Both killed themselves in hostel rooms. Each tragedy was followed by the registration of an abetment of suicide case: one in January 2016 and the other in October. The prime accused in the case of PhD scholar Rohith Vemula was the vice chancellor of Hyderabad Central University, P Appa Rao, while in the case of PG medical student Sandhya Rani, it was the gynaecology professor of Guntur Medical College, VAA Lakshmi. The Guntur police arrested Lakshmi within a month, along with five others who had allegedly helped her go underground after Sandhya’s death. By contrast, the Cyberabad police, even 11 months after Rohith Vemula’s death, is yet to arrest Rao – or any of the other five accused persons named in the first information report.
This is despite the fact that the FIR lodged by Rohith Vemula’s comrade, Dontha Prashanth, is a more serious one. For, besides alleging abetment of suicide under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, it invokes provisions of the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Applicable to cases where the victims are either Dalits or Adivasis, the special law enhances the maximum penalty for abetment of suicide from 10 years of imprisonment to life sentence. But, ironically, the very invocation of this Act has ended up serving as an excuse for holding up this politically fraught case. At a year-end review meeting with the media last week, Cyberabad police commissioner Sandeep Shandilya claimed that the case could make no progress unless and until it was officially clarified that Rohith Vemula was indeed a Dalit. The need for such a clarification is curious given that Rohith Vemula did very much have a scheduled caste certificate, whose validity had never been questioned in his lifetime.
If the investigation into his suicide is still subject to a fresh determination of his caste identity, it’s because of a campaign orchestrated by his political adversaries belonging to the extended Sangh Parivar in an obvious bid to shield the accused named in the FIR. Though Rohith Vemula had been driven to suicide in the pursuit of his Ambedkarite politics, the object of the campaign has been to establish, somehow or the other, that Rohith Vemula himself was not Dalit. In the beginning, a range of Hindutva voices including Union minister Sushma Swaraj tried to take advantage of the fact that one of his divorced parents was not Dalit. An error in the application for his brother’s birth certificate was also sought to be exploited thereafter. Such diversionary tactics have been allowed to stall the case, which levels allegations against not only Rao but also Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, two local Bharatiya Janata Party leaders and two Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leaders. The charade involves members of the ruling dispensation and the law enforcement machinery, at the Centre as well as the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Though he had been brought up in Guntur town single handedly by his Dalit mother, tailor Radhika Vemula, his detractors came up with a counter narrative citing his father, security guard Mani Kumar Vemula, who had long lost contact with his children.
Since the father belonged to an “other backward class” community, it was made out that Rohith Vemula could not but fall in the same category, although the absentee father lived more than a 100 kms away from Guntur town in a village called Gurazala. Much as it fits the Hindu right’s ploy to obfuscate the case, this patriarchal presumption about Rohith Vemula’s caste flies in the face of the settled law.
The presumption that the child would belong to the caste of the father in an inter-caste marriage is “by no means”, as the Supreme Court laid down in 2012, “conclusive or irrebuttable”. The judgment added that “it is open to the child of such marriage to lead evidence to show that he was brought up by the mother who belonged to the scheduled caste/scheduled tribe.” It prescribed two criteria for the child in such a situation to be considered a Dalit or Adivasi. One, that “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 mother belonged.” Two, “that he was always treated as a member of the community to which his mother belonged not only by that community but by people outside the community as well.”
For someone who suffered a “social boycott” along with four other Dalit students at the hands of the university administration, and for someone who famously said in his suicide note that he had been “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility”, Rohith Vemula did surely fulfill the Supreme Court’s twin criteria for being regarded as a Dalit despite having a non-Dalit father. So, it was no surprise that when the National Commission of Scheduled Castes had asked him to address the doubt raised by Mani Kumar about Rohith Vemula’s caste identity, the collector of Guntur district, Kantilal Dande, affirmed in writing in April that as per the “available revenue records”, the deceased was very much a Dalit. Dwelling on his antecedents, Dande recorded that Rohith Vemula’s mother was a Dalit who had been adopted in her infancy by an OBC family and that after her divorce she had returned to Guntur town to live with her children in a Dalit settlement. In the light of these findings, the National Commission of Scheduled Castes advised the commissioner of Cyberabad police in June “to complete the investigation and file the report at the earliest, in the court of law.”
The police, however, disregarded the call for urgency from the Commission, which was then headed by Congress MP PL Punia. The latest excuse for their continuing inaction, as evident from the October minutes of the Commission, is a U-turn made by Guntur collector.
Reopening the issue of Rohith Vemula’s caste identity, Dande told the Commission that the district-level scrutiny committee had received “certain representations on this subject” and it would take “some more time” to dispose them of. Betraying the lengths to which the government and the Hindutva camp at large have gone to scuttle the case, those representations were apparently prompted by a discrepancy in an application filed in 2014 for the birth certificate of Rohith Vemula’s younger brother, Raja Vemula.
The Union minister of social justice, Thaawar Chand Gehlot, pointed out triumphantly in a press interview, as if it was a clincher, that the application signed by Radhika Vemula had mentioned that Raja Vemula was an OBC. But Gehlot overlooked the crucial fact that Raja, as disclosed in the Guntur collector’s original report in April, had already obtained his Scheduled Caste certificate in 2007 and that his caste identity was anyway irrelevant to the application for his birth certificate. This attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill has not been given up even after Rohith Vemula’s paternal grandfather, Venkateswarlu Vemula, came up with a plausible explanation for the circumstances in which that superfluous, though erroneous, reference to Raja’s caste came to be made in the birth certificate application. Rebutting Gehlot’s statement, Venkateswarlu Vemula wrote to the Guntur collector in June saying that as the birth certificate had to be obtained from Gurazala, where Radhika Vemula had lived before the break-up of her marriage, he had taken her signature on a blank sheet and given it to an official to draft the application on it.
After granting interim relief to some of the accused persons, the Hyderabad high court has not listed their petitions for a hearing in the last eight months. As a result, the complainant in the case has been deprived of a chance to challenge the high-level attempt to get the influential accused off the hook. Meanwhile, a judicial inquiry into Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Justice Roopanwal Commission, went out of its way to deny his Dalit identity. If a petty mistake in a handwritten application for a birth certificate is eventually used to revoke a lawfully issued caste certificate, it will be a travesty of justice. The invocation of Prevention of Atrocities Act provisions has already been turned into an opportunity to divert the investigation from Rohith Vemula’s death to his caste. Rather than his tormentors, he is himself being put in the dock, posthumously.
But then, even if it is ruled that Rohith Vemula belonged to an OBC, the six persons accused of abetting his suicide under the special Dalit law will remain liable to be tried for the same offence under the general criminal law. Consider the prompt action taken against the six accused persons in the abetment of suicide case booked two months ago in Rohith Vemula’s home district for the death of OBC medical student Sandhya Rani. The contrasting trajectories of the two cases could not have been more telling.
Manoj Mitta is the author of The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra and co-author of When a Tree Shook Delhi: The 1984 Carnage and its Aftermath