Two days after Rohith Vemula’s suicide took the nation by storm, a disturbing ‘expose’ started spreading on Indian internet, riding on the retweets and reposts of BJP supporters, right-wingers and other curious onlookers. They were asking – Is Rohith Vemula really a Dalit? Some stated with certainty that he wasn’t, and that the media had goofed up in projecting him as one.
As proof, a snapshot of a caste certificate was offered. The source of the certificate, printed in Telugu, remains unknown. It shows that Vemula Radhika, Rohith's mother, has signed a certificate declaring her other son, Vemula Raja, as a ‘Vaddera’, a caste which is categorised as OBC, and not SC, in the state of Andhra Pradesh. That's the certificate below.
Also being circulated as proof was a video taken by an unknown person who is said to be interviewing Rohith’s paternal grandmother, who says that Rohith’s father belonged to the Vaddera caste. You can watch the video here.
For conspiracy theorists, this was more than what they usually have to accuse, allege and abuse – so they were having a field day. But this was enough to raise genuine questions. Fraud certificates are not really unheard of, are they?
Following this, several journalists reached out to the family and friends of Rohith to ask them what the issue was here. They were not happy to hear such questions, but answers were given.
First proof offered was Rohith’s own caste certificate, issued by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. NDTV’s Uma Sudhir tweeted it out first. The certificate clearly states that Rohith was a ‘Mala’, a caste categorized as SC in the state. That's the certificate below.
But the questions did not stop here – what if he had faked the certificate before entering the University? Why is his brother’s certificate showing BC, then? Who is lying?
We asked the mother. Here is what she said in an exclusive interview to The News Minute on this issue, “When I was pregnant with the third kid my husband left us. My kids don't even recognize their dad. So my husband is a Vaddera(BC) and I'm a Mala(SC).”
You can watch the video here.
We also reached out to one of Rohith’s close friends, Chittibabu Padavala, for an explanation, and he told us the following, “The idea that father's caste automatically or mandatorily passes on to the kids is the typical Hindu's ignorant idea. Law is far more enlightened. Children born of couples of different castes can choose either of their parent's caste. Misusing this Hindu ignorance by Hindutva demagogues is understandable if unacceptable.But media allowing and misusing its space and time to for such clearly verifiable fact is really the issue, from the point of view of media criticism."
The anger apart, his main point was this – Rohith’s father was a Vaddera, and mother was a Mala. Rohith chose to be a Mala, he chose to be a Dalit. The law allows it.
Further, as proof of Rohith’s mother Radhika’s caste, her caste certificate was also circulated. India Today’s TS Sudhir was among those who tweeted that certificate out. The certificate clearly shows that Radhika was a Mala, a Dalit.
Rohith’s brother has told several reporters on the ground that his parents were separated. We are not aware as to the legal status of their marriage.
The Chief Medical Officer of Hyderabad Central University also confirmed what was being claimed by friends and family, "Yes, Rohith's mother is a Mala(SC) and his father is a Vaddera(BC) but he chose to be SC.”
Rohith was a Dalit, he chose to take up his mother's caste since his father had deserted them.
Also important to point out here is that neither the University nor the government and BJP have raised the issue of his ‘real’ caste when it would only benefit them in the public discourse.
Also, the debate is being framed to create the impression that if Rohith was a Vaddera, he would be better off. Vaddera’s are traditional stone-cutters and civil construction workers, not land lords. Rohith, as seen from him Facebook page, was from a poor family. In his final letter, he has written about his lonely childhood and his birth being an 'accident'.
But even if he was proven to be a Vaddera on record, how does it matter? The issues being raised are of discrimination of caste within the campus, and the political intervention in it. He identified himself as a Dalit. He was a Dalit as per records. He was a part of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. The VC and professors knew him as a Dalit. The ABVP and Bandaru Dattatreya knew him as a Dalit. In his 5 years in campus, he was a Dalit, and he fought what he thought was discrimination against him based on his identity. Would his ‘real’ identity have changed the facts about the rampant discrimination in our university campuses?
With inputs from Ramanathan S and Dhanya Rajendran.