A reporter’s account of what transpired at Hyderabad Central University when Dalit students tried to commemorate Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary.
Hyderabad: At 11.30 am, ‘velivada’ (which literally translates to Dalit ghetto) appears like any other shopping complex of a university campus, with students sipping tea or getting a meal at the dhaba. Formerly called ‘shopcom’, the complex was christened velivada by the Ambedkar Students Association from the time that it became a site of resistance against Hyderabad Central University vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile.
This is where Rohith Vemula’s Smarak Stupa stands right next to a shrine of Dalit leaders and ideologues like B.R. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule. His statue stands there in remembrance of the brilliant Dalit scholar, who was forced to live on that exact spot with four other students from January 3, 2016, after they were suspended by the vice chancellor for allegedly assaulting an ABVP leader. But it also stands as a symbol of defiance to the university authorities, who have refused to acknowledge any responsibility for Rohith’s suicide on January 17, 2016. A suicide that has been widely condemned and called by students and activists an ‘institutional murder’.
“Appa Rao is not our VC”
At 8 am, Dontha Prashanth, an ASA ally of Rohith who was suspended along with him, tells me that a circular was issued by the vice chancellor the night before to remind the students that visitors will not be allowed inside the campus. The circular cited a high court order passed on April 12, 2016, that prohibited the entry of outsiders that was filed by Gali Vinodkumar. He had asked, “not to allow any person, associations, and political parties, who are conducting meetings in the premises of Hyderabad Central University by giving provocative speeches in the university to spoil the educational carrier of the students, academic atmosphere and ultimately cause harm on the autonomic status of the university,” in his plea.
Knowing that this was aimed at their plans, he begins to record a video for Dalit Camera, “It is we who invited the guests including Radhika Vemula. Moreover, Radhika Vemula is not an outsider in our context. It is because of the university that her son was forced to commit suicide. Appa Rao Podile only wants to allow BJP and ABVP people to come inside. Just two days back, Ram Reddy came under the banner of ABVP and the university had no objection but when we organise Rohith Vemula memorial, they have objections and are creating hurdles. But despite this we will continue the collective fight against communalism and caste. We don’t want Rohith Vemula’s memory to get imprisoned, because his story is an example of institutional apathy and discrimination”. He, later, decided against uploading it saying, “Since we don’t acknowledge Appa Rao as our VC, we don’t have to officially respond to this circular”.
Uma Maheshwar Rao echoes this without a prompt. “In our letters, we never address the VC but only the registrar,” said the research scholar in his 10th year at the university. Uma is one of the senior leaders of ASA who has seen the evolution of the student party from its days when it was notoriously known for getting into physical fights. Uma says that despite their days of goodagiri behind them, they are still seen as goons on campus. On August 3, 2016, ABVP leader Nandaram Sushil Kumar called ASA students ‘goons’ on his Facebook wall in response to the rally carried out by them in memory of Yakub Memon. “See if we beat someone, we surrender. If we had beaten somebody, we would have agreed to the punishment. But we did not do anything wrong,” he said.
Although the suspension of the others was immediately revoked, Uma says that the faculty members who were part of the movement were humiliated by suspension or denial of promotion or tenure. He gave the example of K.Y. Ratnam, a professor from a scheduled caste category, who had been removed from the interview board for the ST/SC candidates. “They will give you a genuine reason like, ‘Since last time it was Ratnam so this time it’s someone else’. But he was on the interview board for the last 10 years. So what changed in 2016?” he said.
“Rohith unified us to the cause”
The afternoon drew more students to velivada, where this reporter blended into the growing number of shutterbugs shooting the preparations for Rohith Shahadath Din. The atmosphere gradually became high spirited with slogans and songs filling the air. Until Rohith’s death, though, not everyone was as well aware of his struggle with the administration or the involvement of the union human resources ministry.
In her first year on campus, Ravali remembers a Dalit student called Madari Venkatesh, who committed suicide after not being allotted an advisor. A fourth year student now and a member of the Students Federation of India, Ravali says she wasn’t politically active enough back then to understand the reasons that drove him to suicide the way she knew about Rohith.
“Rohith’s suicide enlightened students about suicides that happened in the past. It also made us aware of the discrimination happening inside the campus,” she said. They would often argue about caste politics, even though she comes from an Agraharam (Dalit) community. “I have never faced discrimination because of my family background. So I used to feel, ‘Eh!’ about it. But his death really moved me and I realised that caste discrimination is still present,” she added.
“Initially, we were reluctant to see it as a caste thing. We were fooling ourselves into believing that it was just an act of revenge by the administration. But when you see Una and you see people are being penalised repeatedly for just being born in a certain caste, having a beard or eating beef. And there is someone crediting you to do these things, like how Appa Rao got the plaque of honour”, said Donita, a second year masters student of mass communications.
Even though Rohith became a nationwide symbol of resistance, Uma says that ASA has not see any particular surge in membership since his death. “Only when there is a very serious issue then people come. When students were arrested, thousands came to protest. But not everyone wants to be lathi charged by the police,” he explains. A close friend of Rohith, Uma was mentioned in his final letter, where he apologised to him for using his hostel room to commit his final act. In their last days together, Uma said that Rohith was quite troubled by the movement’s losing battle against the central government, as opposed to ASA’s glory days when the only Goliath they were up against was the administration.
For Suhail, who served as a student union leader last year, his death came as a shock. As an SFI cadre, he fondly remembered working alongside Rohith on student politics. “Before the incident (Rohith’s demise) it was easy to meet the vice chancellor but after that we couldn’t meet him. Whenever we included this issue in the agenda, the appointment would be cancelled”, he said.
When asked what brought her to the protest, Donita says her demand is for the Rohith Act to be implemented. She said that there is no mechanism to address complaints in the campus save complaint boxes, which never get addressed. “We clicked a picture of those filled complaint boxes and after we published it in our department newspaper, they immediately emptied it. But to be able to voice that was really scary because we knew if this goes up to Appa Rao and if it pisses him off, he could make us sit outside in the cold”.
After reading his last two letters and singing songs in his memory, students marched to the university gate shouting, “Johar Rohith Vemula,” with a mission to bring ‘Radhikamma’ (Rohith’s mother) to the velivada and garland her son’s statue. Once at the gate, a constant tussle began between the students and the police, with the former asking them to ‘go back’ and ‘arrest Appa Rao’. The memories of the brutal police crackdown and the mass arrests from last year were not forgiven nor forgotten. Once they managed to open the lock, one of them flung the chain towards the trees on the side and students held both the gates wide open. But, the police also relentlessly used barricades and ropes to keep visitors (including media and political representatives from Aam Aadmi Party) outside the campus. Meanwhile, word came in that 18 students had been detained and the police were neither letting Radhika reach the gates nor the university authorities were granting her permission to enter.
The protest had a celebrity line up of the oppression Olympics in India. Naseem Ahmed spoke of a similar institutional neglect towards his brother, Najeeb Ahmed, who went missing from JNU more than three months ago, standing in solidarity with Radhika. “The ABVP told him that he will not see the next sunrise and he went missing the next day around 10-11 am. Despite such a clear threat there has been no action taken by the university, the police or the former LG, Najeeb Jung”.
Jaan Mohammad, whose brother Mohammad Akhlaq was lynched in 2015 on the suspicion of storing beef in Dadri, said he was truly inspired by the power of youth activism here. He encouraged them to keep their fight going because “What you’re doing here is not mere noise or drama. I’m, also, fighting for justice for my brother standing alone against the world”.
The crowd favourite, Rahul Sonpimple, made an impassioned speech about Rohith and similar institutional discrimination he faced at JNU. “When we raised a campaign against the pattern (from the last five years) of consistently low viva voce marks being awarded to students from Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim backgrounds, we were accused of being ‘fringe elements’,”said the Dalit leader from the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association. For taking this forward, he said that he and other Ambedkarites were suddenly suspended from campus. The Sarvaiya brothers from Una, who were flogged last year for carrying a cow carcass, also paid their respects to Rohith. Jitu Sarvaiya said to Radhika, “You might have lost one son but a thousand more sons have now stood up for him”. He talked of fighting for justice for Rohith and the many incidents of caste violence in Gujarat.
Rohith’s brother Raja spoke of the threats the family has been facing, which has kept him from going for job interviews. “This is the condition of Dalits who raised their voice in India. In all the controversy over our caste, the district collector and officials at Guntur have even insulted my mother’s character,” he said. Radhika gave her vote of thanks to all the guests for showing up in solidarity and urged the students, particularly women, to read Ambedkar and spread his word in their rural natives.
A sequel of arbitrary arrests
Shortly after Radhika wrapped up her speech, the police arrested her and Raja, for trespassing and violating the 2016 high court order. Along with her, Syed Riyaz (a close friend of Rohith), Hindustan Times journalist Sudipto Mondal and seven students from Hyderabad Central University students were picked up. Two lower rank cops stationed at the gate told me that Radhika was taken away for violating the high court order and the students will be let off after preventive detention. By now, students still standing at the gate for hours without food or water (but cigarettes!) had lit candles and were shouting slogans from time to time, demanding answers from the cops.
Detained for close to four hours, they were held in a stadium for a while and then ferried around in the police van and finally let off after signing a release bond under section 151 of the Criminal Procedure Code at the Gachibowli police station. Ravali was among the students picked up, who suffered minor scratches on her neck and hand from the rough handling during the arrests. “I was trying to prevent them from taking Radhikamma”.
This was the girl who told me just earlier in the day, “I met Rohith on friendship day in 2015. He talked to me about how important it is for Dalits to unite together and keep up the spirit to fight. I still remember his words and maybe that is what is dragging me to be a part of this movement”.
Sudipto was left off earlier than the others. In the course of writing his book on Rohith, he has grown close to the family. “I told the cops that I was press and they let me go. But when I saw that they were arresting Radhika aunty and she cried my name, I just got up on the van. In the bus ride, Radhika turned to me and said, ‘Isn’t it kind of stupid of them to arrest us? Now this will become news”.
Hours later, a photo was circulated on Whatsapp of Mani Kumar (Rohith’s father who abandoned the family), seen in a police car near the velivada.
Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. She tweets at @makesyoucakes.