A makeshift tent in the University of Hyderabad has become the central point of protests after Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide. This tent had earlier been home to Rohith along with four other Dalit students since early January. It is here that they began a “relay hunger protest” against their suspension from the university and expulsion from their hostels.
Rohith’s monthly fellowship had been stopped by the university from July 2015, but the disciplinary inquiry against him and his four colleagues from Ambedkar Students Association was set up only on August 5, 2015. The five were suspended from the university in September 2015, but the decision was upheld only on December 17. Which is why, technically, they were expelled from their hostels only on December 18 when, because of winter vacation, they happened to be outside. They came back to the campus on January 2, only to find their rooms locked. The suspension was confirmed on January 3
That is when Rohith came up with the idea of a tent as a Velivada – the Telugu word for the section of a village where Dalits are forced to live. The tent was quickly put up by sticking flex-boards together on the night of January 4. The five moved in here, first parking themselves on bunches of posters, and then mattresses, for their relay hunger strike, converting this tent into the symbolic Dalit quarters in the university campus.
Velivada, or Dalit quarters, is where Rohith’s mother, Radhika Vemula, now sits, surrounded by students, patiently answering for the nth time the same questions that she has been asked repeatedly since her son’s suicide about his tragic end, her own childhood and marriage, her struggles – and, of course, her own Dalit identity.
She is here everyday with her eldest-born, accompanied by her daughter Nileema. She shifted to Hyderabad only in December 2015, and has been living with her younger son, Raja. Always dressed in a sari, always carrying a grey shawl – it gets cold in the early mornings when she arrives, and towards the evening when she leaves. She speaks to everyone who visits, but doesn’t seem to address anyone in particular. If someone asks a question, she would look at her daughter or the floor and then answer it. Silent in her suffering, stoically responding to all those who visit the tent, her face betraying no emotion even when talking about the various indignities and abuse she has suffered. It’s only when speaking about Rohith that she breaks down.
A bunch of activists have dropped by with a lawyer. They declare that they are filing a private complaint against the university in court. “You do have an SC [Scheduled Caste] certificate, don’t you?” one of them asks.
Radhika offers a curt nod as reply to them, and continues speaking to people around her. “Babu, did you guys eat something or not?” she asks the students who have stationed themselves in Velivada.
“Amma, it’s you who hasn’t eaten yet. Have fruits at least,” a student requests.
There’s a brief silence and after assuring the students that she would take a break soon, she goes back to talking about the past.
“When Raja was studying for his BSc at Hindu Degree College in Guntur in 2008, Ganji (Rice porridge) was what we had on most of the days. Those were the times when we had to skip one meal to keep the house running,” she recalls.
Sujatha, a family friend and Raja’s junior in college, is sitting around. “Raja anna used to excuse himself during lunch, but not go home,” she says. “It was after a year that we learnt there wasn’t enough money to eat three meals a day.”
The family of four – Radhika, Nileema, Rohith and Raja – depended mainly on her earnings. From domestic work in the nearby residential areas to taking up work as construction labourer, Radhika took up any available job to feed and educate her children. She also tried to run a small paan-cum-juice shop near their house in Guntur.
The unsustainable nature of her income prompted her to learn tailoring and buy a sewing machine. The trouble was that there was hardly any requirement for tailors in the locality the family lived.
Nileema, Radhila’s daughter, interjects. “Almost everyone from the locality is a daily wage labourer or domestic help,” she says. “The roof of most of the houses is made up of asbestos sheets. Who needs a tailor when two square meals are a dream?”
But Radhika did not give up. She started working for tailoring agents, which helped stabilise her income to a large extent. “From 10am to 6pm, I would work in the tailoring shops in town and I earned Rs 100-150 per day,” she says.
Once Rohith and Raja grew up a little, they started taking up daily-wage work during their holidays to add to the income. During the summer vacation, they worked as salespersons at a bangle store in the flea market in Guntur exhibition grounds for Rs 50 a day.
“While awaiting results of his 10th board exams, Rohith was working at a construction site. One such day, he saw a school friend driving by the work site on a scooter. It was probably the first time Rohith broke down and cried inconsolably. But he did go back to work the next day,” Radhika recalled.
It is during his graduation, Sujatha said, that Rohith first encountered his Dalit identity – and discrimination. Same was the experience of Raja and other Dalit students in their respective colleges. It is not as if they had gone to all-Dalit schools, but because schools were in near-by localities, children happened to be from similar backgrounds. But the caste became a reality to contend with by college. Raja’s tuition teacher wouldn’t touch the glass in which Raja had water, Sujatha said. The teacher would move it with a pen.
“Everyone had a tryst with some sort of discrimination. Upper-castes students would even pass comments like: ‘That Mala [a scheduled caste] girl will come to you for less than Rs. 50’,” Sujatha said. “The upper-caste students were never asked to sweep the floor of classroom or hostel, it was our job. The upper-castes were never asked to leave footwear outside class, we were.”
Rohith was a bright student and, after his graduation, in 2010, he secured a seat in MSc in University of Hyderabad after clearing the entrance meritoriously (sixth rank). In due course Raja left for Pondicherry University, after having joined Andhra University (11th rank in the entrance exams) – the family fell short by a few thousand rupees for the transfer certificate which was raised by Raja’s friends and some teachers.
“My sons have always been hardworking and bright students. Even when they went on a daily-wage work, they would come back and read. They never fussed much about owning books – a library card or a borrowed book was enough to learn. They got into such big institutions with meritorious marks and that kept us all going,” Radhika says.
They were not the only ones who were bright. When Rohith and Raja were in third and first year of their undergraduate courses respectively, Radhika decided to pursue a BA (distance) degree from Sri Venkateshwara University.
Radhika and her husband Vemula Mani Kumar were separated in 1990, when she was a young woman in her early 20s. The fights and abuse became worse after after Mani discovered his wife was actually an adopted child, belonging to Mala – a scheduled caste – community by birth and was not a Vaddera as him – classified as Other Backward Classes, or OBC – as he had thought her to be.
“The Vaddera parents with whom my Mala parents left me when I was five married me off to a Vaddera groom. After I had three kids with him, we separated and eventually got divorced," she said.
Radhika doesn’t want to speak much about her Vaddera family and said she deliberately chose not to stay on with them after her separation. Or even about her growing up years and why she was married off at the age of 14.
Even though she was brought up by them till the age of 14, Radhika said she didn’t identify herself as Vaddera and refused to elaborate on how she and her children were treated there, after her marriage broke down. “I decided to move to an SC locality as I am an SC and I wanted my kids to be brought up there,” she said. "It's as simple as that."
But it clearly was not as simple as that, as a detailed report by Sudipto Mondol in the Hindustan Times, the same day that this reporter met her, made clear. Mondol quotes Sheikh Riyaz, Rohith’s best friend and BSc classmate in Guntur, to fill in the gaps.
“Radhika aunty and her children lived in her mother’s house like servants. They were expected to do all the work in the house while the others sat around. Radhika aunty has been doing household work ever since she was a little girl," Riyaz reveals. If the Child Labour Act had been in force in 1970s, Anjani Devi, the so-called mother of Radhika, could have been charged with keeping a child as domestic help.
Radhika's eldest, daughter Nileema, too didn't want to discuss her maternal grandmother Anjani. When prodded about how it was after her mother's separation from her father, she would only say that she did not have many memories. “Father neither supported in kind nor in cash ever. To an extent, during schooling and initial college days, my [adopted] maternal grandmother helped us financially.”
But clearly the financial help came at a price. What neither Rohini nor Nileema would talk about is explained by Riyaz to Mondol:
"Rohith would hate to go to his grandmother’s house because every time they went, his mother would start working like a maid.”
In Radhika’s absence, Riaz told Mondol, her children would have to take over the housework. This practice of summoning Rohith’s family for housework, Mondol says, quoting Riaz, continued even after they moved into an independent one-room house a kilometre away.
Mondol also quotes Uppalapaty Danamma, 67, one of the oldest residents of the neighbourhood, a Dalit leader and former municipal councillor, who has seen Radhika since she was a little girl. Danamma told Mondol that Radhika was around 12 or 13 when she discovered to her shock that she was an adopted child and a Mala.
“Anjani’s mother, who was still alive then, had badly beaten Radhika and abused her. She was crying near my house. When I asked, she said her grandmother had called her a ‘Mala b****’ for not doing housework and cursed Anjani for bringing her into the house.”
Prakash Nagar, the street in Guntur where Radhika and her children rented a one-room house for over two decades from 1990, had a ghetto of around 40 Dalit families. The Prakash Nagar area is subdivided into three blocks, one block was meant for Dalits, one was where the Vaddera caste people stayed and the third block was a red-light area.
Most of the people in the Prakash Nagar were daily-wage labourers and their similar financial background helped in bonding, Nileema recalled
“It was the people in the locality who stood by our mother several times when he (father) came down and harassed her. Had we lived anywhere else, mother would have died by now,” she added.
After spending over two decades in Prakash Nagar, the Vemula family shifted to a two-room house in Savitribai Nagar of Nallapadu area, a couple of years ago.
The Dalit families here shared water from common bore-wells. What they also shared was Radhika’s refrigerator, television and caste identity.
By now, the sons were earning. Raja had got a Project Fellowship at National Geophysical Research Institute at Hyderabad in September 2013 and Rohith was at University of Hyderabad. In April 2014, Rohith qualified for a Junior Research Fellowship of Rs 25,000 per month (excluding house rent allowance) from Council of Scientific & Industrial Research and started helping the family financially.
Sujatha, who has become a part of the family, said the family now had money to spare. “In the last two years, if I needed money to buy books or someone needed money to go to a doctor or such needs, Amma (Radhika) would help us out and won’t ask back,” she said. “Even if I need any advice, I can always drop by at her place and discuss without being judged.”
But then Rohith’s fellowship was stopped. But even then, relatives, neighbours and almost everyone who knew Radhika were happy for her when she shifted to Hyderabad. “For once, we thought amma would be able to sit back and relax,” Nileema breaks down.
It’s 4pm. Radhika finally decides to go and have lunch. An hour later, she comes back and says that she felt slight chest pain again. In the last one week, Radhika has had several bouts of high blood pressure and chest pain, but doesn’t want to move away from her vigil at Velivada – everyday, from at least 9am to 6pm.
Despite the pain, she decided to walk her way to the university hospital along with her daughter. The university hospital is a few hundred metres from the Velivada and Radhika Vemula could easily get any one of the dozen or so students, who surround her most of the time, to drop her on their vehicles.
But she would rather walk. “Babu, you continue protests here. I will go,” she says, addressing the students, but looking away.