17, Jan 2018 | Deborah Grey
((This piece was first published on January 17, 2018 on the second death anniversary of Rohith Vemula. It is being republished today on his birth anniversary.))
It has been two years since Radhika Vemula’s son Rohith, a PhD student of Hyderabad University, committed suicide… an act that has been called an ‘institutional murder’ because of the discrimination suffered by Dalit students in Indian institutes of higher education. Today Radhika, a fearless Human Rights Defender, tells CJP how she is coping with her loss by actively participating in the Dalit Rights movement and that she might even consider joining politics if that is what it takes to get justice for her son.
Who killed Rohith Vemula
Rohith Vemula was also a student activist and a member of the Ambedkar Student’s Association. He was at the forefront of many human rights campaigns and strongly opposed the death penalty. After his vocal outpouring at a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon, prime accused in the 1993 bomb blast case, members of a right wing student’s association labeled him as ‘anti-national’ and also allegedly physically assaulted him so badly that he required surgery. Rohith was also suspended and barred from the hostel. After this students started sleeping out in the open at the university in what has become an iconic spot, the Veliwada. The University also reportedly stopped paying his monthly fellowship. All this drove Rohith to end his life. The two letters that Rohith Vemula wrote, one of December 18, 2015 and the other the day he died have assumed the space of iconic words within contemporary discourse. His death triggered protests across the length and breadth of the country and fired a consciousness among the student fraternity.
Emerging from the Irreparable Loss
“Rohith left me a huge responsibility. I will not rest until I have fulfilled it,” she says Radhika Vemula explaining her larger and continued involvement with the movement for Dalit Rights. In the two years since Rohith’s suicide Radhika has emerged as one of the most respected voices in the movement for Dalit Rights. Today Radhika is seen supporting agitations and movements by other like-minded human rights activists like Jignesh Mewani and Umar Khalid. She openly supported their campaign against “neo-Peshwai” at the Elgaar Parishad held in Pune’s Shaniwarwada in December 2017. “Rohith’s death united Leftists and Ambedkarites to fight side-by-side. This is historic,” she says speaking of the direction taken by the Dalit Rights movement after Rohith’s suicide.
However, it is not like Radhika is in denial of her sorrow. She is just coping with it admirably. “As a mother, I am still experiencing grief. But that will not stop me or even slow me down,” asserts the confident and strong woman who has carved an independent identity for herself with her work as a human rights defender determined to fight for the rights of everyone. Radhika has always been more than just Rohith Vemula’s mother. Infact, Radhika has suffered enough humiliation herself, not just because of her caste, but also her gender.
Radhika’s Trial by Fire
Radhika’s credibility, her child rearing skills and even her character had been called into question in the most repugnant manner possible with full support of the state machinery. First the central government (through prominent women ministers) accused her of lying about being a Dalit. The allegation was that Radhika belonged to an OBC (Other Backward Caste) family and therefore she could not be considered a Dalit.
But as it was discovered and subsequently proved later, Radhika was actually born into a family of Dalit migrant labourers had been adopted and raised by an OBC family. Though she never met her biological family, Radhika suffered discrimination at the hands of a few members of her adoptive family as she was Dalit. In fact that is how she became aware of her Dalit antecedents. The next allegation was that Radhika’s estranged husband and Rohith’s father was not a Dalit, therefore Rohith could not be considered a Dalit. But this involved defining Radhika’s identity using husband’s caste identity, a move that highlighted the twin discrimination based on caste and gender.
However, in April 2016, the Collector of the district who is the authority on the issue, certified, when asked by the National SC/ST Commission that she was in fact, a Dalit. Later, the Collector under pressure to rescind the earlier report/certificate even issued a notice to Radhika asking her to prove she was Dalit within 15 days. When the truth that Radhika was indeed Dalit came to light, the matter was put to rest. The tasteless allegations against Radikha Vemula were clearly just a ploy to tarnish a woman’s trustworthiness in a bid to crush her spirit and prevent her for demanding justice for her dead son.
But Radhika’s suffering wasn’t limited to psychological trauma. February 26, 2016, two days after then Minister for Human Resources Development, Smriti Irani’s impassioned yet factually questionable speech in Parliament, while Radhika was attending a candle light vigil for her son in Delhi, she was manhandled, physically assaulted and dragged away by the police.
The multi-pronged attack on Radhika Vemula and other Dalit-Ambedkarite students were the first aggressions of the Modi regime against students and the oppressed sections. Former MHRD minister Smriti Irani’s set of falsehoods uttered in Parliament marked a new low in Indian politics.
Coping With Change
The character assassination, the institutional violence, the media circus and even the police brutality have only made Radhika more determined. “The harassment, the constant media presence, whatever the police did to me… how can I compare that to what they did to my son,” she asks. Then just with a hint of emotion she almost whispers, “They drove him to suicide!”
However, Radhika quickly regains her composure and gets ready for the long battle ahead. “Rohith fought for equality and fraternity. I want to help build a more equal world where we all enjoy the same rights. I am just doing my duty,” she says determination ringing in her voice. “It’s no longer about just my son. I will raise my voice for all oppressed people and I will not let another Rohith die,” she declares.
On joining Politics
“If joining politics helps me help people from oppressed castes and helps me continue the campaign against inequality, then I am open to the idea. I don’t mind joining politics if it helps me finish what Rohith started,” says Radhika.
In a democracy hungry for inspirational leaders, Radhika’s foray into politics could actually galvanise people into building a more equal and just world.
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