There was a time he earned Rs 6,000 a month to support himself, and he felt terrible that he could not send money home

Sunkanna Velpulas PhD The story of a Dalit mans thorny path to education
news Dalit History Month Sunday, April 10, 2016 - 19:07

(Editor’s Note: As a part of the Dalit History Month series, The News Minute is interviewing the four students who were suspended along with Rohith Vemula. This is the second of these interviews.)

At the age of 36, Sunkanna Velpula has spent far too many years obtaining an education, taking detours and meeting dead ends. Finally, on the day that his fellow students were to be released on bail, there was another reason to be happy: he had just collected his provisional PhD certificate from the university. Being awarded his PhD in Philosophy, is now just a formality.

But the battle for Rohith will continue; after all, he didn’t come all this way to give up now.

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In Damagutla village in Kurnool district, even getting water and electricity were a “big deal”. There was no question of schools, says Sunkanna. “But after many years of struggle, two Dalit government teachers Krupakar Rao and Susheelamma started teaching village kids in the church in our village, and that is how my education started,” he says.

Having classes in church was the most natural thing. “Churches were always open for us but temples were always closed. Obviously Dalits don’t have much freedom to choose their religion,” Sunkanna says. He and his family, like many other Dalit families, are Christian by faith.

When the government eventually built schools in the area, he says, they built two — one for Dalits and the other for non-Dalits. “As we didn’t have good schooling, I lacked most of the foundations in my studies, and further study became little difficult for me,” he says. 

His father, therefore, decided to discontinue his studies so that Sunkanna could help with the farming. A couple of years went by. “Eventually, I felt studying was better and easier than farming in the hot sun.”

So he asked his father to put him back in school again, and his father found him a tuition teacher in a village 7km away from his. Initially, Sunkanna used to walk the distance, but his father eventually arranged for him to live there, since the teacher was an uncle of Sunkanna’s.  

High school was even harder. He failed in English, Maths and Science in Class10, and had to appear for the supplementary exams. Four days before the results came out, anxiety overwhelmed Sunkanna and he took Rs 100 from his father’s pocket and ran away.

“When I came out of the house I saw a lorry and boarded it till Kurnool, and from there I boarded a bus to Hyderabad. At that time, the ticket was Rs 65 to Hyderabad. When I reached MG bus station in Hyderabad, I was left with only Rs 45.”

Hungry and without a clue of what to do next, and where to get his next meal, Sunkanna stumbled onto a small canteen, where a man asked him if he was looking for some work. Sunkanna began working at the canteen for Rs 20 per day, food and a spot to sleep. After a few months, he moved onto a bar, where he worked for six months, until the introduction of prohibition in Andhra Pradesh cost him his job. However, the bar owner had a showroom for Sony TVs, and so he worked there. After working there for few days he became a cleaner on a lorry.

“On a trip to Goa, and there I had a tussle with a driver, and he left me in Akola district (Maharashtra).”

It took him a month to find his way back to Hyderabad and get his old job back, but he managed it. That very day, when he was eating in a canteen, a familiar face jumped out at him – it was another boy from his village who had run away.

Sunkanna helped him find a job in a canteen in Koti.  The boy worked at the canteen for a month, before suddenly disappearing one day.  

Some days later, when Sunkanna was asleep in his room, he woke up to a knock and the sight of his friend from the village. But the real shock came when he saw the face accompanying his friend’s, that of his father’s.

“My father held me tight, so that I couldn’t run away. Then he told me that that I had passed my 10th grade and that all my friends were doing their inter (11th and 12th grade). He said he would not force me, but I could go back (home) if I wanted.”

It was after living in an urban atmosphere, that he became aware of the discrimination that pervaded his life.

“I was not at all aware (of the caste system) until I came back to my village from Hyderabad. My father always asked me to not to visit certain streets in my village – Reddy Street, Brahmin street and so on. I never understood my dad’s instructions when I was a kid, but I never had any work on those streets anyway.”

The import of his father instructions hit him, however, on a day when he was sitting near a temple and was asked to leave because he is a Mala. “Another time, when I was entering a street without noticing which one it was, people stopped me and asked me why I was on that street. Only then, did I understand why my dad always instructed me stay away from these streets and temples.”  

Sunkanna left home again, to enroll in a government college in Kurnool for an arts degree. He also obtained a B.Ed. after this.

On completing it, he felt the desire to put his education to better use and decided to attempt the civil service exams. He left Kurnool for Hyderabad, hoping to find work that could support him while he studied. Eventually, he joined a security agency and was posted as a guard at the Indian School of Business.

“­­­I worked there for six months while preparing for the civil services. It was not easy; I did not get enough time. I was earning Rs 6,000 per month. I was a very bad son; I did not send any money home to my family. In fact, even at that stage my dad used to help me,” says Sunkanna.

His efforts going nowhere, he returned to Kurnool to try for a job as a lecturer in government colleges. Again, money proved to be a great obstacle, and Sunkanna took to driving an auto for a few hours every night to make ends meet.

Once more, he failed to make the cut. So it was back to Hyderabad again, this time to act in a Tollywood film, Subhash Chandra Bose, starring Venkatesh and Shriya Saran. “I happened to meet this guy Kishore, who was a junior artist, and through him I got the role,” says Sunkanna. 

“I played a friend of Venkatesh’s in the movie. Now I have become fat, but at that time I had a good body, I used to get Rs 500 per day.”

The pay was good, but it was not to be. When he got a role in another film, Sunkanna was late by half an hour on the first day of the shoot. “I was badly abused by the director. He said, ‘When the lead actor can come before time why can’t you?’ He asked me to get lost.”

At this juncture, his friend Jilakara Srinivas, who was a PhD scholar in the Telugu department Hyderabad University, paid him a visit. After Sunkanna had narrated the trail of his studies so far, Srinivas urged him to study further. On his advice, Sunkanna applied for an MA in philosophy at the university in 2005. “Until that day, I was not even aware of Hyderabad Central University,” he says.

He achieved the 13th rank in the university, but it was no easy task. Sunkanna was one of the very few people on campus who spoke very little English. He signed up for an English course with the Ramakrishna Mission, in Domalguda, which was 40 km away from campus.

“I would wake up early and leave so that I could get back to campus for 9 am class. That is how I learnt English. But now I’ve lost some of my Telugu vocabulary,” he rues. Yet, there was something to look forward to up.

“My graph was always going higher — in 10th standard I scored 40%, 46% in the Inter level, 56% in my degree, 61% in BEd, 72% in MA and then a distinction in Ph.D.”

He knows that he need not have made it to where he is today. “If anybody tries to play with my career, it hurts me emotionally,” he says.

He alleges that his guide during his MPhil course held up his submission. The professor was a Brahmin.  He had mailed the chapters of his MPhil thesis, and the professor had cleared everything. “He asked me to meet him on the final day. I was shocked when he asked me to obtain an extension on the last day,” Sunkanna says. 

“I told him, ‘If you don’t sign this I will fight it legally. I know I was abusive but I was hurt that after all these years of struggle, he was asking me to go for extension. My parents were eagerly waiting for me to finish studying so that I can help them financially. He finally cleared it and I received the 4th rank and started my PhD.”

He added, “But it’s not just me. Many Dalits are struggling.” And that’s what he discovered with the Ambedkar Students Association. “I don’t care about other students’ groups, but in ASA there is a lot of love and care which is a moral support for students on campus,” he says.  “When I joined the university I felt like an alien but due to our group I started feeling better,” he adds. 

Recently, Sunkanna successfully defended his PhD, and was given the provisional certificate. Now he only wants to find employment that will allow him to support his family.

“I only want to become an assistant professor in Philosophy, and I am willing to do that anywhere in India. I will apply and will help my family financially. I have no other plans right now.” Except to get married, he jokes.

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