Published: 17th January 2021
The Legacy of Rohith Vemula: Five years since the scholar’s death, how student lives and colleges have been impacted across India
Student leaders across the country speak about how Vemula’s unfortunate demise influenced and shaped their politics and how things have changed on campus since then
One of the photos on IIT Madras student Lalitha M’s Facebook wall is of her sharing the dais with MP and VCK President Thol Thirumavalavan, ready to take on the podium. Over the last year, Lalitha has taken over several podiums and addressed many of her peers. But she traces the assertion of her identity and her confidence to speak up for herself, to the day that she walked into the portals of the University of Hyderabad and came upon the statue of Rohith Vemula.
She didn’t know who he was. She had joined the University in 2017, a year after Vemula was ‘institutionally murdered’ after facing casteist discrimination on campus. She hadn’t heard of the incident and didn’t recognise the statue. It was following a discussion with her roommate on Dalit student Anitha who died by suicide after being denied a medical seat, that the coversation moved to Vemula. Lalitha’s upper caste roommate told her Vemula had acquired a false caste certificate to secure a seat and that he invested all his scholarship money into the Ambedkar Students Association, “She told me that he was the only one who could speak English in the association and so he became the leader of ASA and used up all his scholarship money for the association instead of giving it to his family. And that since he didn’t have any money left for his research, he had taken the drastic step.” That was Lalitha’s first introduction to Vemula.
Lalitha with Thol Thirumavalavan
It was only a year later that Lalitha began to discover Rohith. “I also began to face similar situations of discrimination and I began to meet other people who had lived through such experiences. I was in the same campus where he had lived and died. And I began to learn about him,” she said. Soon, she began to have encounters with the Ambedkar Students Association, “The more I learnt about him, the more my identity consciousness grew. I read Ambedkar, I discussed caste and I became aware of how caste worked in universities. That is when my Dalit consciousness began to get stronger. The movement gave me courage.”
Ever since, Lalitha has stood next to Vemula’s statue on many an occasion, she occupied a space she didn’t realise she had deserved and began to use her voice more often, “I had always been a very quiet, non-confrontational person. Even if I knew that something wrong was being done, I would stay quiet because I didn’t feel like I had the courage but every time we had a protest and I stood next to his statue, I felt a courage I had never felt before, I felt more in charge of my voice. He and I and people like us had faced so much, I began to feel a sense of responsibility. I would feel very emotional every time I stood next to the statue. Politically I was of course influenced, but Vemula had a huge personal impact on me as well,” Lalitha tells us.
Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula
She says that the UoH administration’s repeated attempts to remove Velivada, the memorial set up in the place where Vemula and his friends protested, is just another attempt to wipe out his memory. “If I hadn’t seen his statue, I would have never asked who he was. If his statue is removed, the people who come after me will not ask who he is. And that is what the administration wants. But having his statue there, will allow others to assert their identity just like I was able to do,” Lalitha says.
When Vemula’s suicide took place, Tejaswini Tabhane was still in Class 12. Unlike Lalitha though, she already had strong Ambedkarite roots having been born and brought up in Nagpur. So she had heard about Vemula and so had her parents. So the thought of their daughter moving to study in Delhi University was not something that her parents were too happy about. “I needed to convince them to let me go and that I would be fine. Since I grew up in Nagpur with a strong Ambedkarite background, I hadn’t faced any discrimination as such myself but I did hear about it. I read the letter Vemula had written too,” Tejaswini says. But here again, Tejaswini, who is now in Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi, says that she felt a more personal connection to Vemula, “I read all his posts and saw how articulate he was about his politics. But I was also very impressed by how passionate he was about his field of study and how much he loved it. I felt the same way about Economics and so I felt I could understand the kind of passion that he had.”
Having heard about such large scale institutional discrimination, Tejaswini didn’t know what to expect when she came to Delhi University. “These campuses are perceived to be progressive and it is very easy to get influenced by their ideology but I noticed that there wasn’t any mechanism in place to address casteism. There was no space for Ambedkarite politics. I was only able to survive for so long on the campus because of the community of Dalit, Bahujan, Muslim and other marginalised students on campus,” the student says. Vemula has a little something to do with the way in which Tejaswini was able to be a part of this community.
It was on January 17, 2018, on Rohith Shahdath Din that students from marginalised communities came together to remember the scholar. The day that Tejaswini was able to meet several other students, “It was on that day that we all came together and we were able to form a community.” Soon after, Tejaswini and her friends were able to revive Miranda House’ Equal Opportunities Cell, “It changed from being a mere grievance redressal cell to a platform where we could engage in discussion, create a platform where people could learn and have a space to assert their identity. We became a society.” No too long ago, Tejaswini was mentioned in Congress leader Shashi Tharoor's book too after she responded to his piece on caste.
Jitendra Suna during protests last year
For Jitendra Suna, JNU scholar who also stood for the JNUSU elections the last time around, the connection with Vemula was personal too, quite literally. Jitendra, a member of BAPSA, JNU’s Ambedkarite student group, was already a student on campus when the agitations in UoH had started and Rohit and his friends were being ‘socially boycotted’. BAPSA had been organising protests in solidarity with ASA’s struggle in UoH, so when Vemula died, his friends called Jitendra to tell him, “We had just been mobilising students for a mass campaign when the call came and it devastated me. We were all in complete shock. It was a personal loss.”
BAPSA had already been protesting atrocities and institutional discrimination prior to Vemula’s death but his passing had left a huge impact on all of them. Their voices grew stronger and louder, as more people joined them in their activism. “There was a radicalness that came in. There was an anger that marginalised students felt towards the institutionalised casteism that we had been suffering from for so long,” the scholar said. “There had been several such incidents of institutional murders in the past too. But Vemula’s death affected everyone. Prior to the incident, campuses like JNU, HCU were the ones with a strong Dalit student movement but after Vemula, similar spaces started to crop up in institutes and colleges across the country. It brought together students from oppressed communities,” Jitendra said.
When Vemula entered UoH, he was first a part of a left student organisation before finding true fraternity in the ASA. Which is why Iniyavan Banumathi, the current President of the ASA says that Rohith wasn’t just an idea and what happened to him cannot be seen in isolation - it ais n evolution of almost three decades of a growing Dalit student resistance. “ASA was the first autonomous organisation that explicitly confronted fascism. It was started by a small group of Dalit students, in the aftermath of the Karamchedu massacre and Tsundur massacre where several Dalits were killed. It was because of the work of several Dalit students over the years that the organisation had become strong enough to take on the discrimination on campus. Several people have sacrificed their careers and lives to keep this movement going,” Iniyavan explained. The student points out that it is unfortunate that while we remember Vemula, we forget the students who had stood next to him in the last few days of his life - the ones who were put through the same kind of torture that Vemula was but the ones whose names we've forgotten or not quite wondered how their lives have changed. “Some of those students are still running in and out of court. Some have no jobs, one person returned to their village to become an agricultural labourer after trying to get a job in over 20 universities. His peers are still fighting legal battles, social battles. They are struggling to this day, but we will not recognise the work that they are doing even though we observe Vemula’s death anniversary,” he opined.
Going back in time, he recalls how Vemula grew quickly in the ASA and was slowly becoming a strong leader, “He was a staunch Ambedkarite, an active member, the work he was doing directly impacted the lives of the students on campus.” Which is why, Iniyavan says it is important for organisations to have the autonomy that the ASA has ensured it has. He points out though that despite all the attention that Vemula’s case receives, the ASA is still fighting issues regarding reservation. “Almost every other say we are fighting against reservation policy violations, discrimination, institutional murders in a meticulous manner. All great movements are autonomous. It is what is helping us to challenge the state of things today too,” he added.
However, it wasn’t just the Dalit student movements in the country that were influenced by Rohith’s legacy, student groups with different ideologies were also influenced by the incident. Many vowed to make it their priority to address caste on campus, “But I never really saw it happen. Left organisations that had mobilised and come together to demand justice for Vemula, would not mention anything about the annihilation of caste in their manifestos. I even asked them one year why they had not mentioned anything about how they would address caste issues but the following year, their manifesto didn’t mention it either. People to this day deny the existence of caste on Indian campuses,” Tejaswini said.
Even if they do get invested in the issue, it is mostly a case of appropriation, Jitendra adds, “Left student groups started speaking up but what they were actually doing is appropriating the discourse. Even in 2016, the discourse became sidelined and the issue became about ‘anti-national and national’ debate. Nobody was talking about caste anymore. These Left groups are not encouraging of autonomous leadership.”
Rohith Vemula at Velivada
But after 2016, the presence of the Ambedkarite discourse is more prominent in various universities, “Institutes like BAPSA were set up in Gujarat, Odisha and other states. A lot of other things also changed, pre-2016, it would be difficult to mobilise crowds because people were still not comfortable asserting their identity. Dalit students would struggle to come and stand in front of the line to. Even saying ‘Jai bhim’ did not come easily to them.” Jitendra says it is only upto the Dalit movements to ensure that their issues get talked about, “Without intervening in politics, we can never change the structure of education in this country. This is why we haven’t been able to implement the Rohith Act”
But Riya Singh, student leader from Ambedkar University Delhi acknowledges and agrees that Vemula’s institutional muder was an incident that led to the collectivisation of various Dalit student groups across India, “Prior to that, we were fighting each day either individually or with a small group within the campus. Post Vemula, what we see is an organised resistance against caste atrocities within Indian campuses. It led to an intensification of our resistance and resilience. It also led us to raise our voice more strongly and it led us to accept that we no longer can tolerate such planned atrocities on us by the savarna led universities and academic institutions,” she says.
“For us, the fight is real and it is still on,” Iniyavan says.