By Ila Ananya
“Without me, there would be no movement for Rohith.”
Radhika Vemula said this once, quietly and a little hesitantly. Then she said it again, a little more insistent this time. “It’s not even Raja [Radhika’s youngest son]. People point at me and say look, there is a mother sitting there. She has lost her son, imagine how she must be feeling. But without me, no movement would have happened.” This is why she is taking close care of her health, which has been fragile in the past. “I’m angry and I’m extremely upset. My son has died,” she said, “And I will keep fighting.”
Remembering Rohith as a child, Radhika Vemula said he was full of questions. “He would very innocently ask the milkman why he was selling milk at eight rupees when the MRP on the packet said six rupees. Every time he did this, I would be surprised,” she said. His protest at the Velivada in the University of Hyderabad was like this too. For someone so honest, how can I not fight with everything I have to get him justice?”
When I first tried to talk to Radhika Vemula, she was on her way to Nagpur, where on March 10, women leaders from marginalised communities had gathered to protest the growing number of attacks by right-wing organisations. Just four days after this, on March 14, Radhika Vemula had planned to lead a month-long Dalit Swabhiman Rath Yathra across Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Her intention had been to try and visit every Dalitwada (Dalit settlement) in the two states by Ambedkar Jayanti.
She had announced her decision after the Andhra government made shocking statements about Rohith not being Dalit, stating that their caste certificates had been “fraudulently” obtained. Outrageously, the Guntur District Collector had served her with a show cause notice that demanded she ‘prove’ she is Dalit in 15 days, or face consequences. “First, the government said we were Dalit,” Vemula said. “Then they said we are not Dalit. Then they said we are lying. They are just doing what they want, without any proof — they are just giving those in power what they want.” She sounded tired, as though this has happened too many times in her life.
For the moment though, Radhika Vemula says she has postponed the yatra until after Ambedkar Jayanti. Her lawyers have been deciding how to respond to the show cause notice. “They said it would be best to wait and see what happens before we begin the yatra,” she said.
Radhika Vemula and Raja had planned to use the pickup truck — what they call the Bhim Auto that Raja drives for a living — to travel. “We decided to do the yatra to talk to Dalit families about what happened to Rohith. These are details everyone must know,” she said. The yatra is a continuation of her fight for justice for her son, demanding that Podile Apparao (University of Hyderabad’s Vice-Chancellor) be sacked and prosecuted under the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and that the Rohith Act, an anti-discrimination law in campuses, be formed.
While Vemula sounded unsettled when she said many Dalit families don’t know how or why Rohith died and that such terrible injustices continue to happen, she didn’t seem surprised either. When we heard of the death of Rajini Krish, a Dalit scholar in Jawaharlal Nehru University, whose last Facebook post ended with the words “when Equality is denied, everything is denied”, we were reminded afresh of this.
Soon after Rohith’s death, the focus shifted to discussing whether Rohith was Dalit or Vaddera (like his father). Nobody thought it was important to focus on his experiences, which were Dalit experiences. The Telugu media focused on quoting his father, despite the fact that he had no role in Rohith’s upbringing and had abused Vemula before she left him along with her three children. Which is why a public meeting of the Radhika Vemula Solidarity Committee in February 2016 had tried to ensure that she would also be focused upon in the media, but has so far been unsuccessful.
This is also what Vemula pointed out when she said, “The Telugu media has never put my voice or story out. They only support the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, and in Andhra [Pradesh] they support the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). And these papers write as people in power say. Where is my chance to speak?”
The way that she has been treated and responded to, is not only about her, “but also about women, single women, the rights of women, and how they negotiate and deal with patriarchal rules,” as Dalit writer and activist Gogu Shyamala had said. “Sometimes I feel like I receive less of a response because I’m a woman,” Vemula said. “It’s like they are saying, ‘We’ve given you sympathy, why are you making more demands and complicating this?’” she said.
Her descriptions of encounters with men in positions of power reflect this. On November 2, 2016, for instance, she had gone to the Guntur District Collector’s office. Here are the questions she was asked repeatedly: “How did you raise your children without support?” “How did you manage to educate them?” “How was what you earned enough for your family?” Here Radhika Vemula quickly added that how these experiences are obviously gendered is difficult to explain, but that all women would understand that they were.
Sometimes, Vemula wonders why she is doing all this. She has asked herself, “Why are you fighting? Will Rohith come back?” when it seemed nobody was listening to her. By being a part of Chalo Una, Rohith Shahadat Din and Chalo Nagpur, she has been struggling to be heard. “Women need education. They must have self-respect, and self-belief. They must be stubborn and unmoving, and they must push back strongly and take what they want,” Vemula said. In the last year, many people have come to her with bribes, — “They say they will give me a house, money, and that they’ll send Raja abroad to study, and get him a job. But women shouldn’t bow down to this.”
In an interview with The Ladies Finger last year, Shyamala, had said, “We have challenges; we are not taken seriously as women, and we are Dalit, but we will question universities that don’t give students an education, but kill them instead. This is what her [Radhika Vemula’s] tone must become,” Shyamala had said.
Now, more than a year later Vemula has become a little more forceful in her tone, even from when we began our chat. “I will always be a part of Dalit movements until I can’t breathe anymore,” she said. There is no hesitation. Instead, now, her tone matched Shyamala’s words.