What the Rohith Vemula stir taught Dalit students
The day begins early in Suravaripalli.
Shortly after dawn, young men leave for construction sites along the highway connecting Vijayawada and Guntur, where they will work for the next 12 hours building condominiums and office buildings. The women cook for the day before heading to work in the cotton fields that ring the village in Andhra Pradesh’s Prakasam district.
Last Sunday, the routine was broken as adults and children gathered outside the local school to see a new candidate campaign for election. Dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, he set off from a cluster housing the Dalit Christian population of the village – photos of BR Ambedkar jostled for space with Jesus Christ portraits-- as an auto rickshaw covered with blue flexes of Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule blared out “Jai Bhim” and other political slogans.
Trailing him was a small group of men who distributed pamphlets to each household.
Vijaya Kumar Pedapudi, do we know his age, a doctoral student of political science at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), is fighting for election to the Andhra Pradesh assembly constituency from Parchu where he confronts two political heavyweights. Elections to the Lok Sabha the assembly will take place simultaneously in Andhra Pradesh on 11 April. Pedapudi was one of five students expelled from their hostel by the university administration in November 2015 following allegations of violence involving an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) student.
The students, all of whom were Dalits, then set up camp in the square outside the university shopping complex, and their protest went unnoticed for months until one of them, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide and left a poignant note, which sparked protests across India and prompted a national debate on caste-based discrimination on Indian campuses.
Pedapudi says little changed in the contours of caste bias, forcing him to take the electoral plunge as a candidate of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)- Jana Sena alliance. “We have been in student movement for many years but we could not achieve things fully. So I decided that political process is the only way to bring justice for the poor and marginalised,” he says.
Pedapudi’s election affidavit says he is unemployed and doesn’t hold any cash, or agricultural land. The son of poor farm labourers in Mupalla village of Prakasam district. Pedapudi says the decade he spent at UoH showed him the limitations of student politics.
“People look for some sensation, but if we are losing sensation, they won’t support us. This is what happened to the Rohith movement; when he died, we got massive support but not for long,” he says, referring to their demands for the arrest of those responsible for caste-based discrimination against Vemula and the enactment of an umbrella law against caste bias on campuses.
His campaign is dependent on crowdfunding, on the lines of the more-publicised campaign of Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar.He says he often faces bias on the campaign trail.
“People say, oh he is Dalit, he is son of poor parents, how dare he dream of becoming an MLA?. He comes from a low caste, how can he represent Parchur? They think if someone wants to be a lawmaker, they need to be upper-caste.”
But he refuses to back down. “Us marginalised people remain as voters, our young boys are given R 500 to become political coolies. But we don’t realise that the elected government affects us marginalised sections the most. We have to capture political power, which, as Babasaheb said, is the master key,” he adds.
Among Pedapudi’s main opponents in Parchur is the sitting MLA from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Y Sambhasiva Rao and the YSR Congress party’s Daggubati Venkateswara Rao, the son-in-law of former chief minister NT Rama Rao. Both are waging high-profile campaigns.
But his fight is more symbolic than about winning or losing, especially because he is fighting from an unreserved constituency. “In India, it is almost a given that unreserved constituencies are reserved for upper castes. I wanted to break that idea,” he says.
At the heart of Parchur lies the village of Karamchedu, which in 1985 witnessed a brutal massacre of Dalit families by upper-caste Kamma men after a dispute over the local well. It triggered national outrage that culminated in the watershed Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act four years later.
For a young Dalit person to fight for electoral power at the site of caste brutality is an important symbol, say experts. “His candidature is important because it shows that student movements are not sufficient, especially because social movements have slowly wilted with the onslaught of globalization. The way out for the Dalits is to follow Ambedkar’s notion of using the state, and to gain political power,” said Ramudu Sreepati, a professor at the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at UoH.
Pedapudi belongs to the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), a group that was set up in 1993 in the UoH by marginalised caste students to be their voice. Over the next 25 years, ASA became the face of Dalit aspiration and progress in the face of institutional hostility and structural biases. But the death of Vemula, who was also an ASA member, and the stumbling of the movement may have underlined its limits.
“You cannot wage a war for long. The lessons from the Rohith movement is why Pedapudi joined politics,” Sreepati added.
Turmoil On Campus
Pedapudi’s electoral plunge comes at a time of churn at the university. After eight years, the ABVP swept the student council elections in 2018, trouncing a rainbow Dalit-Muslim-tribal alliance and Left parties.
ASA and other students continue to protest against the vice-chancellor, Appa Rao Podile, amid tensions between left- and right-wing groups. Both the university and the vice-chancellor have denied accusations of caste bias and instituted an inquiry. In January, protests rocked the campus after the administration demolished the velivada, a temporary structure featuring anti-caste icons set up by Vemula.
Then, last month the annual festival was marred by allegations, especially by the Students Islamic Organisation of India, that anti-Islam slogans and chants in support of the Ram temple in Ayodhya were shouted.
The ABVP dismisses these charges and says that a structure set up by the body to celebrate soldiers in the Kargil war was also similarly razed. “The bigger issue is that some faculty is supporting Naxalite ideology. Yes, caste discrimination exists and what happened to Rohith was wrong but some people are using caste politics for their own benefit. Students have understood how phony their protests were, and that we are fighting for real issues such as food and water in hostels, which is why we won,” said Abhishek Malhotra, the president of the ABVP campus unit.
The ASA is facing challenges of its own. The only big group not attached to a political party, it draws its workers from Dalit and backward class students, who are themselves often struggling to get ahead in the university. And as a pioneering crop of students, including Vemula’s batchmates, get ready to graduate, the group is struggling to find new faces.
“Most of the first-generation learners are under tremendous mental pressure, and then they see third or fourth generation kids enjoying a life they cannot even imagine. Add to that language bias and being able to afford food, or clothes, or of scholarships coming late. It is difficult to sustain but we are building our own support structures,” said Iniyavan, an MPhil student.
Unlike in JNU or Delhi University where national issues take precedence, student politics in UoH remain rooted in the local dynamics and regional developments. “For us, election is often not the main goal, we have to build community. Every day our students face some discrimination or the other, so our priority is to reclaim this space for the marginalised,” said Asha Sasidharan, ASA convenor.
Back in Suravaripalli, Pedapudi is clicking a few quick selfies by the side of the road to end his campaign for the day. As the mercury soars, they hunt for coconut water and then an affordable place for the group to have lunch without seriously denting their meagre resources. Sitting in the backseat of the car are Pedupudi’s friends from the ASA, including Seshu Chemudugunta, another of the five students expelled in 2015.
Pedapudi knows his prospects are weak – after all, the BSP has never found a footing in Andhra Pradesh, and the YSR Congress party is traditionally strong among sections of the scheduled castes. His friend Murali Ramathoti, a doctoral student in political science, explains what his candidacy means:
“Five years ago, the first-generation students from our community were Telugu-speaking; now we can study in English. But there is no change in discrimination – direct bias has become indirect bias. Our progress still makes our oppressors angry. In such a world, getting an opportunity [like this] is an achievement. Filing the nomination itself was a dream for us.”