There is more than one reason why the Rohith Vemula march tomorrow finds an echo at JNU. Two of the six students wanted by police are Dalits, one the son of a bangle-seller with a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card from a village in Odisha.
“They come from poor socio-economic backgrounds and are trying to make something of themselves, which is why I feel so sad about what is happening. JNU has taught them to fight for their rights but never in violent ways. I feel ashamed to be a teacher of JNU today, considering what has happened,” said Aditya Mukherjee, historian and professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.
Of the six, students union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on February 12, three days after the protest on campus against the hanging of Parliament attack convict Afzal Guru during which “anti-national” slogans were allegedly raised. The other five — Umar Khalid, Rama Naga, Ashutosh Kumar, Anirban Bhattacharya and Anant Prakash Narayan — went into hiding before surfacing on campus late on Sunday night.
The families of the two Dalit students, Rama Naga and Anant Prakash Narayan, say they cannot even afford to travel to Delhi to meet their children.
Rama Naga, 24, is the youngest of three siblings from Ramgiri village in the Maoist-hit Boipariguda block of Koraput district in Odisha. His father, Bhima Naga, sells bangles for a living.
“He is the most educated person in our family where no one else has gone beyond matriculation. I could not clear Class 7. Rama was a good student throughout,” said Khyama Naga, Rama’s elder brother, who tills a small patch of land that the family possesses.
Rama’s sister Parvati in an anganwadi worker in the village.
Rama, a second-year MPhil student at JNU, contested the union elections last year for the CPI (ML)’s All India Students Association (AISA) and defeated ABVP’s Devendra Singh Rajput for the high-profile post of general secretary.
After completing his schooling at Ramagiri high school and intermediate at Boipariguda, Naga joined Vikram Dev Autonomous College of Jeypore from where he completed his graduation in political science in 2012. The same year, he enrolled for an MA in the subject.
“We hoped Rama would get a job after his studies. We have not been able to fund his education as much as we wanted to. Sometimes, we would send Rs 500-Rs 2,000 to him and urge him to take loans from his friends. But Rama has never ever asked for money,” said Khyama.
Asked about the sedition charges his brother faced, Khyama said, “We are helpless. Forget getting lawyers, we don’t have the money to travel to Delhi to meet him.”
Asked about Rama’s early education, Khyama said, “Our block did not have a government college, so he had to travel 45 km so that he could study political science.”
Rama says he came to know about JNU from his college teacher in Odisha “as this great university where big people teach far away in Delhi”. “When I cleared JNU, the whole block celebrated. I was the first person in my block to clear the JNU entrance test,” he said.
The story of the other Dalit student, Anant Prakash Narayan, is not too different. The son of a Class III worker, Narayan is from Chandoli district in Uttar Pradesh and a second-year PhD scholar on rape law reform. He has three sisters, of which two are primary health workers, and is the first in his family to study in Delhi. His association with AISA began in 2006. He was the students union vice-president in 2014.
“I come from a humble background and my parents are scared now. I was forced to go underground because of the mob hysteria after the first two days. There was a lynch mob at the gates of the university that branded us,” said Narayan.
Ashutosh Kumar, another student under the police scanner, is an OBC from Barh near Patna and was JNUSU president in 2014 after AISA swept the polls. He is a second-year PhD scholar of Russian Studies at the School of International Studies at JNU.
CPI (ML) Bihar secretary Kumaer Pervez told The Indian Express: “Ashutosh rose from a very humble background to represent JNUSU in 2014. His father is a non-gazetted officer posted with Indian Railways at Danapur.”
Pervez said Ashutosh used to stay with his family at Patna and completed his early education from here.
“I recall him as a JNU student leader who would not only raise campus issues but also take up social causes such as farmers’ suicides. He would raise the problems of the weaker sections effectively,” said Pervez.
A final-year PhD student of History from the School of Social Sciences (SSS), Anirban Bhattacharya is from Dum Dum in West Bengal.
Kolkata-based Soumo Mandal, general secretary, United Student’s Development Front (USDF), says he has known Anirban “for years”.
“Anirban has always supported the cause of the oppressed. He was there to support the farmers at Singur and Nandigram, he also spoke for the starving tea plantation workers of North Bengal,” said Mandal.