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

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. {{name}}
24 August, 2016

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.

Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, was informally adopted from a Dalit Mala labourer family by a woman named Anjani Devi, who belonged to the OBC Vaddera caste. But rather than treat her as a daughter, she treated the girl as a maid. Devi kept Radhika’s caste a secret and married her off to Mani Kumar, a Vaddera. On discovering the truth, Mani Kumar, who used to beat Radhika already, grew even more violent. When she moved back to Devi’s house with her two sons and a daughter, they continued to be treated as servants.

“Yes, this is our truth,” Raja, Rohith’s brother, told Mondal. “This is the truth that my brother and I would want to hide the most. We felt ashamed to reveal that the woman we call ‘grandma’ is actually our master.” Vemula’s childhood friend Sheikh Riyaz told the paper that his “family story haunted Rohith all his life,” and that he “faced caste discrimination in the house where he grew up.” But, he added, Vemula did not give up hope for his future. “Instead of succumbing, Rohith fought it out,” Riyaz said. “He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further.”

Vemula hinted at his origins in a July 2015 Facebook post about a renowned Telugu poet. “Mahakavi Gurram Jashuva (1895-1971) was the first compelling organic Dalit voice in Telugu literature, who exposed the hypocrisy of caste ideology,” he wrote. “Jashuva was born to a Dalit (Madiga) woman and Golla (BC) father. He, in his whole life strongly asserted his mother’s identity and voiced for the abolishing of untouchability and for women rights.” Vemula, too, embraced the identity of a Dalit. After his death, politicians attempted to avoid being charged under the stringent SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act by claiming that Vemula was not a Dalit. “They are trying to erase his whole existence,” Leonard told me. “The life he lived as a Dalit.”

Other ASA students had broken through similarly complex webs of experience. Uma Maheshwara Rao told me that his grandfather was a beggar, and that he himself had had to work as a daily labourer to fund his education. Many other ASA leaders support their families financially while running the movement.

Seshaiah, one of the rusticated students, recounted how reading Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste had shaken up his life. “Then I realised how the Hindu society oppressed us and why Ambedkar hated Hinduism,” he said. This led him to aggressively reject even the traces of Hinduism in his life, which were associated with close personal memories. “I used to keep an idol of Subramanya Swamy in memory of my mother who passed away in my childhood,” he said. “I also had a Hanuman idol because some teacher told me he is a tribal. I threw those two things away from the window of my hostel.”

Another student told me about the particular problems that he faces as a Dalit Christian. “If I don’t have a Christian name, the church in the village won’t allow me to get married,” he said. “If I have a Christian name, I can’t avail reservation, which is my right as a Dalit.” A Dalit’s “status doesn’t become any better” through conversion, he said. “I have to suffer the same humiliation and discrimination. We are forced to have two religions and two names.”

Students who escaped oppressive environments were often dismayed to reach the university and find that similar kinds of hostility awaited them there. “Back home they are big people, their families are proud of them,” but in the university, they are seen as people “who don’t belong,” Leonard, who is a Dalit Christian, told me. People look at Dalit students and ask, “Why are you even here?” Leonard said. “We are not imagined as people sitting in the library, attending seminars, talking to a professor, engaged in research.”

Many students I spoke to described how faculty members discriminated against Dalit students, usually under the guise of maintaining “merit” as a standard in the university. “There is a wide gap between the social background of the teachers and some of the students,” G Haragopal, a retired professor of the university, told me. “Some of the faculty members carry a lot of prejudices with them. They are not just indifferent but their attitude borders on hostility. I don’t think it ever strikes them that transforming the society is also the responsibility of an institute of higher learning.” As evidence of the system’s casteist bias, many students pointed out that even those who had been admitted to the university in the open category, and not on reserved seats, would find that on result notification lists, their names would have one star, two stars or a hash against them, corresponding to whether they were from a scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, or other backward class.

Gummadi Prabhakar explained that the bias against Dalits was only aggravated by the support that the government extended to them, in the form of fellowships. “The discrimination by the faculty increased manifold after that because we started wearing good clothes and shoes,” Prabhakar told me. “They felt like we were getting money for no good reason. And that we were wasting the country’s money.” He added: “The fellowships led to an identity crisis among Dalits. The economic problems got solved but the social problems remained unaddressed.” Satyanarayana echoed this idea. “Some of the enabling measures are turning out to be disabling,” he said.

Students told me that faculty often introduced academic obstacles to block students’ progress. One such hurdle was the introduction in the mid 2000s of coursework for PhD students. “The faculty introduced coursework in PhD, and said the guide will be allotted if you pass that,” Prabhakar said. “They would then fail them. There would be no fellowship. The coursework became a way to stop the benefits coming from the state to the Dalits.”

He cited Senthil Kumar, a PhD student of the school of physics, who killed himself in 2008, as an example of a student who collapsed under this kind of oppression. Kumar was the first member of his community in Tamil Nadu—known as the Panniyandi, and traditionally engaged in pig-rearing—to reach a university. He was awarded a fellowship for his PhD, but was failed by his supervisor in his coursework, and was then denied a guide for more than a year. In February 2008, he killed himself by consuming poison in his room.

Students told me that the administration also targeted their funds. “The new punishment of the universities is to cut the fellowships and economically hit you,” Satyanarayana said.

As the ASA helped Dalit students negotiate these challenges, it inspired fierce loyalty among its members. “My parents gave me birth,” Uma Maheshwara Rao told me. “But the rest, the words I speak, the chai I drink, the scholarship I draw, the dignity I have is all thanks to Ambedkar and the ASA named after him.”