The identity theft of Rohith Vemula’s Dalitness

The punitive logic of a casteist society that duly punished and expelled Rohith Vemula from his hostel and excommunicated him from the university while he was alive, has not spared him in his death.
The identity theft of Rohith Vemula’s Dalitness
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“I have to confess that for a long time I hated my father for causing my mother’s suffering, which, as a martyr, I took upon myself for us both.” - Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever: A Memoir, 1992, p 42. In memory of Rohith Vemula (1989–Forever)

The closure report filed by the Telangana police in the case of Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder can equally be considered as a chargesheet against him. In absolving the former vice-chancellor of the Hyderabad Central University, some ministers and MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party government, and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad ruffians, presumably based on Rohith’s letter which pleaded that his friends and enemies should not be troubled after he is gone, the closure report does nothing but criminalise the dignity showcased by Rohith in his last letter towards those he was leaving behind.

The same punitive logic of our casteist society that duly punished and expelled him from his hostel and excommunicated him from the university by prohibiting him from using the library, administrative buildings, and other public places within the campus while he was alive, has not spared him in his death either. The closure report claims, without much evidence, that he forged his caste certificate, that he did not belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) category, and speculates that he took his own life fearing the disclosure of his “real caste identity”. But most media reports are citing the Telangana police in concluding that Rohith was not a “Dalit”, as if the real name of the Dalit—a word asserted and claimed by Rohith on record—is the same as the merely governmental and bureaucratic category of Scheduled Castes.

So where are the Telangana police’s claims of forgery and identity theft coming from? The News Minute’s coverage of this closure report mentions that Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, “belongs to the SC Mala caste and was raised as a domestic worker by a Vaddera OBC family from her childhood.” It also mentions that “Rohith’s father Mani Kumar also belonged to the OBC Vaddera caste and abandoned Radhika and her children after he discovered her Dalit identity”.

Since Rohith’s father belonged to an OBC caste, the police and mainstream media have concluded that Rohith cannot claim any benefits of the SC category, much less claim to be a Dalit. Following the patriarchal and patrilineal logic of our caste society, Rohith’s caste must be identical with his father’s caste, and her mother, who was abandoned by her husband and raised Rohith on her own, has at best a secondary and derivative role in determining Rohith’s caste. Although the determination of SC status on these patriarchal and patrilineal lines has been challenged in courts of law recently, the prevalent legal and societal understanding continues to follow the genealogy of the father in determining the caste of a child.

Rohith’s case, however, was special. The societal confidence against tolerating caste injustices, enabled by the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, could have landed his alleged abettors of suicide into deep trouble because rarely has the death of a Dalit student galvanised so much support and attention in independent India. The material conditions that define Dalit life, however, especially the sexual exploitation of Dalit women, took their final revenge in Rohith’s case by turning his birth, which Rohith himself termed as a “fatal accident”, into a case of borrowed, if not stolen, identity.

Rohith’s father allegedly abandoned his mother after knowing that she was Dalit, and refused to give the paternal inheritance of his caste identity to Rohith. After his death, however, a major section of the media, the police, and the ruling government are intent on forcing the paternity of his father’s caste on Rohith’s dead body and living memory. And the force of law and the police power of the state has only aided in this posthumous re-certification of Rohith’s caste, such that the only SC caste certificate that Rohith could possess in his lifetime—the one made entirely due to the efforts of his mother—is officially cancelled and even forgotten. Thus, while the Telangana police posthumously charge Rohith for committing the offence of forgery and identity theft, it is important to question who is robbing whom in this case. An SC caste certificate could not prevent the ongoing theft of Rohith’s Dalitness in the absence of a solid backing of the paternity of caste.  

One has to recognise the misogyny—the deep hatred of women in a caste society that gives mothers merely a secondary and derivative role in the matter of determining a child’s caste—at the heart of the claim that Rohith was not a Dalit and that his SC caste certificate was a forgery. All posthumous efforts of re-certifying Rohith’s caste place the ghost of his absentee father above the real love, care, and suffering of his mother.

One could think about whether the move to recognise the caste of the mother in determining the caste of children works towards dismantling the patriarchal and patrilineal structure of caste. However, in the aftermath of the Telangana police’s report, it is at least clear that the material conditions of one’s childhood, the fact that one was raised entirely by one’s mother, the social phenomenon of the sexual exploitation of Dalit women, and the fatherlessness experienced by many Dalit children, counted for almost nothing in identifying Rohith’s caste.

Ankit Kawade ( is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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