According to reports, the one-man judicial commission set up by the HRD ministry to probe the death of Hyderabad Central University scholar Rohith Vemula, has stated that Vemula did not belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. Yet again, the bitter debate on his caste identity has come to the fore.
In the days following Vemula’s suicide, several aspersions were cast by supporters of the ABVP and BJP on his caste – questioning if he was indeed a Dalit. Rohith’s caste not only formed the basis of his activism and the movement following his death, but also the case filed against Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, under the SC/ST atrocities act for allegedly abetting his suicide.
Several facts about Rohith’s history have now been verified and proven.As his family has repeatedly said, his father was a Vadera, an OBC, while his mother was from the Mala (SC) caste. There are documents which prove this, and Rohith’s mother, Radhika, has gone on record about it in an interview to The News Minute.
Rohith’s father abandoned them a few years after Rohith was born, and it was the mother who raised the children according to the Mala traditions. Read Sudipto Mondal’s detailed report tracing the family’s story.
In 2009, the Madras High Court ruled that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage was free to choose his or her caste from either parent. Justice A C Arumugaperumal Adityan, pointed out that as per a government order dated June 27, 1975, children born to parents, one of whom belongs to a scheduled caste, can choose to belong to the community of either parent.
In another judgment in 2012, Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai held that there was no “inflexible rule of general application” that in every case of inter-caste marriage in which the mother belonged to an SC/ST community, the child should take his father’s caste.
As recently as August 8, 2016, the Andhra Pradesh HC said, “It is clear that the Supreme Court did not say that a child born to a couple, who married transgressing the barriers of Caste, would take the community of his or her father and not that of his or her mother. On the contrary, the Supreme Court categorically pointed out that the answer to the question would depend upon the circumstances in which the child was brought up and that the same was primarily one of facts.”
It isn’t just about what’s on paper, it is the experience of the child which matters. And it is clear from Rohith’s history that he grew up with the experience of being a Mala, a Dalit. His brother, Raja Vemula told The Indian Express, “We lived like Dalits. We were raised in a Dalit community. Yes, my father was from a backward class, but whatever we know is from our experience of living like a Dalit. We have been discriminated against all our lives. Rohith referred to this in his letter too.”
Read TNM article on the legality of a child’s caste selection here.
In his report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, Guntur District Collector Kantilal Dande stated that Rohith was a Dalit. The operative part, as reported by The Hindu, reads: “As per the available documentary evidence with the Tahsildar Guntur, Sri. Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula belongs to Hindu Mala caste, which is classified as Scheduled Caste in Andhra Pradesh and his family comes under Below Poverty Line. The statements recorded from the grandmother of Sri Rohith Chakravarthy Vemula and others are also enclosed herein for favour of information." Although the collector did a u-turn few days later, it is perhaps time that the debate is put to rest in view of the court orders.