A year on, Rohith Vemula’s death still caught in caste web
Last January, PhD student Rohith Vemula killed himself at the University of Hyderabad after alleged caste-based discrimination, triggering protests across India.
Rohith’s mother Radhika has been fighting for justice for her son, travelling to different parts of the country to address students and mobilise support to punish the perpetrators and enact a non-discrimination “Rohith” act.
But focus has remained on Rohith’s caste status as government reports have submitted contradictory findings. HT’s Sudipto Mondal pieces together the family’s ordeal and resistance over the past year:
Guntur June 10, 11am
Rohith Vemula’s paternal grandfather Venkateshwarulu Vemula had arrived as promised. Nobody had expected that he would come all the way from his village in Andhra Pradesh’s Gurzala to speak against his own son and take the side of his estranged, lowered-caste daughter-in-law.
Venkateshwarulu had come to submit an affidavit to the Guntur collector saying his son and Rohith’s father Mani Kumar was an alcoholic who had beaten his wife and abandoned his children before finally being separated legally from them. He had come to declare that the children belonged to the mother, Radhika.
The statement had the potential to turn a case that had not moved forward since Rohith’s suicide six months earlier. The police had not taken action against the BJP leaders accused under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act for harassing Rohith till he killed himself. Instead, an inquiry was launched to find out whether Rohith was from the Mala Scheduled Caste like his mother Radhika or OBC like his father Mani Kumar. If it could be proved that he was not a Dalit or SC, the case under the SC/ST Act against the politicians would fall.
Mani Kumar was the trump card. One of the highlights of the weeks following Rohith’s death was Mani Kumar’s drunken appearances in television studios and press conferences where he claimed not only that Rohith “belonged” to him since he was the father but also that he was murdered. His claims were given wide publicity in a section of the media and also got admitted as evidence to contest Rohith Vemula’s Dalit identity.
Venkateshwarulu was worried that Mani Kumar would try to stop him and wanted to finish the process quickly. “He has tried to kill me many times…just for alcohol,” the panicky old man said. I turned on the recorder as he started dictating to the lawyer: “My son did not do anything for his children. Their mother Radhika brought them up. Even I did not do anything for them as their grandfather. The children belong to her. If she is Mala, then they are Mala.”
He also explained how Raja Vemula, Rohith’s younger brother, was originally given an OBC certificate and listed as a Vaddera like his father and grandfather. “Raja was born in my village Gurzala not in Guntur. Radhika, who had separated from Mani two months after Raja’s birth, had asked me to help get his birth certificate.
I asked the village revenue officer to fill in the details in the certificate and said that the boy is my grandson. The officer assumed that my grandson will be a Vaddera. But that is not the case. My son broke up his marriage with Radhika Vemula when he discovered that she is a Mala.”
When we got to the collector’s office with Venkateshwarulu, Radhika and Raja, nobody was willing to receive the affidavit. The elderly man was made to go up, down and around the building several times looking for the collector before a peon took pity and revealed that the the bucreaucrat was in his residence across the street. I followed when they rushed to meet him. When they entered his compound, he refused to meet. He gestured to us from his lawn where he was having tea that we should turn around and go away. We went back to the office where one clerk finally agreed to accept the grandfather’s affidavit but refused to give a receipt. After another hour of haggling, another clerk in the joint collector ’s (JC) office put a stamp on a copy of the affidavit but refused to sign on it. It was past sunset by then and everybody decided to settle for the stamp without the signature.
Rohith’s closest friend Syed Riyaz, who is always by the family’s side for every important event, was missing throughout. “I was preventing Mani Kumar from coming in and stopping Venkateshwarulu from submitting the affidavit,” Riyaz said when we met later that night.
Mani Kumar had learnt that his father was going to submit the affidavit and had followed him to Guntur. He agreed not to create a scene on the condition that Riyaz buy him his favorite rum and cigarettes and listen to his stories all day.
Mani Kumar maintains a strange ritual with Riyaz. Every time he’s in Guntur, he not only makes Riyaz buy him drinks but also insists that he listen to his drunken stories. Riyaz says he doesn’t know why he agrees but this has been going on for years. Even when Rohith was alive.
Mani’s drunken stories mostly run on loop as soon as alcohol enters his system, Riyaz says. They never end without Mani Kumar cursing Radhika for taking away both his sons. “Whenever he gets drunk he keeps repeating that his sons are not Mala. He loves to say, ‘I am Vaddera and my sons are Vaddera.’”
“But today, he told some amazing new stories,” Riyaz said, “He was talking about the time he was hugged on stage by a national-level BJP leader at a rally in Vijayawada; the time when some powerful OBC leaders from the Telugu Desam Party had taken selfies with him; the time a senior female BJP leader from Tirupati had visited him. He kept saying that Rohith will be declared a Vaddera and the compensation from the university and the State government would be given to him,” said Riyaz. He refused to divulge the names of the politicians Mani Kumar was bragging about and said he needed to verify things first.
I asked Riyaz if he knew that Mani Kumar had tried to kill his father for alcohol, to which Riyaz suddenly said, “Do you know that Rohith almost killed Mani Kumar once?” Rohith, who was in his final year BSc then, had received four stitches on his arm. Mani Kumar got eight stitches on his head.
Had Riyaz not interfered that day, Rohith would have surely killed his father. “I have never seen Rohith like that. He just kept hitting Mani Kumar on the head like a machine hammer. It was the worst experience of Rohith’s life. Maybe it was the worst experience of Mani Kumar’s life too.”
Radhika used to stitch clothes and run a small soda stall from her house in Prakasam Nagar those days. She had been separated for a long time and was living in the only house she could afford, which was next to one of Guntur’s most notorious red-light areas. Mani Kumar had hit Radhika and broken her soda bottles. But what was the fight about? “Ask Raja or Radhika aunty,” Riyaz said.
Hyderabad, November 2, midnight
“Anna, Radhikamma is missing!” It was one of the Ambedkar Students Association leaders of the University of Hyderabad on the line. Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika Vemula, was missing. Should I call the police? But I don’t know anybody in the Hyderabad or Guntur police. Should I call my editor?
“People have been trying to get in touch with Radhikamma since afternoon. Raja (Vemula) and (Syed) Riyaz are also not picking up the phone. They are supposed to take a flight from Hyderabad to Punjab in the morning. Anna, are you there?” There was a lot of static and the line kept dropping. “Why are the calls dropping so much? Do you think my phone is being tapped? Anna, Najeeb also disappeared like this,” the ASA leader’s voice was shaking by now, possibly thinking of Najeeb Ahmed, the Muslim student who disappeared from Jawaharlal Nehru University last.
Finally, at around 1am, Raja called. He had to speak over the voices of his sister and mother to be heard. “Anna, I am going to Punjab but my mother will not be going,” he said even as his sister Nileema could be heard shrieking, “You are not going anywhere!” Radhika snatched the phone and told me, “Nana (Son), Thank you for everything. We don’t want anything from anybody anymore. Let us just live our lives in peace. We don’t want to talk to anybody…” She was sobbing.
Raja managed to pacify them and called back. We spoke till dawn.
Radhika, Raja and Nileema had spent the whole day at the Guntur joint collector’s (JC) office, getting grilled by revenue department officials over Rohith Vemula’s caste. They had reached at 1 pm and had to wait outside till 4 pm for the JC to arrive. When Radhika and her children followed the JC into his office, Mani Kumar was already inside and sliding off a chair. “He was drunk. The whole room was smelling of alcohol,” Raja said.
The JC left the meeting after 15 minutes and an officer, who didn’t reveal his name to the family, took over the meeting which was also attended by about a dozen other revenue officers. “We were not offered a chair. The three of us stood in front of those people for the next five hours till about 9 pm. “It was like a police interrogation. By the end of it, mother was shivering and barely able to stand”. What disturbed the family was that the officer was not reading from a formal list of questions or taking down any notes. He just kept rude questions, many of which had nothing to do with the case.
The officer also allegedly mocked Radhika by reading out a newspaper quote from one of the speeches she had delivered at a protest in Hyderabad saying, “All your big talk cannot save you. We know everything about your drama. Your husband told us everything.”
The officer, Raja said, asked Radhika why she left her husband when he was quite wealthy. When Radhika explained that he was abusive and and had thrown her and the children out of the house after discovering that she was a Mala (SC), the officer allegedly said, “But it must have been difficult to raise three children alone. We have information that you had some other sources of income.”
Raja said, “The officer said ‘other sources’ in such a way that it sounded like he was questioning my mother’s character. We immediately knew that they had been speaking to Mani Kumar a lot. Mani Kumar will tell anybody who will listen that my mother brought us up through sex work.”
“Anna, do you know my brother almost killed Mani Kumar once?” The soda shop incident? “Yes, do you know he tried to sell my mother to one of those men who come to the red light area?” That was the reason Rohith broke his hand on Mani Kumar’s head? “Yes.”
Radhika kept it really short when we spoke a few days later over the phone. “They are going to give Rohith Mani Kumar’s caste,” she said. The experience at the JC’s office had broken her resolve. She had travelled across the country in the last 10 months and addressed hundreds of thousands of people but it had all been in vain. She said she cancelled the trip to Punjab and then another one to Chennai where a major anti-caste agitation was planned. She didn’t let Raja go either.
Radhika had decided that the political fight was over and the matter would have to be resolved in the courts. She would no longer travel around and give speeches. As news of what had happened at the JC’s office spread, activists from Hyderabad tried to persuade her to file a case against the Guntur officials. She refused.
What was also clear to Radhika by the end of that interrogation was that Mani Kumar, who she and her children had tried to shake off all their lives, was key to the plans of those who wanted to prove that Rohith Vemula was not Dalit. “I have fought him in court once (for divorce) and will fight him again,” Radhika said, “Do you know? Rohith had once almost thrashed Mani Kumar to death.”
Hyderabad November 22, 6 am
“Anna, did you see the news?” It was the ASA leader again. “I have WhatsApped you the link.” Radhika Vemula had participated in a massive protest in Delhi to show solidarity with Fatima Nafeesa, the distraught mother of JNU student Najeeb Ahmed. The Delhi media had covered the story of the two grieving mothers enthusiastically.
When my call finally got through to her, Radhika said, “I am not giving up. I will go on till the BJP is in power. Legally, we will never win against them as the police and the courts are in their control. They have to be fought politically.” She excitedly shared her travel plans. She was going to Madhya Pradesh next and then to Kerala.
Hyderabad January 14, 8am
The phone showed several missed calls from Radhika Vemula. She picked up with the first ring. “Nana, have you read the news? The Andhra government has sent a report to Delhi saying Rohith was OBC like Mani Kumar,” she said without sounding too disturbed. She said she was expecting this and was well prepared to fight back.
“So, I have called all the people who I visited in the last one year to come to the university on January 17 and support me. The students are also supporting me. I will lead the protest,” she said, “The people from Una are coming. Akhlaq’s family is coming. The JNU students are coming. Najeeb’s mother might also come.” The plan, she said, was that she would force her way past the campus security to lay a wreath at the Rohith Vemula stupa at the Velivada.
She had a request, “Nana, I will be addressing the media. Will you please tell your reporter friends to attend?”