Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika, was in a candlelight vigil at India Gate demanding justice for the 26-year-old at the same time that Smriti Irani was giving her response to the Lok Sabha debate on the young student’s death.
Radhika Vemula was picked up and taken to a police station in the heart of the capital when Smriti Irani was telling parliament how condemnable it was that a “child was being used as a political tool”.
Watching Smriti Irani’s performance, I recalled a grieving mother’s words, the words of Radhika: “I want to meet Smriti Irani and ask her ‘On what basis did you declare my son to be anti-national? Your Ministry had written that my Rohith and other Dalit students were anti-national extremists. You said that he is not a Dalit. You accused him of getting a false certificate. Should I say it is because you got false certificates for your educational qualifications that you think others do so too? You stopped my son’s stipend, you got him suspended from the university. You are the Minister for HRD, but you have no value for education. You can never understand how difficult it is for a Dalit to reach the stage of doing his PhD. You can never imagine the hardship, the struggle, the tears and sacrifice to reach that position. In three months, you destroyed what it had taken me 26 years to build. I am talking about my Rohith, he died at the age of 26.'”
“I want to tell her these words. I want to ask Modi ji, ‘For five days you remained silent. You went to Ambedkar University and when students protested you said ‘Bharat Mata has lost a son’. If you believe what you say, then why have you not taken action against those who called that son anti-national. Who is right? Is the Minister right? If so, then why did the Prime Minister call an anti-national India’s son? Who will give me these answers?'”
The day after thousands of students and people from all sections of society joined the March for Justice for Rohith in the capital, I went to meet Rohith’s mother Radhika. I had seen her throughout the march. Held supportively by her younger son Raja, she walked stoically, silently, brushing away the tears, a mother in mourning and yet a seeker, a fighter for justice.
Behind the dreadful institutional murder of Rohith Vemula that has led to anger and outrage is another story – the story of hardship, the story of a daily resilience, the story of hope and courage, a story that is played out in a million Dalit homes every day, that of the Dalit woman, the Dalit mother. Radhika Vemula, now 45, is a symbol of that story that India is yet to recognize, leave alone respect.
Radhika was born to Dalit migrant workers. As fate would have it, her parents’ search for work took them to Guntur town. Next to the neem tree under which the migrant family, including two-year-old Radhika, had camped, was a house in mourning. Anjani Devi had just lost her baby daughter. In her sorrow, she found solace in the presence of the migrant workers’ daughter, Radhika, playing in the shadow of the neem tree. When it was time for the migrant workers to move on, Anjani and her husband persuaded the family to leave Radhika in their care.
Radhika was told later that her biological father used to drink and her mother was very sick. These were the circumstances in which Radhika’s biological parents gave her up in adoption to the family who had lost their child. In the narration of her story, Radhika’s words mirror the experience of those lakhs of Dalit families, landless, torn away from their roots, at the mercy of landlords, of contractors, forced to move from place to place, and, for families like Radhika’s, from the shadow of one neem tree to the next.
She learnt the truth of her adoption in the most cruel way, when a senior member of her foster family started abusing and cursing her in the name of the caste she was born into. Her foster parents, who belonged to a backward caste, believed that it was in the child’s interests to keep her caste concealed. So she grew up thinking that to be a Dalit was a crime, a dark secret which she should never speak about. She was burdened by this guilt.
She wanted to study, but by then her foster parents had their own children and things started changing. She was married off when she was just 14 years old and after she completed Class 10 to a drunkard.
Once again, the reality of her birth as a Dalit returned to haunt her. Her husband found out about her caste and the violence she faced increased manifold. She tolerated this for five years and then decided she would take her three children, Neelima, Rohith and her youngest, a two-month-old baby, Raja, back to her adopted family.
She was not welcome. Her male siblings did not approve, influenced by patriarchal notions that a woman’s place should be with her husband. Radhika made up for it by substituting the domestic workers employed by the family with her own work, hoping it would help. She felt that if she saved her siblings the money they paid for domestic work, they would give her shelter.
The three children experienced this too. She tried to protect them. Raja says, “We sensed what was going on but my mother never complained, she never burdened us with her pain. Even later, when we had shifted to a home of our own, she gave us her best. She never ate with us and when we asked, she always said that she had already eaten. The truth is that she stayed hungry because there was never enough food.”
Yet today, Radhika has the highest regard for her foster parents. She understood their dilemmas and never held it against them that they could not prevent the abuse she faced later on.
It was through these struggles, these experiences, that Radhika discovered herself, discovered her pride in her Dalit identity. She shifted out with her children, and rented a small room. The choice of the place was deliberate – she shifted to a Dalit colony. She had nothing to hide anymore. She worked hard in a tailoring shop and with the help of her foster mother, sent her children to school and college. The days were hard. Sometimes she ate one meal a day. But she was at peace with herself.
She is angered that after all this, she is being accused of manufacturing a Dalit identity.
She is deeply affected by the charges made by Smriti Irani and echoed by Sushma Swaraj. The police and officers at the bidding of the HRD Ministry have been sending out teams to disprove her Dalit identity. Two weeks ago, the entire family was called to the government district office in Guntur and their statements, including of her foster mother and regarding Radhika’s childhood, were recorded. On February 12, three officers went back to Anjani Devi’s home and questioned her for five hours.That night, Anjani Devi had a heart attack. She was rushed to hospital, but died two days ago. By then, Radhika was on her way to Delhi.
Radhika says “She, a highly qualified teacher, M.A., M.Ed, adopted me in the grief of losing her own child. She was innocent of the poison of the caste system and what it would mean adopting a child from a Dalit family. Both of us paid the price.”
In Radhika’s eyes, Rohith’s admission to Hyderabad University on his own merit validated her life struggle. He was her confidante, her hope. He helped out the family with his stipend in times of their acute distress. She speaks of how he paid back the Rs. 28,000 she had borrowed to pay for his admission. She recalls the time he bought the first mattress any member of the family had ever slept on after she had called him weeping that his recently operated-on sister, Neelima, could not sleep on the hard floor. She listens with a smile as Raja recounts that the first time they had ever heard of fast food was when Rohith gave him a surprise gift of noodles after he got his degree.
Raja, just a year and five months younger than Rohith, is deeply affected, traumatized. He, unlike his older siblings who had been sent to a private school where their Dalit identity was not known, had gone to a government school where he faced discrimination early on. He wanted to give up his studies after he completed his intermediate exams but it was Rohith who persuaded him to continue, promising him a better future. It was not to be.
The mother shifted to Hyderabad at the end of December last year to be with her sons. Her last meeting with Rohith was in their small newly-rented room in Hyderabad. He promised to visit every weekend. His words to Raja at their last meeting on December 29 were that he would ensure that Raja could do his PhD in a foreign university. She was not told of what he was facing. Her sons wanted to protect her. She was totally unprepared for the events that followed.
The mother believes that the university’s action against Rohith, the suspension of the stipend, his removal from the hostel brought home to him once again the brutality of the reality of being a Dalit. She says “After a lifetime of struggle, we were proud of our identity as Dalits, yet it is that identity that killed my son.”
There were no answers to her questions in the parliament debate. Why was Rohith called an anti-national? Why was his stipend suspended? Who is accountable?
So no, Radhika has not got justice. She wants a Rohith Act, amendments to the SC Act to include a section against discrimination in the educational system. She wants to set up a trust in Rohith’s name and help a hundred Dalit students to do their PhD. Yet, she tells her younger son Raja who wants to do his PHD, “No I won’t let you go to the university to be killed like Rohith was. If there is a law against discrimination in colleges and campuses, only then I will send you. Today, every Dalit mother is afraid of what her child will face.”
The government’s histrionics in parliament cannot silence her voice, nor obliterate this reality.
The shame of it is also that the government has reneged from its promises for compensation and a job for Raja. They have not received a single paisa, leave alone the five lakhs declared by Chandrababu Naidu’s government. He is a young man carrying the heavy burden of the loss of hope caused by the institutional murder of his elder brother. Raja is an MSc, working on a contract basis in a research project in the Institute of Geophysics in Hyderabad. He should be offered a permanent full-time post in a government educational/research institution with proper accommodation. This will enable the family to live together and help each other heal from the deep wounds inflicted by India’s systemic caste-based violence, that, in Rohith’s case, was intensified by the actions of a callous central government.
(By Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.As published in NDTV)