How caste shaped the experience of Rohith Vemula and other students at the University of Hyderabad

24 August 2016
After being evicted from their hostels, the ASA students stayed in a shack at the university shopping complex, calling it a velivada—the Telugu word for a Dalit ghetto.
After being evicted from their hostels, the ASA students stayed in a shack at the university shopping complex, calling it a velivada—the Telugu word for a Dalit ghetto.

Update: In mid February 2017, the district collector of Guntur, in Andhra Pradesh, issued a showcause notice to Radhika Vemula, Rohith Vemula's mother. The district collector's notice asked Radhika to prove within two weeks that she belongs to Scheduled Caste community, and stated that if she was unable to do so, the caste certificates issued to her and her children would be cancelled.

On 25 August 2016, the Indian Express reported that a one-man panel set up by the Ministry for Human Resource Development (MHRD) to probe the caste identity of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar from the University of Hyderabad (UoH), ruled in its report that Vemula did not belong to the Scheduled Caste community. AK Roopanwal, a former Allahabad High Court judge appointed to the panel in January this year, submitted his report to the MHRD in the first week of August, the Indian Express reported. In January, Vemula’s suicide sparked a series of protests on the UoH campus, which then spread throughout the nation. After his death, several politicians attempted to avoid getting charged under the Prevention of Atrocities (SC/ST) Act by claiming that, because his father belongs to the Vaddera caste—classified as OBC, or Other Backward Class—Vemula was not a Dalit.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) also took up the issue of Vemula's caste identity. On 22 June, it issued a report confirming that Vemula was a Dalit. The commission noted that as someone brought up in the SC community, he was to be treated as part of it. In June, PL Punia, the chairman of the commission, said that the police will “have to act on atrocity charges against the accused.” On 4 August, the NCSC asked the Cyberabad police to expedite the investigation into the suicide of Vemula's suicide,  and to file a chargesheet “at the earliest.”

For his May cover story, ‘From Shadows to the Stars,’ Praveen Donthi investigated the rise of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, the student political organisation of which Vemula was a member, and how UoH students suffered under an oppressive administration. In the following extract from the story, Donthi details the accounts of various Dalit students, all of whose experiences on campus were shaped by their caste identity.

The recent success of the ASA in the student politics of the University of Hyderabad belies the incredible hardships that most of its members have endured to enter the world of academia. In Vemula’s case, much of his story remained hidden while he was alive, emerging only when reporters descended on the university after his suicide. “Even his closest friends did not know the entire family history. Everybody knew bits and pieces,” wrote the journalist Sudipto Mondal in a biographical report in the Hindustan Times.

Praveen Donthi is the deputy political editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: caste Dalit Rohith Vemula University of Hyderabad Scheduled Caste Atrocities MHRD Ministry of Human Resource Development