For the past two days, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has been running a countrywide campaign to press the allegation that Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit and that he had falsified his caste certificate. Union Minister Sushma Swaraj amplified this claim on Saturday, saying publicly that the research scholar who hung himself to death earlier this month after facing punitive action from the University of Hyderabad in the wake of an altercation with members of the ABVP, was not a Dalit. The Intelligence Bureau is spending public money and time investigating Vemula’s caste and submitting reports to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval that Vemula was not Dalit.
This forces me to ask a question: Do the ABVP, the BJP and the Modi Government believe, like Chetan Bhagat’s infamous tweet, that “mothers give birth, but ultimately the coke belongs to the guy who puts the coin in the vending machine”?
Vemula was expelled from his university after it came under pressure from Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya because these powers knew him to be Dalit, and an Ambedkarite activist to boot. It is utterly obscene that in death, his grieving mother, who brought him up single-handedly, should have to keep proving his Dalit identity in the face of slander by those who hounded him.
The facts are all too clear
The ABVP and Modi government are resting their claim on the fact that Rohith’s father says he is Vaddera, a group that is official classified among the Backward Classes. He claims that he married Radhika, Rohith Vemula’s mother, after being assured by Vemula’s maternal grandmother that she too was Vaddera. None of these facts are being disputed by anyone.
It is the other, terrible, disturbing facts about Vemula’s mother’s life that are being slandered and shouted down by the ABVP and Modi government. The investigative report by Sudipto Mondal of the Hindustan Times puts these facts beyond doubt or question, explaining what Vemula considered “the fatal accident” of his birth ‒ the reason why he felt that be it his father or his University, all would shun him for being born Dalit. All human relationships had been irretrievably corroded by the poison of caste.
Vemula’s mother Radhika was born to Dalit migrant labourers of the Mala group. A well-educated and well-off Vaddera woman, Anjani, saw the baby Radhika playing at a construction site, took a fancy to her, and adopted her, much as someone might adopt a pet. The sheer casual cruelty of this adoption is all the more terrible, because Anjani could see herself as a benefactor, not an oppressor,
Radhika then lived in her adoptive house as a domestic worker. She did not receive the good education or privileges that the adoptive mother’s biological real children enjoyed. Even as a child, she was abused as a “Mala b****” by the woman she knew to be her grandmother.
Radhika was married off to Rohith’s father at the age of 14, with her Dalit caste status concealed from him. But after five years of marriage, someone leaked the truth to Vemula’s father. And as Radhika said, “Mani was always abusive. But after he discovered my caste, he became even more violent. He would beat me almost every day and curse his luck for being cheated into marrying an untouchable.” Radhika had to leave her husband’s home with her children. She brought up her children all alone, by her own hard labour.
A self-made woman
Radhika was exploited as child labour and subjected to child marriage by a Vaddera woman. Rohith Vemula’s father abandoned Radhika because she was Dalit, not Vaddera. Radhika brought Rohith up, working hard at her sewing machine.
It is preposterous that Vemula’s mother’s testimony and her brave struggle as a Dalit woman should now be slandered by the ABVP and the Modi government, who already slandered him as “anti-national” and hounded him to death.
The legal position on this matter is crystal clear, and is being wilfully ignored by the Modi government and the ABVP.
The Supreme Court’s 2012 verdict in the Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika versus State of Gujarat case holds that there was no “inflexible rule of general application” that in every case of inter-caste marriage in which the mother belonged to a Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes community, the child should take his father’s caste.
The verdict stated:
“It is open to the child of such marriage to lead evidence to show that he/she was brought up by the mother who belonged to the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe. By virtue of being the son of a forward caste father he did not have any advantageous start in life but on the contrary suffered the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged. Additionally, that he was always treated as a member of the community to which her mother belonged not only by that community but by people outside the community as well.”
Further, the court further noted:
“A presumption in favour of every child taking his father’s dominant caste was almost impractical. On this point, the court illustrated the case of a pregnant tribal or Scheduled Caste woman, abandoned by her forward caste husband, who would go back to her people and community.”
A life of deprivation
This is precisely what happened in Radhika’s case. Abandoned by her husband for being Dalit, she brought up her kids in the same life of relentless labour, deprivation and humiliation that she herself had known. After all, her own life in a Vaddera home was not one of privilege but one of a domestic slave, a forced child labourer. Anjani gave her own birth children the best education - but Radhika received no comparable education, and Rohith Vemula and his brothers had to work as construction labourers or domestic workers in order to fund their own higher education.
Vemula and his siblings, as well as their mother Radhika, were expected to work as free labour in Anjani’s house, as the Hindustan Times investigative report establishes:
“’Rohith would hate to go to his grandmother’s house because every time they went, his mother would start working like a maid,’ Riyaz says….in Radhika’s absence, her children would have to take over the housework. This practice of summoning Rohith’s family for housework continued even after they moved into an independent one-room house a kilometre away.”
Only in November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to Dr BR Ambedkar as the “son of a Dalit mother”. Rohith Vemula too is a son of a Dalit mother, and the BJP should stop showing displaying their patriarchal casteist minds, which assume that child bears the caste of a father who abandoned him, not that of the mother who bore him and brought him up. Modi likes to call himself “ati pichde parivar mein paida hua gareeb ma ka beta” (son of a poor mother, born in an extremely backward household). If only he had the grace to show respect for Vemula’s struggle as a son of a poor Dalit mother, brought up in a Dalit household.
In a post on his Facebook wall, Vemula once published a picture of his mother’s sewing machine. He said, “This was the main bread-earner for our home before I started getting” a fellowship.
It’s clear that Vemula wanted to strongly assert his mother’s identity and her struggle. It is time the Sangh Parivar and BJP realised that “Maa” is not just an empty honorific to be used rhetorically to suggest national identity (Maa Bharti ka Laal and the like). A mother is someone whose labour ̶ literally, right from the nine months of labour in the womb to the entire process of upbringing ‒ defines a child. Rohith was not Maa Bharti ka Laal. He was a son of his mother Radhika, a sharer of her sufferings, humiliations and whose labour have given birth to him, fed and educated him.
Don’t disrespect and slander Maa Radhika, Mr Modi.
Kavita Krishnan is a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, secretary of the All India Progressive Women Association, and a former joint secretary of the JNU Students’ Union.