Up Close on How Caste Discrimination in India Can Be Deeply Traumatic for a Woman
It’s like being told you are not poor, deprived or spat upon. You are not Dalit.
India today lives under a regime with a prime minister who, in the runup to his stunning May 2014 victory, broadcast the fact that he came from humble origins—a tea-brewing (chaiwallah) family. Never mind that nothing in his pre- and post-prime ministerial demeanor had anything humble about it; he sports suits worth an Indian Rs 10,00,000 and uses a pen worth a tenth of that amount.
So when this regime responds and humiliates a single mother, Radhika Vemula, a Dalit, who lost her older son when he committed suicide out of humiliation and desperation—and does so by saying ‘You are not a Dalit’—we must take serious pause.
Remember, this is a regime that has sought to appropriate the legacies of both Babasaheb Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi. Never mind the inherent contradictions in such an appropriation.
Ambedkar, following a long critical tradition that has contested intellectually and politically entrenched privileged Brahmanism, while challenging the tenets of an organized faith that is hierarchical and discriminatory, discarded the possibility of any redemption within the Hindu caste order. He advocated mass conversion to Buddhism, a fact that is concealed from India’s history and social studies textbooks, even as a fifth of India continues to live such a discriminated existence.
On Jan. 17, 2016, a little over a year ago, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar, took his own life. A month before, on Dec. 18, 2015, his letter to the Vice Chancellor of his Hyderabad Central University, in which he pleaded for a hearing, went unanswered, leading to not just widespread protests after his "institutional murder," but demands for the prosecution of the Vice Chancellor under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Atrocities Act.
Rohith had written complaining about the apartheid practiced against Dalit students within the Hyderabad Central University—discrimination in terms of access to learning, library facilities and even treatment at the mess and canteen. Before and after Rohith’s death, Narendra Modi’s ministers and outfits affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have gone out on a limb not just to quell the nationwide agitation, but to break the spirit of Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, by a crude assertion uttered in unison: Rohith Vemula was not a Dalit.
Thirteen months after, on Feb. 6, 2017, this humiliation continues. Radhika, her surviving son, Raja, and daughter, Neelima, were served a notice by the district administration of Guntur to prove why their caste certificates asserting their Dalit status should not be taken away by the administration. This would not only affect their right to affirmative action and compensation, but—more significantly—dent the criminal case filed by colleagues of Rohith against the Vice Chancellor Appa Rao Podile holding him criminally culpable for Rohith’s death. This case has been allowed to stall in the courts with the vice chancellor avoiding interrogation and arrest. Instead, he has perpetuated criminal action against protesting students and teachers.
Ask a Dalit student in institutes of higher learning how this othering or torture is perpetuated, and you find it takes various and vicious forms. Dalit students will often not be served food with others in the mess or canteen. Professors often do not offer fair or decent guidance and advice to Ph.D scholars, and they often discriminate against them to dash their academic prospects. Before Rohith’s death, over two-dozen suicides of Dalit scholars in India’s institutes of higher learning had led to the establishment of the Thorat Committee to recommend measures to end discrimination.
In 1901, Bhimrao Ambedkar’s family moved to Dabak Chawl in Lower Parel. When he was 13, Bhimrao was brutally ostracized in Elphinstone High School, compelled to sit alone on the last bench. His sharp intellect marked him out. One day, the teacher called on him to solve a problem on the blackboard. Before Bhimrao could walk up to the front of the class, there was an uproar. Caste Hindu children, conditioned to cruel exclusions and hierarchies, rushed to “save” their tiffin boxes from being polluted by Bhimrao’s shadow. In many schools, tiffin boxes are still piled up behind blackboards. But where did Bhimrao keep his tiffin box?
It is the everydayness of caste atrocity and prejudice that has allowed it to pass muster. How does this manifest today in institutions of higher learning? The Hyderabad Central University (HCU) has had a long and embattled history on this question. At the time of the Progressive Students’ Forum in the 1990s that battled Hindu caste hegemony during the countrywide Mandal agitation, the more focused Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) was born. In 2002, it was the chief warden, Appa Rao (the present HCU vice chancellor), who asserted the caste Hindu view on campus: A Dalit was shifted off his duties in the hostel mess — how can we have an untouchable polluting our food? He was assigned caste-driven place, sanitation duty. Ten students were rusticated then.
Off campus, discrimination is manifest everywhere: in what Dalit children face in school, what Dalit women and men face upon marriage and what Dalits face during the performance of last rites. This discrimination is perpetrated across the length and breadth of the country. This leaves the rest of India, non-Dalits and “touchables,” with the question, how do we sit so comfortably with this?
On campus, this has led to serious and violent crimes. The HCU has a gory record of being the scene of nine student suicides over the past decade, eight by Dalit students. In the same 10-year span, there have been 23 Dalit student suicides in India’s premier institutions of higher learning, including AIIMS and the IITs. Despite the detailed recommendations of the Sukhdeo Thorat Committee made in 2007, no soul searching within or without Indian institutions of learning took place. On some campuses, separate days are earmarked for interviews of “general” (that is, non-Dalit), OBC and SC/ ST candidates. Posts are deliberately kept vacant, based on the false claim that no candidates of merit are available. There is constant pressure on students to divulge their “full” (that is, caste) names by some faculty.
Before he took his own life, Rohith wrote:
"Good morning, I would not be around when you read this letter… I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write... I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt...The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility."
A month before, he was even more candid, when he wrote to the vice chancellor, “10 mg of sodium azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission… [and] a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students.”
This handwritten letter should have been read as a precursor to what was coming. In the letter, Rohith allegedly goes on to say, “I request your highness to make preparations for the facility [of] ‘euthanasia’ for students like me. And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever.”
This communication squarely puts the blame on the university authorities, and first and foremost, on the vice chancellor. The letter traces the officially sanctioned “social boycott” of Dalit students after they took on a member of the ABVP for making derogatory remarks about Dalits. “Donald Trump will be a lilliput in front of you,” Rohith tells Appa Rao before offering the chilling advice to supply “sodium azide and a rope to all Dalit students.”
These letters did not shake the Indian establishment out of its lethargy. When students protested across the country, the autocratic government criminalized both the dissent and protests.
Today, Rohith’s mother has been forced to "prove her Dalit status." The notice by the district administration is itself faulty, going back as it does on its own findings of April 2016, when after preliminary investigations, it categorically affirmed the "Dalit status of the Vemula family." Clearly this turnaround arises from a desire, prompted from New Delhi (India’s capital that houses the central government), to protect the vice chancellor who enjoys the political protection of the Hindutva supremacist right.
Within days of Rohith’s death, his colleagues and other Dalit research scholars had filed a criminal case against the vice chancellor. This has been languishing in the high court of the state. Meanwhile, an intervention of the Chairman of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes, through its then Chairman, P.L. Punia, had also conclusively protected the survivor family. With the chairman of the commission having since retired, the government is desperate to turn the clock back.
Through an ill-advised and selective appreciation of the law on the subject, the district administration is now trying to argue that since Rohith’s father belonged to the Vaddera caste (other backward classes or OBC in Andhra Pradesh), and his mother to the Mala caste (scheduled caste or SC in Andhra Pradesh), Rohith Vemula takes on the caste of his father and not his mother.
This argument reflects an extremely problematic position in Hindu personal law that has long been abandoned by the constitutional jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court in the context of determining social disadvantage.
Even in early cases (1972 onward), the Indian Supreme Court refused to adhere to the rule that the person assumes the caste of her father. By 1996, as reflected in Valsamma Paul (1996), while still upholding the position that the father/ husband’s caste in an inter-caste marriage could not automatically determine caste status of the child/wife, a decision of a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court took the view that the relevant consideration would be the life experience of the individual. Nine years later, even more convincingly, the matter was settled further in Sobha Devi (2005), when the Supreme Court further held that the life experience of the individual was the sole determinative factor in determining caste status. This was affirmed through a three-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court. Finally, through a decision delivered in January 2012, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Rameshbhai Naika (2012) was confronted with a judgment from the Gujarat High Court that upheld the decision of a local authority to cancel the appellant’s Scheduled Tribe’s certificate on the ground that the appellant had to necessarily inherit his father’s forward caste status and not his mother’s Scheduled Tribe status. In that case, too, an insensitive administration was pushing to ‘snatch away’ the depressed caste status of the petitioner.
In January 2012, the Hon’ble Supreme Court settled the position in favor of the approach in Valsamma Paul. 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 observed 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.”
Both criteria are clearly established by the life of Radhika Vemula, Rohith and Raja Vemula in this case. Hence more than anything else, the recent notice of the District Collector to Radhika Vemula runs counter to settled jurisprudence of the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court has held clearly that a mechanical application of the position in Hindu personal law that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherits the caste of the father is constitutionally invalid as far as determining beneficiaries of reservations is concerned. In the context of inter-caste marriages, the court took the view that it must be the individual experience that must be established to determine the membership in a beneficiary group. Extending this to the present case, it is both inhumane and unlawful to argue that Radhika Vemula’s, and by extension her son Rohith and Raja Vemula’s caste status is determined by his father’s caste.
Then, we need to come to the facts of the case. Radhika, separated from and abandoned by her husband, singlehandedly brought up her three children. After Rohith’s death, the administration and the Collector, post facto, are deliberately and with mala fide intent, relying on the ‘statements’ of the father, who had long lost contact with his children. The statement of the paternal grandfather, Venkateswarlu Vemula, in support of the family, was conspicuously ignored.
Senior ministers in Narendra Modi’s cabinet subjected Radhika Vemula to both indignity, insult and sought to be humiliated by the authorities on the orders of Delhi. The charge that “they are not Dalits’ was first made within three days of Rohith's death by then-Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani in her press conference on January 21.
On Jan. 28, 2016 (within 11 days of the death of Rohith, the Times of India reported that the high level National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval was taking a special interest in the case, and theories of "Radhika Vemula being a Vadera" were being circulated by top persons in the Delhi establishment. 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.
Fast on the heels of the first report in the Times of India, another one indicated the high political stakes for the regime in Delhi in declaring the family "not Dalits." This one quoted Cabinet Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, also jumping into the fray and claiming that the "University of Hyderabad PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide, was not a member of the Dalit community."
Since then the Modi government’s Ministry of Human Resources Development-appointed Justice Roopanwal Commission went out of its way to deny his Dalit identity. This desperation reveals the high stakes involved within the current regime at the Center to target a traumatized Dalit mother and her family after thedeath of her son.
Officials visited Radhika Vemula's mother on Feb. 12, 2016 and cross-examined her. She gave them a statement about the circumstances in which she had adopted a Dalit girl. She died of a heart attack soon after.
About three months ago, on Nov. 2, 2016, Radhika was called to the office of the Guntur Collector. When she reached the office she found that the father of her children was also present, as were at least 10 officials. She was interrogated for three hours.
Here is a sample of some of the questions she was asked:
- Why did you leave your husband?
- What is the evidence that he was a drunkard and mistreated you?
- Did you live alone or with anyone else?
- Did you have an OBC certificate?
- Why are you lying that you did not have an OBC certificate?
- Why did you wait to get your sons their SC certificates?
- Isn't it true that you claim to be a Dalit only to get benefits?
Her personal life was subjected to scrutiny. She was not offered any water, nor was there a toilet available. Her daughter Neelima was also called and questioned. Weeping, she pleaded with her mother to "give up everything and stay at home."
Power and position is being used to threaten, intimidate and bully a Dalit woman and her family, a woman grieving for her lost son, and fighting for justice.