On January 17, 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) who had been suspended, penned a suicide note referring to the casteist attacks he suffered. He hanged himself from a ceiling fan in a varsity hostel room. His death sparked a massive Dalit youth movement across the country, seeking social reformation.
One year later, his family remains resolute.
"He was always the strongest among the three of us. I would discuss whatever problems I had with him. He would patiently hear me out, give me his suggestions, but always mention in the end that the final decision was mine. That's what I miss most about him," says Radhika Vemula, Rohith's mother.
The family now stays in Guntur in Andhra Pradesh, with Raja Vemula, Rohith's brother, taking up the job of a goods auto-driver to take care of his mother. This despite him being a post graduate in Applied Geology from Pondicherry University.
"We have now become two people from three, and I don't want to leave her alone, neither does she. So, I want to stay with her only," he says, pointing to her mother.
When asked about what he missed the most about Rohith, he says, "He was always my inspiration. I learnt everything I know from him. He always used to give me advice on how to behave, what to do and what not to do."
"The most important thing that I learnt from him was the importance of education. He always used to say that education was not to earn one's bread and butter, but for knowledge and empowerment," he reminisced.
Raja says that during the most turbulent times, his brother was always there for him. "During my intermediate education, I was made to sit outside the class, and I used to face a lot of problems. There were times, when I had decided that I would quit my studies for good. Both of us were struggling, working part-time and educating ourselves to make ends meet. He came to me and said, 'Despite our struggle, there are people who have even lesser than what we have. They do not even have a way to voice their concerns. Education is the only way in which we can first empower ourselves, and then change the society.'"
When asked if she had any hopes of getting 'justice', Radhika says, "In the past one year, I have visited many places in the county, and also met with many people who have been kind to me and supported me. I have no hopes from the BJP government."
"It was an outright murder. BJP Ministers Smriti Irani, Bandaru Dattatreya were clearly responsible for this along with BJP MLC Ramchander Rao, ABVP's Susheel Kumar and Vice-Chancellor Appa Rao. We still demand that the 'Rohith Act' be passed and implemented," she added.
Ever since his death, the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice has demanded that a 'Rohith Act' be implemented, which would "ensure legislative protection for students from marginalised communities in higher educational institutions."
"So many students who carry a photo of Babasaheb (Ambedkar), are being persecuted in this country. There is so much more work to be done," says Radhika.
Raja chimes in. "As long as this Manuvad ideology is in the minds of the people, there will never be justice for the Dalit society. People should first understand that everyone is equal. Only then the mindset will change, and real progress will happen," he says.
When the topic of Appa Rao Podile being awarded the 'Millenium Plaque of Honour' at the recent Science Congress in Tirupati by Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes up, Raja gets furious.
"What does that tell you about our present educational system? That a man, accused of murder, is rewarded by our Prime Minister on one of the most prestigious stages for us science students. This even as the Chief Minister of Andhra looks on, smiling and clapping," Raja says.
Raja accuses both Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and his Andhra counterpart Chandrababu Naidu, of staying mum and 'dancing to the tunes' of the Centre.
In December last year, Cyberabad police commissioner Sandeep Shandilya told a media gathering that they are yet to receive a reply from the revenue officials of Andhra Pradesh, specifically Guntur, on the caste status of Rohith Vemula, before they could make further progress in the case on Union minister Bandaru Dattateya and Appa Rao, under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
"What has the Guntur administration done for so long? The only reason that no action has been taken, is because Rohith was a Dalit, and easy to sideline. The only way that this can be solved is if politics and state administration split and are independent of each other," Raja says.
Following Rohith's death, a huge political storm ensued, with several politicians including Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal visiting the campus, to express solidarity with the movement.
At the time, critics of the movement often stated this as politicisation of Rohith's death.
"It was the BJP that first politicised the issue, when it decided that the matter required the personal intervention of two Union ministers. It was the BJP that politicised it when they put the two state governments of Telangana and Andhra in their pocket. When all these politicians came, we saw it as an opportunity, to make our voice heard across a larger platform. We neither want nor have anything to do with the politicians now," Raja says.
While there is a sense of idealism that Raja displays, he says that he is also a realist. "We are not making claims that we will change the world tomorrow and everything is going to be fine. However, we are trying to make a small mark, so that tomorrow, when a Dalit goes to a university to study, he or she feels safe," he says.
"I will fight for justice and Dalit rights till my last breath. Wherever atrocities happen, I'm willing to go. No mother should go through what I went, when I lost my son. There should not be another Rohith Vemula who commits suicide," Radhika says.
While Raja says he is proud of his mother, he is also concerned.
"There were moments in the beginning, when I was really worried. There were a lot of critics, who were saying vile things about us, but she still went on stage and addressed large crowds. I have never seen anyone like her. I'm completely support her decisions," he says.
As far as the 'justice' is concerned, Raja says, "For several years now, Dalits were stuck within political parties. However, they are getting an identity now, and slowly emerging and coming together. There may be problems within the community also, but when we come out as individuals and demand that everyone be treated equal, there will be justice."