From Shadows to the Stars

The defiant politics of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Students Association

01 May, 2016

ON THE EVENING OF 16 JANUARY, the mood on the campus of the University of Hyderabad was mellow. For around a month, there had been protests against the administration’s decision to bar five young Dalit men from using their hostels and the university’s public spaces. But support for the protests was flagging. Two days earlier, the students had tried to step up their demonstrations by occupying the administration building. But they were outmanoeuvred by the vice chancellor, or VC, Appa Rao Podile, who rallied some of the university’s staff, including mess workers, against them. These employees warned the students that they would shut down the campus messes if the blockade continued—a threat which forced them to back down.

That evening, a group of students gathered at the main site of the protests: a shack in the quadrangle of the campus’s shopping complex, popularly called the shopcom. The five students had built the structure out of vinyl posters attached to vertical frames. They arranged several of these together to create three makeshift walls, and placed a few overhead to create a flimsy roof. Looking down from the posters were iconic figures who had battled for the rights of the downtrodden: EV Ramasamy, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar. The students called their protest site a velivada—the Telugu word for Dalit ghettos situated on the peripheries of villages.

One Dalit activist struck up a beat on a dappu, a disc-shaped drum, and began to sing. The others in the velivada joined in. Seated across from him, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD student of the school of social sciences, one of the punished five, also sang along, repeating verses and joining in full-throated for the chorus. It was a song by the writer and singer Jayaraju Godishala, with a catchy, melancholy tune and a refrain that evoked the predicament of the students: “Evvaroo ee biddalu? Ningi lo nelavankalu.Evvaroo ee pillalu? Adivi malle puvvulu.” (Who are these children? Like the crescent moons of the sky. Who are these children? Like jasmines of the wild.) Vemula and the other singers smiled as they sang. “I couldn’t understand the language, but I was very moved,” Pramod Mandade, a non-Dalit supporter of the five students, who was present that evening, told me. Afterwards, the group, including Vemula, sat around a bonfire in front of a nearby hostel, talking late into the night.

The next morning, some students reassembled at the velivada to launch a relay hunger strike. Vemula didn’t attend the gathering. A little after 10 am, Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, one of the punished students, received a call from Vemula’s mother, Radhika, asking about her son. Vemula’s phone wasn’t working, and he didn’t have the money to repair it—the university hadn’t paid him his fellowship for the past seven months. Radhika was worried. She thought her son had sounded sad when she had spoken to him the previous night. Vijay made a mental note to remind him to call her.