The first time Rohith Vemula cast a vote in a University of Hyderabad students’ union election, it was for the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). It was 2009, and he had just enrolled for a Master’s course in Science.
From then till he hanged himself — symbolically with a blue banner of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) — in a friend’s hostel room, just six years have lapsed. And in that time, Rohith evolved. And fast.
It began with science and technology as instruments of social change, which rapidly segued to student politics. He started with the Students Federation of India (SFI), but shifted to the ASA over its neglect of caste, and became perhaps its youngest ideologue.
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Ultimately, it was a fracas with the ABVP that marked the beginning of his tragic end. In August 2015, Rohith and four friends clashed with the RSS student wing after the ASA members organised a protest against the hanging of Yakub Memon and were dubbed “goons” by the ABVP. The five were banned by the university from the hostel and almost all public spaces on campus. It was mid-way through a protest against this that Rohith hanged himself, on January 18.
The University of Hyderabad would not be the same.
‘The environment here is fantastic……… nice people around’
The first acquaintances Rohith made first in college and then the university recall him as soft-spoken, intelligent and built for scientific research.
B Kondiaiah, the principal of Andhra Pradesh Junior Residential College, Kodigenahalli, was a lecturer in 2004 at the time Rohith was a student there. “He was a very intelligent student who showed a lot of promise. Getting admission in this college is difficult since we admit only the brightest rural students after an entrance test. He was not political in any way. He had a lot of friends and was easy-going,” says Kondaiah.
He even remembers Rohith’s Class XII score — 521 on 600, an impressive 86 per cent.
Rohith’s chemistry teacher J V Krishnaiah says, “He was a good student, passed with first class. He studied biology, physics and chemistry. His English was also good, though he was better at Telugu.”
Ramji Chintagada is considered among Rohith’s closest friends at UoH. “Those days he was not interested in politics. He preferred science and how we could change the world through science. He was a kind of technocrat,” says Ramji.
In his suicide note, Rohith mentioned Ramji and asked that the Rs 40,000 that he borrowed from him be returned when the university released his fellowship money (it was stopped in July). “I don’t know from where he got that figure of Rs 40,000,” Ramji says. “I never kept count. He would occasionally borrow money, primarily to send it home to his parents. Sometimes Rs 5,000, sometimes Rs 8,000.”
Adding that Rohith “was the brightest guy I met”, he says, “I am still not able to process his death.”
The leaning towards science was evident even in Rohith’s suicide note. “I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. I loved Science, Stars, Nature,” he wrote.
Raviteja Donepudi, a former president of the SFI at UoH, remembers their first meeting in 2009, the year Rohith joined the university. They were both enrolled for Master’s in science.
Raviteja also remembers Rohith voting for the ABVP in the student elections held that year. According to him, Rohith did not think twice, hardly knowing the difference between the ABVP and SFI. “He was in
the science department, where the ABVP has a hold. He liked making friends. He voted because his friends asked him to,” Raviteja says.
In those initial conversations, Raviteja recalls, Rohith rarely raised university issues, and only in relation to the environment. “He used to speak about the lack of dust bins at the university. He spoke about bringing green technologies to the campus… He came to meet me once with the idea of starting a science magazine in Telugu on campus to popularise science. He had this idea for a long time. He was not interested in politics,” says Raviteja.
A Facebook post of 2010 indicates the same. On July 22, 2010, Rohith wrote, “Me joined in hyd central uni. the environment here is fantastic………nice people around………feeling quiet (quite) happy………seeking for some good friends here.”
Sunkanna Velpula, one of the four others banned from the hostel along with Rohith, remembers him as a voracious reader. The other three who sat on protest were Dontha Prashant, Seshaiah Chemudagunta and Vijay Kumar.
“He told me once that he always read books, anything he could find. But this was after coming to the university. Before that he was more interested in becoming a scientist,” Sunkanna says.
The books Rohith read were primarily on B R Ambedkar and Karl Marx.
‘In a nation like ours, death could be the only thing which can rescue us’
Over the next year, friends would notice a change in Rohith. By 2011, the 22-year-old had gravitated towards student politics. He also changed his PhD subject. Rohith started his thesis in life sciences but, friends say, he realised he did not want to work in a laboratory all day and so shifted to the Social Sciences Department.
Raviteja has a different take. “Rohith always said science could be used to change the world. He wanted to make life easier for poor people. But by the time he started his PhD, he had a different understanding of identity and politics. He immediately shifted to social sciences.”
In 2012, Rohith joined the SFI. Ramji was already with the leftist student body.
An SFI member, Shekhar, says Rohith also got involved in the election campaign that year. “He believed there was more to do in life than just study and was influenced by certain events in 2012,” says Shekhar.
His Facebook posts of the time also document this shift. From posting jokes and memes, to putting up videos of Telegu movie clips, Rohith started writing about the December 16 gangrape in New Delhi.
“A nation where 545 elected members (with 33% women candidates) failed to take a stand on the side of a girl child…… A nation where politicians behave as elected brokers, where no one does any work without a commission…. A nation where students feel shy, timid and embraced (embarrassed) of raising their voice against an odd thing….. A nation where educated intellectuals run for money like machines…… In a nation like our’s, death could be the only thing which can rescue us ….” he posted on December 29, 2012, after the gangrape victim died.
The SFI was at the forefront of student protests in Hyderabad against the incident. “He once told me he was always fascinated with Communists as he lived next to a local CPI office in his village where speeches were made regularly. That’s why he initially preferred Communism,” says friend Vijay.
Rohith rose fast within the SFI, remembers ASA member Zameer. “He was initially just a member, but he was very good with English and words. He would design posters that used just a few words but were very powerful. He soon became an integral part of the SFI.”
In 2013, the campus saw the suicide of M Venkatesh. “He was discriminated against. The ASA and SFI held a long protest over this,” says Ramji.
Rohith went on to work vigorously for two electoral campaigns on the campus, till 2014. “He always came to the committee meetings and asked questions. He would never take anybody’s word. He had to be convinced,” says Shekhar.
In 2014, though, Rohith moved to the ASA, with Ramji. “Rohith and I had different problems with the SFI. I felt I was being manipulated, but his problems were ideological… Rohith had long argued in the SFI that it did not look at caste, but only class. The SFI believed that since they did not believe in caste, it did not matter. Rohith and I knew this was a weak argument,” says Ramji.
‘The grave will supply plenty of time for silence…’
Soon after Rohith had joined the ASA, the students’ association knew they had a natural leader. “The biggest thing that Rohith brought to the ASA was English. Till he joined, the ASA was largely a Telugu-based organisation. Rohith took us to a new level,” says Uma Maheshwari.
It was in Uma’s room that Rohith committed suicide. In his suicide note, Rohith apologised to him for the same.
“He found solace in the teachings of Ambedkar. Communists do not deal with caste issue at all, particularly on campus here. With Ambedkar, things started to make sense for Rohith, like why Dalits are treated the way they are, or why the eradication of caste is perhaps the most important thing in the country,” says Sunkanna.
In the past two years, Rohith also came to be known for his unflinching resolve, Vijay says. “He would never back down from a fight and everybody came to realise that. Perhaps this was also his weakness, that it took very little to antagonise him.”
On his Facebook page, Rohith appeared to acknowledge this. “A small time sociology student, with uncontrollable reactive reflexes :),” he wrote about himself.
“Whether it was about Ambedkar or (Jyotirao) Phule, class or caste, it did not matter. Rohith believed he was capable of winning any argument. Once you started it, it was hard to end, and Rohith was often aggressive,” says Vijay.
Both the belligerence and the articulation helped Rohith, only 26, become one of the ASA’s most influential leaders.
“We all speak English, but Rohith was at a different level. Look at his suicide note. It is lucid and expressive. He took the ASA to new heights through his writing,” says Seshaiah.
The other space where this flair for writing was evident was Facebook, where he posted frequently. He did it using an ordinary phone that, his friends say, did not have even a SIM card most of the times. He only used it to connect to Internet or log into Facebook. Rohith owned no other electronic device.
Vijay says his family would call on his friends’ phone to talk to him. “Rohith was very bad with such things. He would lose his phone or forget where he kept it. He also used his friends’ computers or laptop.”
ASA leader Zameer adds that when he went out of campus, Rohith would always let his friends know who he was with. “We would call that person with him to locate him. He seemed loathe to own electronics.”
On January 18 too, Vijay went looking for Rohith after his family called wanting to talk to him, before he found him hanging. “In the days leading up to his death, he had not spoken to his mother or brother. They called and I went to the hostel room to find him. He did not open the door and I alerted security, who climbed in through a window and found him hanging from the ceiling fan.”
His family, including his parents and brother, refused to talk for this story.
Rohith was close to them, and began helping out his family financially from the day he was awarded a UGC junior research fellowship (JRF). “He would get around Rs 28,000 a month, of which he sent back at least Rs 20,000 to his mother,” says Sunkanna.
“When this money stopped seven months ago (the university blamed paperwork), he would borrow money to send it home,” Ramji adds.
Again what Rohith felt for his home and family was evident from the photographs he posted of his house in Guntur on the Internet. In one of them, titled ‘sewing machine’, he wrote, “This was the main bread-earner for our home before I started getting JRF….. This is my mom’s favorite occupation…. she used to say “machine” can make women powerful….”
For a photograph of a uniform hung on a clothesline, he wrote, “Dad’s uniform, security guard in a hospital….”
As they try to keep the memory of their firebrand friend alive amidst all that has followed, as they seek answers and fight the questions, it is Rohith’s Facebook page that his mates keep returning to.
In a section on his favourite quotes, Rohith cited one by Christopher Hitchens: “Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence….”