandfather who was a respected man from the Vaddera community. We agreed that we will keep Radhika’s caste a secret and not tell Mani about it,” she says.

Nileema, the eldest, Rohith in the middle and Raja, the youngest – all three children were born in the first five years of the marriage. Mani was violent with her and irresponsible from the beginning, Radhika says. "A few slaps were a common thing when he was drunk," she says.

Caste? What is caste? I am a Vaddera (OBC). Radhika’s parents were Mala (Scheduled Caste). I never bothered about her caste. She was like my own daughter. I married her to a man from my caste

– Anjani Devi, Rohith’s adoptive grandmother

In the fifth year of marriage, Mani found out Radhika’s secret.

“Somebody in our Vaddera colony in Prashanth Nagar leaked the secret to him that Radhika is an adopted Mala girl. That’s when he started beating her very badly,” Anjani says. Confirming this, Radhika says, “Mani was always abusive. But after he discovered my caste, he became even more violent. He would beat me almost every day and curse his luck for being cheated into marrying an untouchable."


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Anjani Devi claims, she “rescued” her daughter and grandchildren from Mani Kumar. “They left Mani and I welcomed them back into my house in 1990,” she says.

A different picture emerged when HT visited Rohith's birthplace in Guntur and met Sheikh Riyaz, Rohith’s best friend and BSc classmate. Radhika and Raja say Riyaz knows more about Rohith than even they do.

When Raja got engaged to a girl last month, Riyaz performed the rituals that Rohith was supposed to as elder brother. Rohith couldn’t attend the ceremony because of the trouble on the HCU campus.

A poster of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University campus. Rohith's PhD meant much more to him than a mere degree. In the past, he had worked as a construction labourer and a catering boy to fund his education.
A poster of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University campus. Rohith's PhD meant much more to him than a mere degree. In the past, he had worked as a construction labourer and a catering boy to fund his education.

Riyaz is practically family and says he knows exactly why Rohith was lonely in his childhood, why he says in his farewell letter, “Maybe I was wrong, all the while, in understanding the world. In understanding love, pain, life, death”.

“Radhika aunty and her children lived in her mother’s house like servants. They were expected to do all the work in the house while the others sat around. Radhika aunty has been doing household work ever since she was a little girl," Riyaz reveals. If the Child Labour Act had been in force in 1970s, Anjani Devi, the so-called mother of Radhika, could have been charged with keeping a child as domestic help.

Radhika was 14 in 1985 when she was married off to Mani Kumar. Child marriage had been illegal for more than 50 years by that time. Radhika was around 12 or 13 when she discovered to her shock that she was an adopted child and a Mala. “Anjani’s mother, who was still alive then, had badly beaten Radhika and abused her. She was crying near my house. When I asked, she said her grandmother had called her a ‘Mala b****’ for not doing housework and cursed Anjani for bringing her into the house,” says Uppalapaty Danamma, 67.

Radhika aunty and her children lived in her mother’s house like servants. They were expected to do all the work in the house while the others sat around. Radhika aunty has been doing household work ever since she was a little girl

– Sheikh Riyaz, Rohith’s friend

Having seen Rohith’s mother since she was a little girl, Danamma is one of the oldest residents of the neighbourhood, a Dalit leader and former municipal councillor. Her recently refurbished house is at the border that separates the Mala Dalit colony from the Vaddera colony.


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Several other neighbours in the Vaddera colony of Prashanth Nagar said the general perception was that Radhika was a servant girl. One Vaddera resident sounded annoyed with Anjani and told HT that by cheating Mani Kumar and marrying him to Radhika, a Dalit, Anjani had cheated the entire Vaddera community.

"Rohith would hate to go to his grandmother’s house because every time they went, his mother would start working like a maid,” Riyaz says. He says in Radhika’s absence, her children would have to take over the housework. This practice of summoning Rohith’s family for housework continued even after they moved into an independent one-room house a kilometre away.

Throughout his BSc degree in Guntur, Rohith rarely used to go home. He hated it. He used to stay with Riyaz and two other boys in a tiny bachelor pad. He paid for things by working as a construction labourer and catering boy. He distributed pamphlets and worked in exhibitions.

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Anjani has four biological children. Two daughters were born after Radhika came into the family. One son is an engineer and the other a civil contractor. One daughter is a BSc-BEd and the other daughter a BCom-BEd.

The civil contractor is also a well known name in the growing city’s real estate business. He also has close ties to Rajya Sabha MP from the TDP, N Harikrishna, a leader whose lineage goes back to Telugu cinema icon and former Andhra CM, NT Rama Rao.

One of the daughters is married to a successful criminal lawyer in Guntur. Anjani Devi is even more educated than her biological daughters. She has an MA and MEd and was the headmaster of a municipal corporation-run high school in Guntur town. Her husband was a chief engineer in the government. Theirs is one of the oldest and biggest houses in Prakash Nagar.

As somebody who taught teenage schoolgirls, Anjani would in all probability have known what the legal marriageable age was when she married off the 14-year-old Radhika. She was an educationist but denied education to the girl she describes as her “own daughter”. For her biological daughters and sons, however, she reserved the best.

Rohith's adoptive grandmother Anjani Devi's house in Prashanth Nagar. While Anjani Devi adopted Rohith's mother as a child, she emerges at best as a benevolent employer than a caring mother.
Rohith's adoptive grandmother Anjani Devi's house in Prashanth Nagar. While Anjani Devi adopted Rohith's mother as a child, she emerges at best as a benevolent employer than a caring mother.

It explains why Anjani speaks faultless English and her ‘daughter’ and 'grandsons' don't. Anjani Devi was kind enough to let a Dalit servant girl stay in the house. She even allowed the child to call her 'mother'. But Anjani Devi emerges at best a benevolent employer and not a caring mother.


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Rohith was secretive about his personal life when he moved to HCU for his MSc and PhD. Even his closest friends did not know the entire family history. Everybody knew bits and pieces. Ramji, his closest friend and ASA comrade, knew Rohith had done menial jobs to make ends meet. But he did not know that his “grandmother” was a well off woman. None of the HCU students, many of them close friends of Rohith’s, knew anything about the darkest chapters of his life that he wasn’t even willing to reveal in his death note.

Before speaking to Anjani for the second time, HT spoke to Raja Vemula for permission to run this story. His first reaction was that of shock and he wanted to know how we found out. When he learnt the names of all the people HT spoke to in Guntur, he broke down and said, “Yes this is our truth. This is the truth that my brother and I would want to hide the most. We felt ashamed to reveal that the woman we call 'grandma' (in English) is actually our master.”

Raja narrates a few chapters from his own life that give a sense of what Rohith must have gone through. He says he got the 11th rank in the Andhra University MSc entrance exam and joined the course. Two months later, he got the results of Pondicherry University, considered better, and he wanted to shift there.

“Andhra University wanted me to pay Rs 6,000 for the transfer certificate. I had no money and my grandmother’s family did not help. I had no option but to ask my Andhra University friends for help. Some of them gave me Rs 5 and 10. That was 2011. It was the first time in my life that I felt like a worthless beggar,” Raja says.

When he first landed in Pondicherry, Raja slept in an ashram for destitute AIDS patients for nearly 20 days. “Then, a senior of mine, who lived outside the campus in an independent house, took me as a domestic help. I would do the housework and he would let me sleep in his house,” Raja says.

Raja talks about the one time he spent five days without food in Pondicherry. “All my college mates were quite well off. They would bring pizzas and burgers from outside campus and nobody would even ask me why I was looking weak. Everybody there knew that I was starving,” he says.

Andhra University wanted me to pay Rs 6,000 for the transfer certificate. I had no money and my grandmother’s family did not help. I had no option but to ask my Andhra University friends for help. It was the first time in my life that I felt like a worthless beggar

– Raja Vemula, Rohith’s brother

Despite the deprivation, he scored 65% in his MSc first year and 70% in his final year. But why did his grandmother not come to his rescue? “You should ask her this question,” Raja says.

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When HT met Anjani once again, she was staying at an HCU professor's house on campus along with Radhika and Raja. Raja didn't want to be part of the meeting and waited outside.

Asked how she speaks better English than her ‘daughter’, Anjani says Radhika is “not very intelligent”. Asked how her own children are all graduates while Rohith’s mother was married off at 14, she says, “We found a rich boy from a good family, so we arranged the marriage.” She claims she did not know that Mani Kumar had a bad reputation. Anjani claims that Radhika did not want to study further.

Riyaz shows the one room tenement where Rohit lived with his siblings and mother. Even though both Rohith and Raja were academically brilliant, they had to scrounge to make ends meet. Their grandmother's family never came forward with financial help.
Riyaz shows the one room tenement where Rohit lived with his siblings and mother. Even though both Rohith and Raja were academically brilliant, they had to scrounge to make ends meet. Their grandmother's family never came forward with financial help.

But by this time, Riyaz had already set the record straight. “Radhika aunty returned to education through her children. By learning their school lessons herself before teaching them at home,” he says. Radhika finished her graduation along with her sons.

"When Rohith was in final year BSc, Radhika aunty was doing her second year BA and Raja was in BSc first year. First Rohith passed, next year it was aunty and the year after that Raja passed. We all used to study together sometimes. Once we all had exams on the same day,” Riyaz recalls.

When Anjani is presented with specific instances and asked why she and her biological family did not help with the education of her two academically brilliant "grandchildren", she gives this reporter a long stare before finally saying, “I don’t know.”

Was Rohith Vemula’s family treated like servants in her house? “I don’t know,” Anjani says again. “Who told you all this? Your plan is to get me into trouble, right?”

Anjani did not dispute a single fact that HT collected from Guntur. After a point she lowered her eyes and indicated she wanted this reporter to leave.

Rohith’s happiest days were spent in the company of his best friend Riyaz.

Riyaz took HT on a tour of their favourite haunts, the sites of their many adventures. In six hours spent criss-crossing Guntur, it seemed every street had a Rohith-Riyaz story.

The parties, the teenage crushes, failed Valentine's Day proposals, brawls over girls, movies, music, boy gang parties, English music, footballer hairstyles -- things Rohith was seeing for the first time.

Riyaz insists he was always the sidekick and Rohith the hero. “This one time, he was thrown out of a class because he was asking too many questions of a teacher who couldn’t answer them. The principal, who knew about Rohith’s brilliance, intervened on his side and asked the teacher to prepare better for the class," Riyaz says.

Rohith had a good knowledge of the internet. He would often prove to teachers that their syllabus was outdated. He knew science websites that the teachers didn’t. He was always ahead of the class, Riyaz says.

He says that there were only a few casteist elements on campus and most of the teachers were secular at the Hindu College in Guntur.

“The distractions aside, Rohith's life was about just two things: finding part-time jobs and spending time on the internet. He was a huge fan of Julian Assange and used to spend hours with the Wikileaks files,” says Riyaz. When he finished his BSc, Rohith was spoilt for postgraduate options.


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His PhD course was not meant just for a certificate. His research was a combination of social sciences and technology. A lot of his knowledge of the social sciences, Riyaz says, came from his association with groups like ASA and SFI which place a lot of emphasis on their cadres reading political theory.

Rohith called Riyaz a week before he died. “He told me he was afraid he would have to discontinue his PhD. He said the opposition ABVP was too strong as they had the support of MPs and MLAs, ministers as well as the university management. He had given up hope of victory,” Riyaz says.

Rohith Vemula's entry in Sheikh Riyaz's slam book. Riyaz says that Rohith fought against the caste discrimination he faced while growing up. He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further. (Photo provided by Sheikh Riyaz)
Rohit Vemula's entry in Sheikh Riyaz's slam book. hRiyaz says that Rohith fought against the caste discrimination he faced while growing up. "He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further. (Photo provided by Sheikh Riyaz)

The two friends talked for a long time and slowly Rohith’s mood started improving when they started discussing a business plan they had hatched six months ago with three other close friends in Guntur. “We will start a business and rule Guntur,” Rohith said in that conversation.

He kept repeating in that phone call that the PhD was most important to him not because it would lead to a career but because he wanted to break fresh ground with his research, Riyaz says.

…the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living

– Rohith Vemula’s suicide note

Did a lifetime of unequal treatment add to the conditions at the university in leading Rohith to take his own life?

"His family story haunted Rohith all his life," Riyaz says. "He faced caste discrimination in the house where he grew up. But instead of succumbing, Rohith fought it out. He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further."

After all his battles, in his own words, Rohith gave up when he realised that "the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living."

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Producer: Sheikh Saaliq
Photos: Sudipto Mondal
Cover Photo: PTI