By Ila Ananya
Dalit writer and activist, Gogu Shyamala is at the Hyderabad Central University when I first call her.Shyamala is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Father May Be An Elephant And Mother Only A Small Basket. She sounds tired, as though she has been rushing from place to place, but when I call her back later, she is at home and calmer. She she talks at great length about the formation of the Radhika Vemula Solidarity Committee, for Rohith Vemula’s mother, after his death. She describes him quietly, as someone who “respected knowledge, and wanted a scholarly life,” before the conversation shifts to his mother, and the need for us to know her story. “What is this society?” she repeats over and over, “everything is Brahmanical and patriarchal.”
Perhaps we could start with talking about Radhika Vemula. Until yesterday, we’ve seen far too little about her in all the conversations that started after her son, Rohit Vemula’s, suicide.
Radhika Vemula, a Dalit woman, married a Vaddera man. Now, since we live in a Brahmanical, patriarchal culture, Radhika Vemula isn’t considered as having an identity outside of marriage, and her sons are expected to take on their father’s caste. In Radhika’s case, her husband started harassing her about her caste identity. The violence she faced wasn’t only domestic violence, but caste violence within it. At some point, Radhika left home with her three children because she expected them to be harassed as well, and went to live in a Dalit waada. People here welcomed her, and she could get her children educated, but many others would question her choice to leave her husband, spreading rumours of illegitimate children.
But after Rohith Vemula’s death, Radhika wasn’t given any identity in the entire discussion. This isn’t just Brahmanical upper-caste politics, this is patriarchal politics as well—she has a story of her own, but nobody is interested in it. When Rohith died, she went into a corner mentally—I’m sure she had a lot of desires that got dismantled. “I shouldn’t have sent him to the university,” she would say. The media was busy putting her husband in the limelight, even though he’s an irresponsible father, a drunk, and a womaniser, and was never around. As a woman, as a single mother who fought the violence inflicted on her by her husband and brought her children up, and even as a Dalit woman, Radhika Vemula needs to be heard.
How did the Radhika Vemula Solidarity Committee get formed? What is its aim?
After Rohith Vemula’s death, we realised that a lot of the focus seemed to shift towards debating whether he was a Dalit or Vaddera, but it must be remembered that his experiences were Dalit experiences. Rohith came to Hyderabad Central University because he didn’t want to be a clerk, or work in the fields, but because he respected and wanted knowledge. Radhika’s story needs to be told—I want her to be a woman leader because she is talented and strong, and Indian women need such people, not husbands, fathers, and brothers. We want to learn from her, we don’t want women like Smriti Irani or Sushma Swaraj—they are not thinking like women, they are thinking like men.
Dalit women are constantly asked every time they begin to demand something—“how can you talk like that?”—and are told not to talk to the media. But our aim is to help her talk to the media, the police, to women, and to universities and students. We have challenges; we are not taken seriously as women, and we are Dalits, but we will question universities that don’t give students an education, but kills them instead. This is what her tone must become.
What happened at the public meeting that was held on 4th February in Hyderabad?
It was supposed to be a press meet, because we needed Radhika to also be focussed on in the media. The meeting was held in Lamakaan, and we were joined by many women—K Sajaya, journalist and Vice President of Anveshi Executive Committee, A Suneetha, from Anveshi, and many others. A tribal sarpanch talked about non-tribal women marrying tribal men, and about the identity of the women once they are married, and how they are negotiating their rights. It isn’t only an open dialogue that is necessary, but the complexity of issues surrounding Radhika need to be addressed more deeply, and not peripherally. We called a lot of people from the media, but of course that wasn’t all that successful.
Do you think English language media comprehends these issues, or do Telugu newspapers have different things to say? Who would the committee want to address?
The problem is that we want the English language media to start writing more about these issues. We want them to realise that this is not only about Radhika Vemula, but also about women, single women, the rights of women, and how they negotiate and deal with patriarchal rules. She is a context to the woman question. English language papers don’t cover enough. What is this society? The Telugu media has channels that will give Manikumar Vemula a chance to speak, but only because they have made their decisions about the issue and know what they want to present—they want to support the BJP and dilute the issue by questioning Rohith’s Dalit identity. Where is Radhika Vemula’s chance to speak?
Do you think it’s true that it is usually Dalits who are identified/perceived as anti-national?”
Those in the government are only playing games. In modern times, they begin to call Dalits as anti-national, and before this, they called them untouchables. With the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, any form of discrimination became punishable. So all the government could do was to change their strategy, and begin to call them anti-nationals.
What seems to be happening to our educational institutions, to our universities right now?
Very often, the government’s target becomes anything that is knowledge based, and not based on belief. For BJP, India need not represent any form of knowledge, but must represent mythologies, beliefs. They want the image of a crying Sita, or a Kali, to show such women, and these images of crying Sita become the norm. They will not show strong Indian women like Savitribai Phule. Knowledge is something that can’t be restricted only to the Brahmins like it used to be, and so all this changes into an intolerance and phobia, which makes the government begin to use terms like anti-national. The government thus attacks educational institutions, and very often uses the ABVP to create problems for students. They begin to target student leaders by calling them anti-national, as in Kanhaiya Kumar’s case in JNU. But the attack also becomes on the representation of India around the world, not just individual universities.
What are the ways in which this compromises and affects Dalit rights?
Lots of Dalit students are entering universities and they’ve had to face threats or violence. The argument is that even though someone like Rohith Vemula, who had so much knowledge, had made his way to a university like HCU, why should professors focus on them, or grant them PhDs? They can just be watchmen or labourers like the members of their family have been. They closed all the ways of Rohith’s study. As it is, many Dalit students come into universities with an inferiority complex, and language barriers, and now everyone else makes it harder for them. Everyone else is out to humiliate, silence, and suppress, because nobody wants to allow Dalits into positions of knowledge.
The Dalit movement in Andhra Pradesh was a community movement, it was about a Dalit voice, education, and rights. I feel, being a part of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), Rohith Vemula should have turned to his community, and taken lessons from the movement. I think, this is sometimes the gap between the Dalit movement at grass root levels, and Dalit scholars. There is so much literature by Dalits about their stories, their history, and so much can be learnt from these movements, about the politics of education and untouchability. This community movement needs to be understood, I think.
I wish Rohith Vemula had turned to his mother. She taught her children everything she could from her experiences, and how to navigate society, and perhaps he underestimated her strength.
Image credit: Screenshot via Dalitcamera Ambedkar.