An emotionally charged day: How events unfolded at UoH on Rohith Vemula's death anniversary

Layers of security kept students and Rohith’s family from visiting his stupa on campus.
An emotionally charged day: How events unfolded at UoH on Rohith Vemula's death anniversary
An emotionally charged day: How events unfolded at UoH on Rohith Vemula's death anniversary
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The situation was tense outside the campus of the University of Hyderabad (UoH) on Tuesday afternoon, as the entrance to the varsity resembled a fortress.

Three layers of security stood outside the main gates, even as another row of personnel waited inside.

Barricades had been set up, with at least a dozen security personnel standing guard, blocking each vehicle, and only letting those through, that could prove their identity.

"We don't get any special pleasure in doing this, and constantly stopping people. We are just waiting for this to end," says one of the guards.

Most guards echoed the same sentiment, reassuring those who enquired, that nothing would happen today, and that the students would not be able to do anything.

However, there were a few sympathetic to the cause.

"They (the students) will come and it will be a big protest. I will also watch with you people (media) when it happens," a guard remarks with a smile, glancing over his shoulder to see that no one overhears him.

Several policemen and policewomen were stationed outside the gate, some seated, some standing, all waiting for what would happen soon.

Even as one approached the campus, all the bus stops and tea stalls within a 100-metre radius had posters calling for “Justice for Rohith Vemula”, on his 'Shahadath Din'.

“Rejecting victimhood, reclaiming resistance," the posters read.

Two empty trucks stood at a distance, waiting to frisk people away in case things got out of control, even as a police car pulled up with lunch for the officers waiting at the scene. 

"We've been here since early in the morning. Full day duty for us today," one of them says.

In an adjacent lane, several police cars and media vans also waited for the 'action' to begin.

It was exactly one year ago, in the early hours of January 17, 2016, that Rohith penned his suicide note, which would spark a movement across the nation, before hanging himself in a hostel room at the varsity.

One year later, a lot has changed, as access to the campus is strictly restricted, even to the media. 

The number plate of every vehicle going in, is also being noted by a guard, to cross check later in the day.

Meanwhile, inside the campus, students began gathering at the 'velivada', writing down slogans on posters, and singing protest songs, as the crowd swelled steadily.

"Arrest Appa Rao," read one, while another said, "Enact Rohith Act". Others demanded 'justice'.

Even as the crowd was gathering numbers, the sloganeering began.

"Kitne Rohith maroge? Har ghar se Rohith nikalega! Rohith tere khoon se, Inqualab aayega!" 

(How many Rohith's will you kill? A Rohith will come from every house! Rohith from your murder, a revolution will arise!)

Inside too, the students prepared for what was to come in a few hours.

Both the security, and the students, were only waiting for one person - Radhika Vemula, Rohith's mother, who had requested for “help to reach the stupa” as it had been her desire for a long time. 

By 4pm, a crowd had gathered outside the campus, to express solidarity with Rohith, even as the gathered students, read out Vemula's last words, before marching to the varsity's main gates.

At around 4:30pm, the distant drone of drum beats signalled that the students were on their way to the gates.

Within a matter of seconds, the security was at the gates, locking the main gate, and setting up two barricades, preventing any movement, into or out of the university. 

The police also lined up, ready to detain any protestors giving them a hard time.

However, nothing seemed to stop those who had gathered, as solidarity turned to rage, with the barricades being pulled down and the gates being opened in a matter of minutes.

As the gate opened, students gathered at the entrance, with several posters of Rohith, missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed, and slogans against Vice Chancellor Appa Rao and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A blue flag with 'Jai Bhim' on it, flew high over the protesters.

Even as everyone settled down, at around 5:30pm, the moment that everyone had been waiting for, arrived, as Radhika Vemula and Raja Vemula, arrived outside at the university.

As soon as they entered the road leading to the varsity gate, they were mobbed, by the police, security and the media.

After a heated confrontation with the security officer in-charge, it was agreed that Radhika would be allowed to the gate.

"I'm no thief. I am the mother of a student who studied here," she proclaimed, even as she was being pushed and pulled slowly by the mob, towards the main gate. 

A huge cheer broke out among the students as Radhika arrived, and chairs were brought out for the 'guests' of the program, to address the gathering. 

The guests included Jaan Mohammed, brother of Akhlaq, who was killed in the 2015 Dadri lynching, Najeeb's brother and cousin, and survivors of the Una assault. Rahul Sonpimple, an Ambedkarite student suspended by JNU, was also present.

After each speech, slogans of solidarity with the Dalit community echoed from the students.

At around 7pm, Radhika stood up as the last speaker to address the crowd, amid roaring cheers and applause.

Delivering a speech that lasted close to an hour, she narrated tales of 'humiliation' she faced as a Dalit, the struggle to raise her children alone, Rohith's love for academics, his determination to succeed, and how she never got to speak to him one last time before he killed himself. 

Several times during the speech, she choked, tearing up a few times, calling on students to never take such an extreme step. 

"If he would've told me his troubles, I would've told him to leave the university and cried for a few days. Now, I have to carry this burden till I die. I always thought that I would go before him. Never did I think, that he would go before me," she said, calling on students to think about their mothers, and their families before succumbing to any kind of pressure.

For the past few days, there was a growing consensus among the students who were part of the movement, that Radhika Vemula should enter the university, and visit Rohith's stupa on campus, on his death anniversary.

However, both the university and the campus security had stated that they would allow no such thing.

As Radhika's speech came to an end, the calls for her to go to the stupa grew. 

The security immediately stepped in, as tension gripped the area again. Both, the students and Radhika appealed to the security that the march would be peaceful.

"I'm not a criminal. I just want to touch the stupa once, kiss it, and leave," Radhika appealed, even as the security claimed that there was no permission granted for the act, and they would not allow it.

Professors sympathetic to the cause also stepped in, offering to escort Radhika to the stupa, if the students formed a peaceful human chain on either side to give them way.

Even as negotiations were underway, things heated up, and the police whisked away Radhika and Raja in a truck, along with a few students, citing 'preventive custody'.

The barricades were pulled up again, as the students and police clashed. By now, the time was 8:30pm.

After several minutes of failed talks, the students decided to camp at the spot, demanding that all those who were detained, including 18 students, be released by the police.

It was learnt later that the detained persons were first taken to the Gachibowli stadium, and then to the police station where they were booked under section 151 Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

Meanwhile, the students burnt an effigy of Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, protesting the 'high-handedness' of the state police.

The detained were released in the early hours of Wednesday, following which the students at the university went to the 'Velivada', and lit candles in Rohith's memory.

Rohith's family was not allowed into the campus, even after their release. 

After lighting candles and raising slogans of 'Rohith Vemula Amar Rahe!', the students finished their day with a pledge:

"In the name of our liberator, Dr BR Ambedkar, and in the name of our beloved brother Rohith Vemula, as well as in the name of great revolutionaries, those who sacrificed their lives and blood for our liberation, we pledge that we will fight for equality, fraternity and liberty until our death. Jai Bheem!"

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