A mother’s fight seeking ‘Justice for Rohith’

NEW DELHI,NIKHILA HENRY: She lit a candle for her son Rohith Vemula under police surveillance at India Gate on February 24 and later walked two kilometers to the Tilak Marg police station to join students who were picked up for protesting under the banner “Justice for Rohith,” research scholar who killed himself on January 17. A single shot framing a mother’s tear was the image that became a definining moment for newspapers.

Radhika Vemula, mother of Dalit research scholar Rohith, who committed suicide at Hyderabad Central University on January 17. Photo: Nagara Gopal

This soft-spoken and diminutive woman, who reached the country’s capital bearing the grief of losing both the son and her adoptive mother, Anjani Devi, in a span of 40 days, has with her fiery rebuttal to HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s speech on Rohith’s suicide. This set a template for the Congress and the Left parties to move a resolution against Ms. Irani for misleading the House.

Ms. Vemula, who was married at 14 years of age and separated from her husband at 19 years, looks tired in most public meetings. But as she picks up the microphone to speak, she surprises those who expect a mother’s fragile sobs. She demands an answer from Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet Ministers on why her son was “branded anti-national”. Ms. Vemula stands unfazed in public gatherings.

On the morning of January 18, when she received her son’s body, the distraught mother crouched on the floor, wept her heart out and was inconsolable. But she did not have the luxury to stay grieving for long. “I had to fight not just for Rohith but for the four other students who were treading a perilous path following their suspension from hostels. I wanted justice for all of them,” a determined Ms. Vemula spoke from New Delhi. And the four youngsters who are currently in New Delhi never left her side since Rohith’s demise. “She is a source of inspiration and a reminder of the need to continue the agitation for Rohith,” D. Prashanth, a suspended student of University of Hyderabad, said.

Deciding to end her marriage following the “abuse” she faced, Ms. Vemula — a teenager then — raised her three children living in the fringes in a Mala (Dalit) colony near Prakash Nagar, Guntur. To feed the family she worked from 8.30 a.m. till midnight. “She worked hard to pay off the rent and school fees. She is a woman of self-respect,” said Sheik Riyas, Vemulas’ family friend and a resident of Guntur.

The only other support that Ms. Vemula had was Anjani Devi, her ‘adoptive’ mother of Vaddera community (OBC) for whom she used to do household work in exchange of financial aid. “Now, after Rohith she too is gone,” Ms. Vemula says. However, despite her attachment with Ms. Devi, Ms. Vemula continued to live her life as a Mala.

For Dalit women like her, Ms. Vemula is placed within the ambit of collective and individual battles they face on account of both gender and caste.

“Mothers of most Dalit children, like Rohith’s amma, have fought for better lives for their kids and have taken on authorities for them,” said Asha Kowtal of All India Dalit Adhikar Manch, tracing a history of resistance.

Ms. Vemula’s stoic demeanor has surprised many. For the Class X dropout, life has been the biggest teacher and her caste identity the epicentre of it. A person who had heard of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s ideology through her children’s narratives, Ms. Vemula now speaks of Dalit women’s struggles — “Holding on to Baba Saheb’s words, students should study and never give up their hope on life,” she said as she echoes Dr. Ambedkar’s final words, “Educate, Agitate, Organise”. Now a Buddhist by choice, Ms. Vemula had insisted on performing the last rites of her son as per the mandates of her faith.

Senior academics do not find this transformation from shock and grief to a public persona surprising. “Radhika is a resilient woman and she has an understanding that Rohith’s death has larger implication in today’s society and in educational spaces,” said Surepalli Sujatha, faculty member of Satavahana University, Karimnagar. She maintains close relation with Ms. Vemula.

A self-made woman from a marginalised community who braved all odds, the agitation for justice for Rohith, as painful as it might be for her, is now part of her many struggles for survival.