As we entered the Gandhi Bhavan in the centre of Hyderabad on August 29 for an in-house meeting organised by Kula Nirmulana Porata Samiti seeking justice for Rohith Vemula, we encountered an overwhelming feeling. We, from the University of Hyderabad, were clearly outsiders amongst a sea of people arriving there from all parts of Telangana. We, who knew Rohith as a student, as a friend, as a fellow ideologue, were mere spectators as people poured in, mostly men, mostly Dalit, mostly daily wage labourers, forsaking their work and day’s earnings. If not for matters of day-to-day survival, we were sure women would have outnumbered men in the meeting. What moved these men and women who did not know Rohith Vemula? What made them claim a space, claim Rohith, as their own? This claiming of Rohith as one of them was the most visible as a group sang a song describing Rohith as a star now in the skies — “from shadows to the stars”. Was it that this sea of people understood Rohith as Dalit, connected to them through blood, however thin? Did they see in Rohith a figure who represented their unsuccessful aspirations for education, freedom, equality — a better life from the one in the shadows they lived and shared?
If this is one part of the story, the other part is the narrative that the state and its institutions have been reiterating since Union minister Bandaru Dattatreya, MLC Ramachandra Rao, ABVP’s Susheel Kumar and professor Appa Rao were charged under the SC/ST Atrocities Act immediately after Rohith Vemula’s death. What the state and the police have consistently done is to question Rohith’s caste. They not only sought to establish Rohith’s caste through establishing his non-existent relationship with his father, thereby conforming to an extremely casteist-patriarchal mode, but also to completely delegitimise Radhika Vemula’s struggle as a woman, who, after her separation from her husband early in their marriage, brought up three children amongst her own people — the Mala (Dalit) community.
We need to remember that neither Rohith’s biological father, nor Radhika Vemula’s adoptive family has ever claimed Rohith as a Vaddera (OBC). Throughout, it is the Dalit community which has asserted that Rohith belonged to them. The lost video of Rohith which was circulated in social media and carried to the public by electronic and print media has Rohith himself talking of his caste. What then is the state’s interest in asserting otherwise?
It has to be noted how the state and its machinery conveniently sidelined government and Supreme Court orders — that a child can belong to and claim the mother’s caste. The contradictions here are noteworthy: First, Rohith, being fatherless for all practical purposes, ends up not belonging to his mother in his death. Secondly, and more importantly, while for all purposes caste has been a matter of blood and blood alone, in this case, despite assertions from Rohith’s mother and the whole community, it is the state that has taken up the task of redefining blood relations — going against constitutional and judicial pronouncements. What do we make of this?
The National Commission for Scheduled Castes, in its report based on documentary evidence and the reports of the district collector of Guntur, states that Rohith’s caste is Mala and for all purposes, he is an SC. Meanwhile, the one-man judicial commission’s (constituted by the ministry of human resources to look into “the facts and circumstances of Rohith’s death”) now-leaked reports clearly point to the anxiety of the state. The report’s assertion that Rohith was not a Dalit is not only an overstepping of the terms of reference set by MHRD, but also a blatant violation of the constitutional norms that authorise the district collector as the only official who can certify a person’s caste.
This leads to a troubling observation. Thus far, the state has not negated the discrimination Rohith and Radhika Vemula underwent. How do we account for this discrimination if not via caste?
What is puzzling to everyone who has been involved is the nature of caste and the way it operates in our times. Do we see this just as the state’s attempt to avoid acting on the SC/ST Atrocities Act, which would then imply that action need not be taken on government functionaries who are held responsible? And that both Rohith and Radhika Vemula have fabricated their Dalitness?
A brief conversation with Thirumal, a friend and colleague, brought out an interesting argument: The Dalit movement’s constant recourse to constitutional and state measures, reflective of an aspiration of a free and equal life in a modern democracy, has led to this contradiction. The Dalit movement, for a long time now, has relied on the state and its institutions — largely juridical systems — to redress caste injustice and also to aspire for a society without caste discrimination. This reliance on the state indicates an emphasis on moving beyond the confines of framing caste within the biological, within the confines of the village and its caste-based systems of justice. However, this has resulted in a typical control of caste-discourse from the state’s side.
The state’s need to control is manifest in how it defines Rohith and his mother Radhika Vemula’s caste, despite contrary claims emerging from within the community. Although a counter discourse is emerging in recent Dalit movements, including the Rohith movement and the Una movement, the state’s interest in controlling the discourse on caste is apparent.
The irony of the modern state, on which Dalit movement depends too heavily, is that the state cannot but be inhabited by caste — by its absent-presence and its brahmanical ideologies. We need to remind ourselves that we have a modern state that, instead of seeking the annihilation of caste, wishes away caste.