It’s been a year since my brother, Rohith Vemula, left us. In this year, we have gone through hardships and experienced many injustices. The fight for justice is very tough and long and we are prepared for it. Not only has my brother been denied justice, now there is an effort to prove that we are not Dalit and belong to a backward caste. But we are sure that ultimately the truth will prevail and those who were behind my brother’s death would be punished.
Since my brother’s death, my mother, Radhika Vemula, has not been keeping well. It’s only recently that she has gone back to tailoring. Despite the hardships we were facing, my mother traveled across the country to meet people who were victims of caste hatred and discrimination. We went to Una, JNU, Perumbavoor in Kerala to meet the mother of murdered law student Jisha, among other places.
Through their horror stories, we relived ours. We will carry on this fight against injustice to the marginalised communities for as long as we can. We have been taking part in several protests and meetings across the country for the cause of Dalit unity.
We are yet to come to terms with the fact that Rohith is no more. He was the driving force in the family. He had lots of ideas and thoughts he used to share with us. The place we identify him with — the university of Hyderabad — is out of bounds for us since we have been barred from entering without permission. We are not allowed near Rohith’s bust that was raised by the students on the campus.
When Rohith committed suicide last January, I was working as a project fellow at the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) in Hyderabad. I stopped going to work for several days after my brother’s death. The NGRI kept my position vacant for over three months. I finally informed them that I won’t be able to rejoin work. The protests were going on and I wanted to be out there, among the people, to gather as much support as possible to ensure that justice is done.
A year later, we realise that nothing has changed. Caste discrimination continues everywhere. But we will fight. Our fight is for freedom, for justice and social equality.
When everybody in the Congress was excited that India will finally get independence, Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar had the courage to ask what kind of independence it would be. Seven decades after Independence, Babasaheb’s question continues to ring out loud. Are we really free? Or have the British colonisers been replaced by upper-caste Indian colonisers?
I could list out a hundred freedoms that Dalits like me crave for, but I would like to start with the basic freedom that was denied to my brother, Rohith — the freedom to live with dignity. This basic freedom, that every living thing craves more than anything else, was denied to my brother in this so-called free country.
What is wrong in wanting the freedom that everyone else has? What is wrong in dreaming that Dalits will one day be treated equally? I dream that one day we Dalits will have the freedom to eat whatever we want, even beef. I dream that we will have the freedom to love whoever we want. I dream that we will have the freedom to say no when somebody forces us to clean a toilet or pick up a dead cow.
I dream that one day our people will have the freedom to choose their own path whether that path leads to a temple or to a university.
Freedom, to us, means azadi from the caste system, a fulfillment of the guarantee of rights that the Constitution gives all its citizens.
Freedom means the kind of life that Babasaheb wanted us to lead: A life without blind beliefs; a life based on faith in humanity and not in some unknown God; a life based on compassion and respect for fellow human beings; a life of dignity and self-respect; a life outside the Hindu caste system; free from shame and daily humiliation; free from the guilt of praying to the same god in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries; free from discrimination in schools and universities; free from the attitude and behaviour of Brahmins towards Dalits. It means freedom from being thrown into ghettos, the freedom to choose where to live and how to live. Freedom is when people from other castes start acknowledging our competence and ability and treat us as equals.
I have some smaller dreams too.
I dream that my mother will have the freedom to enter the campus of the Hyderabad University, where her son sacrificed his life. What good is any other freedom when a mother cannot visit the place where her son died?
There are some Indians who enjoy more than the small freedoms that I wish for. For them, the country is a place of opportunity and riches. Some of them have the freedom to kill without fear. Some of them have the freedom to rule the country by dint of money and muscle power.
Seventy years after Independence, many continue to have the freedom to exploit those who are disprivileged by birth.