Rohith’s friends echo his story of struggle: ‘Don’t touch them, don’t play with them…’

Written by Apurva | Hyderabad | Updated: February 1, 2016 2:10 pm
rohith vemula, rohith vemula story, rohith vemula suicide, dalit student suicide, hyderabad university, hyderabad news Ramji Chintagada; Uma Maheshwar

Dontha Prashanth, Vijay Kumar, Seshaiah Chemudagunta and Sunkanna Velpua continue to sit in protest at the University of Hyderabad, like they were doing on the day their friend Rohith Vemula committed suicide. The four friends of Rohith, fellow Dalits and PhD students, were suspended by the university along with him.

Apart from the four, Rohith spent his last days with Uma Maheshwar and Ramji Chintagada, also PhD students at the university and members of the Ambedkar Students Assocation (ASA).

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As Rohith’s story reverberates across the country, his friends who come from similar backgrounds with similar accounts of struggle fight despair and heartbreak.

Seshaiah Chemudagunta, 27

* Parents were bonded labourers
* Joined UoH in 2009
* Has a non-NET fellowship of

Rs 8,000 a month

The first member of his family to go to college, Seshaiah wants nothing more than to become a professor. “Education is the silver bullet. Look at me, my parents were bonded labourers working for zamindars. Sometimes I had to work too and I was allowed inside the house but could not touch anything. They gave me water and buttermilk, but only poured it from above and into my hands. This was 1995, almost 50 years after Independence,” he says.

Watch video: Delhi Police’s brutality on protesting students outside RSS head quarters

The zamindars would also instruct their children — ‘Play with them, but don’t touch them, don’t eat what they offer you’. “I still remember. I still remember,” he says.

For a long while, Seshaiah would even feel guilty for this resentment within him. “I used to think, my parents work for them, I work for them, they give us money, perhaps we should be grateful. That was till I read B R Ambedkar. I decided then that I will fight, for myself and for my community, and I will teach. Hopefully, in 20 years, no child will have to go through what I had to.”

Seshaiah began his PhD in 2013, and his thesis subject is ‘Social exclusion and inclusive policy’. Should he become a professor, his parents, now dead, won’t be around to see it.

Seshaiah remembers Rohith, whom he met in 2010, as their “rising star”. “He was articulate, a brilliant scholar and he did not back down from an argument. Next year, he would have become the ASA president, no doubt about it.”

Vijay Kumar, 26

* Parents are agricultural labourers
* Joined UoH in 2009
* Gets a UGC JRF fellowship of around Rs 25,000 a month, sends most of the money home

Vijay remembers clearly the first time he was treated differently. “After school in Class III, we would play in a small ground. One day upper-caste parents told their children to be ‘careful’ of us. I was a class leader, but children were told to stay away from me.”

He would often wonder why, says Vijay. “I thought it was because they were financially better than us… because they would play with ST children.”

As he grew up, things didn’t get any better. “In Class XI, I worked as a labourer for a Reddy family. I would think, ‘Why do I have to drink water from discarded plastic glasses, while others got a steel tumbler?’.”

He hopes to finish his PhD thesis, on ‘Welfare state and Dalit education’, and eventually become an IAS officer. “Things have to change and that’s why I want to join the IAS.”

Vijay, who met Rohith in 2014, was the one to discover his body. “He was a tireless worker and we saw no sign that he felt the need to take this extreme step.”

Sunkanna Velpula, 36

* Parents are labourers
* Joined UoH in 2005
* Has a UoH fellowship of Rs 8,000 a month. Sends some of it home

The oldest of the six friends, Sunkanna rues his poor grasp of English. “In my village, I was not even allowed to go to school. My parents said it was because we were ‘different’. Eventually, a missionary couple began schooling me and other Scheduled Castes. But even they had to stop because of pressure,” says Sunkanna.

At home, his parents taught him to “never put your foot on a wall”, “never enter a temple”. “I thought something was wrong with me. It was only after I started reading Dr Ambedkar in college that things began to make sense,” Sunkanna says.

When he finally joined school in Class VI, it was the first time he learnt ABC. “Till then, I did not even know there was something called English. I went to a spoken English course in Hyderabad, so (my English) must be okay now,” he says.

Sunkanna completed his PhD in 2015, and is currently waiting for the viva.
Considered a guiding force in the ASA, Sunkanna met Rohith in 2012, when the latter was in the SFI. “Slowly he understood the politics of identity and moved to the ASA,” says Sunkanna.

Uma Maheshwar, 27

* Parents are labourers
* Joined UoH in 2006
* No fellowship

Like his friends, Uma’s memories of discrimination start in school. “I always had to be careful about where I sat or how I spoke. I was told I had to be respectful.”

The shadow of the bias trailed him to university. “I was good in Telugu but English is what is important. When I came to university, I noticed that most students spoke English and the ones who did not
were mostly Dalits. It’s not a coincidence,” he says.

According to Uma, the university was different when he joined. “Ragging was very bad, particularly for SCs. They can be recognised, you know, (from) their shirts or chappals. Upper caste boys would wait to target students like that.” That’s why the ASA is important, he adds. “People were scared of attacking Dalits because the ASA was there to help.”

Uma, who met Rohith more than four years ago, is among those most devastated by his death. In his suicide note, Rohith apologised to Uma, whom he called Umaanna, for committing suicide in his room. Uma sat on a hunger fast following Rohith’s death.

Uma says, “I had a computer and Internet, and Rohith could rarely live without Facebook and the Web.”

Ramji Chintagada, 29

* Father is an excise inspector, mother a primary schoolteacher
* Joined UoH in 2007
* No fellowship

Unlike the others, Ramji had an easier time as a child as he studied at Sainik School. “There only discipline matters,” Ramji says.

But then he came to Loyola College in Chennai for graduation. “One day this fair boy came to me, shook my hand and said I look like him. I asked him what he meant. He said he was a Brahmin, and that we should stick together. When I told him I was from the Mala community, he pulled his hand away and walked off,” says Ramji, now the ASA president.

He met Rohith in 2010, the year he began his PhD. Ramji is the only other person mentioned in Rohith’s suicide note apart from Uma. Since Rohith’s fellowship money had not been coming for seven months, he regularly borrowed money from friends, primarily from Ramji.

“He was the brightest guy I met, I am still not able to process his death,” Ramji says.

Dontha Prashant, 26

* Father is a driver, mother an agricultural labourer
* Joined UoH in 2006
* No fellowship

Dontha loved cricket, and the pitch saw his first encounter with caste. He was in Class VI. “One day, some upper castes were playing with us. This boy said I could play as long as I did not touch him. How can you play a sport without some contact?” Dontha remembers wondering.

But as he grew up, he got used to hearing similar remarks. “Once, while I was waiting for a friend outside his house, I heard his grandmother shouting at him, don’t touch ‘them’,” Dontha says.

In 2011, he became the president of the UoH Students’ Union.

“I’m still recovering from what has happened,” says the PhD student. “Rohith gave none of us a clue that he was in such a frame of mind. In the last few days we often spoke about how our movement had gained little traction.”

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  1. A
    Jan 26, 2016 at 12:24 am
    Have those All Brahmins Varmints Parishad (ABVP) rouges who were haring Rohith in video been arrested are still lose to kill more?
    1. M
      Jan 26, 2016 at 3:20 am
      ROhit is a coward and hence died, I do not want my fellow citizens to make him a hero out of a coward. Let us shift to idea of development and frankly the only way to end discrimination is development. STOP THIS NONSENSE
      1. A
        ak dev
        Jan 26, 2016 at 11:59 am
        Protesting and accusing the upper caste Hindus by SC/ST students will never solve the discrimination problems. Instead they should focus on improving their financial condition. However, many of these SC/ST students are devoting their precious time on protests and displaying hatred towards the upper caste Hindus. That will only aggregate the situation. They use Ambedkar's name but shy away from following his ideals. They seem to be victims of sicular politicians whose concern is only vote bank politics by keeping them poor perpetually.
        1. A
          Anand Sudan
          Jan 30, 2016 at 3:19 pm
          Dalits are suffering in the hands of the rich people, it is the result of more than 60 years. rule of congress and Rahul is now shedding crocodile tears. But These students do not understand this point. Rahul's party is responsible for the pitiable plight of the Dalits. His party has failed to bring the Dalits in the main stream by providing education and job to them.
          1. A
            Jan 26, 2016 at 3:26 pm
            I have many friends among Dalits whose single minded determination was education. Needless to say toda, they are some of the finest engineers, doctors and bureaucrats. Even some opted for private service because they did not want to be looked down as some priveleged cl. It is a matter of determination on what one wants in life. Government is there to protect the rights of Dalits and everyone else. The best that could be done is to make a representation, a proper one, maybe even a hundred times and get things addressed, there are politicians who come calling on such issues. Did we not see in this case too. Had any of these s come earlier and discussed the matter with the University or VC, things would have been different. Even ASA could have taken this route of consultation rather than confrontation and saved a precious life. Why are Dalits still finding it difficult to get good education, its not because of the policies it is in spite of the policies. Stop identifying them as dalits, make admissions the easiest thing into any insution but do not relax rules for exit (graduation). Provide them with sufficient finances to get educated in the best schools. As long as we have caste based reservations, discrimination along caste lines will never end, why would anyone shy away from making such comments when they are also one among them who feel needs support, for education at least.
            1. A
              Jan 26, 2016 at 5:45 am
              Untouchabilty started as a hygienic measure. No theology is involved here. It can be eradicated through counselling, not by creating counter-hatred which these leftist guys are trying. Jaroas of Andaman live in protected place. Is it untouchabilty? Ponder over. Untouchabilty protected tribal potion of India from extinction/annihilation. There is no tribal people in Mohammedan/ Christian dominated countries, why? We allowed our tribal people to live their life the way they liked.
              1. M
                Jan 26, 2016 at 3:32 pm
                Thats very patronizing.
                1. K
                  Jan 30, 2016 at 4:32 am
                  The current central Government is an utter failure. The economy is in terrible shape. This is despite the fact that the crude oil price dropping by 75%. Inflation is terrible. Instead of his fixing his Government's probelms, the dokhlabhai wants to inflame the pions of the community against the Nehru-hi family. What the poor people need is jobs, affordable food and services. But the dokhlabhai's focus is on the Nehru-hi family. Who to blame? The dokhlabhai's lack of education? His lack of confidence? Or just the love for caste and cow politics?
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