One of the controversies following Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide at Hyderabad Central University has been about his ‘real’ caste identity. We have a detailed explainer about the controversy here.
According to his family and friends, who are irate at his identity being questioned and the controversy being picked up by the media, Rohith's father was from a backward caste called Vaddera and mother from a scheduled caste called Mala. His mother, Radhika, says that the father deserted them when she was pregnant with their third child, and so Rohith took up the mother’s caste identity.
Legal experts say that it is keeping in mind cases like these that the SC has ruled in favour of the child having the right to choose. “There is no statutory law in this regard. The child can take the caste-identity of either parent. Generally, there is a presumption in favour of the father's caste. The issue only arises where the child wants to get benefit of reservation in case of inter-caste marriages. There again, the child can take the mother's caste and avail reservation,” says Sudha Ramalingam.
However, the onus is on the child to prove he was brought up according to the customs of the caste if the status is challenged. “If it is challenged, it may have to be shown that the child was brought up and raised according to the mother's community and therefore had suffered the hardship attached to the lower caste,” adds Sudha Ramalingam.
In fact, it is while hearing a similar case that the Supreme Court passed orders amounting to the above law. The Hindu explains that a judgment delivered by Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai in January 2012 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.
“It is open to the child of such marriage to lead evidence to show that he/she was brought up by the mother who belonged to the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe. By virtue of being the son of a forward caste father he did not have any advantageous start in life but on the contrary suffered the deprivations, indignities, humilities and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged. Additionally, that he was always treated as a member of the community to which her mother belonged not only by that community but by people outside the community as well,” The Hindu quotes from the judgment.
Going by the facts offered by the family, Rohith’s choice seems to fit into the type of case the apex court has allowed for the freedom to caste by the child.