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Robbing Rohith of His Dalitness

Anand Teltumbde ( is a writer and civil rights activist with the Committee for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Mumbai.

The basic question that the Rohith Vemula case raises is about the existence of the rule of law in India. If his mother Radhika Vemula was rich, there would have been no issue about Rohith’s caste and all people named in the FIR for abetting his suicide would have been in jail. But her fault is that she lived off the pittance that Rohith sent her from his paltry fellowship!

This January saw the first anniversary of Rohith Vemula’s martyrdom. Throughout 2016 there were concerted agitations to get justice for Rohith and these efforts still continue. On his first death anniversary (17 January), the Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti (KNPS), Telangana, which has spearheaded one of these agitations in Hyderabad, had organised a public meeting in the city. After the meeting the KNPS activists accompanying Rohith’s mother Radhika and his younger brother Raja wanted to pay their homage to his shrine in Veliwada in the Shopcom plaza of the Hyderabad Central University (HCU), which was Rohith’s home, along with four of his comrades when they were ousted from their hostels by the university authorities. However, the police did not allow them to enter and instead detained them. They were released several hours later because of public pressure. When Rohith died, the police had filed a first information report (FIR) under the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Apparao Podile, the controversial vice chancellor of the HCU, Union Minister of Labour Bandaru Dattatreya, and N Sushil Kumar, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) leader, whose false statments had been at the root of the episode, for abetting Rohith’s suicide. The act warrants that the persons are immediately arrested but the police did not do so. They took shelter under the controversy raked up by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) about Rohith’s caste based on the allegation that he was not a Dalit.

Caste of the Cunning

To prevent the arrest of Dattatreya, Apparao and Kumar, the BJP slyly sparked off this controversy about Rohith’s caste. The party’s leaders like union ministers Sushma Swaraj and Thawar Chand Gehlot whipped it up. After a fact-finding committee of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) established the responsibility of the university for Rohith’s death, the then Union Minister of Human Resource Development (HRD) Smriti Irani, set up a one-member judicial commission comprising former Allahabad High Court judge A K Roopanwal on 28 January 2016 to probe the circumstances leading to his suicide. This judge forgot his brief and instead observed that Rohith was not a Dalit. Roopanwal was very well aware that the Guntur district collector Kantilal Dande, who is the competent authority in this matter, had already confirmed in his report to the NCSC that Rohith was a Dalit.

P L Punia, chairman of the NCSC, also reiterated that all records and his investigations proved that Rohith indeed was a Dalit. Not to be unnerved, and with its characteristic perseverance, the BJP commissioned one Darsanapu Srinivas, a Dalit, but belonging to the Hindu Dharma Rakshak Sangh to complain to the Guntur collector against Rohith’s brother, Raja Vemula. The complaint was that Raja had fraudulently obtained a caste certificate saying he was a Dalit. The collector, having already confirmed Rohith as a Dalit, could have dismissed the complaint but he forwarded it to the District Caste Scrutiny Committee. This committee expectedly enough gave a report that Raja was not a Dalit. Raja in his response has dismissed the contention.

Interestingly, the case law in the matter is clear that in inter-caste marriages between a SC/ST woman and an upper-caste man, the caste of the offspring shall be decided upon by the circumstances of the child’s upbringing. In a judgment defining the rights of children born out of inter-caste marriages, the Supreme Court bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and R P Desai held that “the determination of the caste of such a child was essentially a ‘question of fact’ to be decided on the basis of evidence in each case.” The child can claim the mother’s caste if he or she is brought up by the mother as an SC or ST.1 This landmark judgment held that the appellant who was born of a tribal mother and Kshatriya father would get tribal status since he was brought up in the mother’s environment. This judgment was subsequently cited by many high courts in granting children the SC or ST status on the basis that they were brought up by their mothers in their environment.2 In Rohith’s case his mother belongs to the Mala community (a Dalit sub-caste), had separated from her husband who is a Vadera (Other Backward Classes–OBC) and brought up her children in a Dalit colony. The fact that Rohith grew up with Dalit consciousness, lived, suffered and even died as a Dalit, exemplarily confirmed to the circumstances the Court depicted. It could be doubted only by ignoramuses or rogues.

Monumental Injustice

The entire episode is fraught with institutional caste bias, blatant injustice and incompetence of the powerful people involved like the vice chancellor of the HCU and the then HRD minister. It is actuated by the BJP’s stratagem to capture power. The then HRD minister, engulfed in a controversy about falsifying her educational qualifications, assumed her mission was to saffronise the higher education institutions. While she could manage to instal people with discernible connections to the Sangh Parivar and with questionable academic credentials to head prestigious institutions of learning, when it came to students it was not as easy. The appointment of Gajendra Chauhan, a small-time actor in third-rate movies, by another ministry was doggedly resisted by the students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Through her, the BJP planned to capture prestigious campuses for its student wing, the ABVP. This was to be done by pliant administrations headed by the party’s confidants and by suppressing the leftist student unions. It is significant that the first action on this course was taken against the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. When there were widespread condemnations and protests, it swiftly back-tracked and shifted its target to the HCU, known for the activism of its Dalit students. The APSC was accused of casteist politics besides spreading hatred against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The caste accusation squarely boomeranged. Therefore, the government added the accusation of anti-nationalism, the winning theme from its fascist repertoire, when it opened its new front targeting the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) in the HCU. The actions of the university authorities from the time that the clash between the ABVP and the ASA occurred and which eventually took Rohith’s life to the present when it is terrorising students and faculty who are demanding justice are blatantly partisan, biased, unlawful, and politically motivated.

In this case the NCSC, which is the constitutional body to protect the interests of the Dalits, is itself agitated against the prejudicial acts of commission and omission by the government. Invariably, in most cases whenever it took up the cudgels for the Dalits, which is its duty, it found itself utterly helpless. This being the state of the constitutional entity, the plight of ordinary Dalits can be imagined! By now it is clear that the present dispensation at the centre would protect its executioners at any cost. But the Telangana state, for the creation of which hundreds of thousands of Dalits shed their blood, bared its fangs too while being an accomplice in the BJP’s malicious design. The vehemence and ferocity with which its police have been acting against protesters exposed the fact that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi that rode to power exploiting the sentiment of the poor is no less anti-Dalit than the BJP. Going by the conduct of its Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao who shamelessly makes costly offerings to the Hindu gods at the cost of the poor people of Telangana, it is clear that he is more saffron than anybody around. When such naked acts of the state in utter disrespect of the Constitution meet with mere whispers from the mainstream media, one wonders what nadir the people of this country is waiting for.

No Rule of Law

The basic question that the Rohith Vemula episode raises is about the existence of the rule of law in India. If Radhika Vemula had tons of money, there would be no issue relating to Rohith’s caste and all the people named in the FIR would have been in jail. But then, she lived off the pittance Rohith sent her from his paltry fellowship! The law in India is inaccessible to the poor. The money-driven judicial system forces over 90% of Indians to silently endure injustice. As for the Dalits, they are blinded by the notion that it is their Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Constitution that runs the state. They refuse to see the reality that right from Kilvenmani in 1968 which marks a distinct genre of caste atrocities in modern India, there has not been any conviction in major crimes. Even in the cases of infamous massacres of poor peasants in Bihar in the 1990s and early 2000s, most of whom were Dalits, by the private armies of landlords, the Patna High Court is acquitting all culprits with cut-and-paste judgments in case after case. The problem is not confined to the Dalits alone, it largely relates with the class of the people.

It is tom-tommed that India is the largest democracy in the world but in reality it acts as the worst form of plutocracy. The rich in India can buy justice at every mode of its delivery. The misdemeanour of the police vis-à-vis poor is legend. But the legal system is also not immune to the influence of money. The recent cases of Salman Khan being acquitted from all crimes and Jayalalithaa managing to complete her two and half terms as chief minister after getting convicted by the court are glaring examples. Even after conviction in some grave cases like Sanjay Dutt’s, money can buy one special treatment. The nakedness of this injustice becomes stark when you see innocent Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims being incarcerated for years in jail and even sent to the gallows.

Rohith is gone. Justice to him will never be done. But why torment him by robbing him and his family of the Dalitness that he espoused and died for?


1 Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika v State of Gujarat & Ors on 18 January 2012, in the Supreme Court of India—Civil Appellate Jurisdiction, Civil Appeal No 654 of 2012, arising out of S L P (CIVIL) NO 4282 of 2010.

2 See for instance, High Court of Kerala, WP(C) No 17399 & 11184 of 2011 (Y): Dr K P Jaya v University of Kerala, 2015; Andhra Pradesh High Court, justice V Ramasubramanian and Justice Anis, Writ Petition No 24880 of 2016, etc.

Updated On : 9th Mar, 2017


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