How Caste Shaped the Experience of Dalit Students at the University of Hyderabad

05 August 2016
harsha vadlamani
harsha vadlamani

Yesterday, the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) asked the Cyberabad police to expedite the investigation into the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar from the University of Hyderabad (UoH), and to file a chargesheet “at the earliest.” In January this year, 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 is a Veddera—a caste classified as OBC, or Other Backward Class—Vemula was not a Dalit. The NCSC took up the issue of Vemula's caste identity. On 22 June, it issued a report with its findings and observations, confirming that Vemula was a Dalit. The commission noted that on 18 April, the Guntur District Collector—the highest authority for issuing a caste certificate—had said there was “no rival” questioning the certificates issued to Vemula's family, and 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.” 

For his May cover story, ‘From Shadows to the Stars,’ Praveen Donthi investigated the rise of the Ambedkar Students' Association, the student political organisation to which Vemula belonged, and how the students at UoH 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.”

Praveen Donthi is the deputy political editor at The Caravan.