'Fight is far from over': Students suspended with Rohith Vemula, speak a year after his suicide
In August 2015, when students from the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) had a skirmish with a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), little did they realise that their lives would never be the same again.
Following allegations of assault by the ABVP leader, the events that unfolded, including letters to and from two Union Ministers, saw the suspension of five Dalit students from the varsity.
One of them, 26-year-old Rohith Vemula, would go on to pen a moving suicide note, before hanging himself in a hostel room, thereby sparking a massive Dalit youth movement across the country.
A year after his death, Dontha Prashanth, Seshaiah Chemudugunta, Vijay Pedapudi and Sunkanna Velpula, the four students who were suspended with Rohith, speak to TNM about life after his death, and how things have changed for them over the past year.
Outlining how all of them have cried themselves hoarse, demanding justice and equality, there is a sense that they are disheartened, but still remain resolute in their demands.
While three of them are still at the university completing their education, Sunkanna is now working in IIT Bombay as a post-doctoral fellow.
(Clockwise from left: Seshaiah, Vijay, Sunkanna and Prashanth)
I don't think we are any closer to justice than we were a year ago. The battle is longer, and we have to fight it out.
Rohith was a spirited and committed Ambedkarite. He was always the one who would constantly push you to take action. He always wanted to be present at the scene. He would write on every issue that was close to his heart, and he had no inhibitions about making his opinions public.
I miss those days of the struggle when we fought together, organizing protests, speaking out, and always standing up for what we felt was right.
It has not been a smooth year for us. We have been fighting against big people, heading ministries and institutions, who have complete government backing.
However, there are two sides to it. On one hand, our biggest hope was that 2016 witnessed a major awakening of Dalits. We came to the streets and fought for rights, despite countless accounts of backlash from the state and certain sections of the public.
The concern for individual rights has clearly grown among the youth, and they showed that they will fight their own battle.
On the other hand, we experienced injustice in its worst form, while battling harassment and discrimination. Even though the general public is with us, we have a tough time because we have taken on people in power, from the university administration to the government.
One thing has become clear to me as far as how these things work out. Look at the machinery involved. A person gets instituted by the BJP. When his authority is questioned, he gets support from union ministers to the Prime Minister. A case is filed against him, but still it makes no headway, clearly because there is pressure on the police.
In return, there are four or five cases slapped on the people who are fighting. They think that they can bring down our morale through this, but given the ultimate sacrifice that one has seen through Rohith, we will not stop fighting.
When people in remote villages can organise and fight against caste oppression, we, being in institutions of education have to speak up on the issue.
As far as justice is concerned, as Ambedkarites, we believe in constitutional methods. Those methods can only be implemented when people who believe in those same values, govern.
With the institution led by casteist individuals and the country being headed by a person like Narendra Modi, there is not much hope. There is also constant state repression.
Despite all this, we won't step back from our fight and will continue our struggle for justice.
Not much has changed over the past year. The one good takeaway, is that the Ambedkar movement has spread across the nation following Rohith's death.
I miss Rohith's intellectualism the most, especially his writings. I loved the things that he wrote and the way he criticised several things from the caste system to certain ideologies in society.
On a personal level, I miss the days when we all used to gather together in a room to eat beef, mutton and chicken biryani. We used to do it at least two or three times a week. After his death, those meals are not the same anymore.
I have no hopes of justice presently, especially from an administration that considers his killer a 'science genius', and awards him for it.
The legal system also seems to be failing us, as the police are not taking the case forward citing some reason or the other, while it seems like a clear case of pressure from the top.
Rohith became a symbol of discrimination, but the root cause is far from solved. There are still many people like him, fighting the system and fighting injustice, and until that issue is addressed, our fight is far from over.
When Rohith died, a mother lost her son, on whom she had her hopes and future aspirations pinned. We on the other hand, lost a true friend and a real Ambedkarite.
A face like Rohith's was lacking for the Dalit community, and his death really brought out one of the biggest Dalit movements since the independence of India.
However, I'm personally disheartened as nothing happened. We could not even shake the government. The entire system, whether it is the law, the police or the state, I realized that we can't even scratch the surface.
There have been many incidents of injustice to Dalits in the past across the country and also in Andhra Pradesh. In most of these cases, later justice is denied. We are suffering the same fate. We put a lot of effort, and put everything aside in the fight for justice, but there has been no change.
There is only one reason for this, and that's because caste is political. When the BJP and other political parties talk about the Dalits, and take sides or a particular stand, they're only looking at them like a voter base.
As long as this mindset remains among the parties, of treating minorities purely as voters, there can be no real change that we can witness.
However, we will continue our struggle and continue to fight. We have no other option but to fight.
What I miss most about Rohith, is the ideology that he portrayed and his enthusiasm for everything and every topic. People like him are much needed today for the Dalit society.
We ourselves have been fighting with the inspiration that Rohith gave us, and what he stood for has become a common cause for many of us today.
I only wish that Rohith was with us today, to fight with us, along our side, but unfortunately he has left us and gone.
I don't even see an inkling of hope that we will get justice. The Centre is not ready to punish anyone involved in the case. Instead, it goes one step further to actually award the accused. It is an act that disrespects the constitution of this country.
There is only one message that such an act gives out. It is that the ruling government is not going to hear your voice and just wants dissenters to shut up.
I don't even have hope on the judiciary and the police, because the state government is also not taking any further action. The case is not even coming up for hearing in the High Court.
However, we are fighting with hope, and our goal is to take the movement further, so it reaches the minds of the people and finally the government, which is when real change will happen.
Read - Life without Rohith: The Vemulas' talk about their fight for justice as they cope with their loss