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Stop the attack on Radhika Vemula

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It is with a great sense of outrage that we draw attention to the fresh bout of persecution faced by Radhika Vemula, the bereaved mother of Rohith Vemula, the University of Hyderabad research scholar who committed suicide on 17 January 2016. Following an inquiry by a District Level Scrutiny Committee (DLSC), the district collector of Guntur (Andhra Pradesh), Kantilal Dande, has issued a show-cause notice to Radhika Vemula that requires her to “prove her claim within 15 days that she belongs to [the] Scheduled Caste (SC) community” failing which, the SC certificates issued to her family will be cancelled. It may be recalled that it is the very same collector, who had told the National Commission for Scheduled Castes in April, 2016, that Rohith belonged to the Dalit Community. There is ample evidence that Rohith was Dalit, that his mother raised him with enormous resilience, battling patriarchal and casteist oppression. The discrediting of Radhika Vemula and the devaluation of her life's struggles are indeed a blow to all movements for women's rights and dignity. This move is unequivocally regressive and has dangerous implication for women's rights and undermines decades of feminist struggle for a more egalitarian world where women are not merely tools of reproduction.

 Radhika Vemula’s ordeal following her son’s death is a chilling instance of how the might of the state machinery can with impunity brush aside constitutional principles, social justice and legal rulings in order to protect the interests of the powerful people who are mired in an SC/ST atrocities case for allegedly abetting Rohith’s untimely death. In this case, at the receiving end of state’s repressive tactics is a single Dalit mother, who has not even had the chance to grieve the loss of her son in peace. Instead of investigating the alleged offence of abetting Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Andhra Pradesh’s state apparatus is being used extensively to disprove the Dalit identity of Rohith Vemula and his brother and mother. The State has not established that Radhika Vemula was born to a non-Dalit. In fact, there is testimony of everyone involved in the family – her ex-husband Manikumar, his father, Radhika's mother Anjani Devi -- all stating she is a Dalit. Further, her lived experience and the overwhelming recognition by the Dalit community of her Dalit identity also adds weight to her identity as per the Andhra Pradesh G.O.Ms.No. 371 dated the 13th April, 1976.

Below is a list of the blindspots and biases that mark the AP government’s decision to reverse the Dalit status of Rohith and his family.

  • Lack of Locus Standi of the complainant: The inquiry was constituted following the complaint filed by one Mr. Darsapanu Srinivas, who claims to be a “member of the Scheduled Caste Community working for the welfare of the community”. As per legal opinion, the locus standi of the complainant is questionable. The complaint also does not specify what and how a 'fraud' has been committed in obtaining the SC certificate. It appears as if the Collector’s office needed the excuse of a complaint to begin the inquiry. The inquiry itself was a deeply humiliating experience for Radhika Vemula. The inquiry, which was to be conducted by the Joint Collector, was, instead, presided over by an intimidatingly large group of 15 men and women, comprising Mandal Revenue Officers (MROs), Revenue Divisional Officers (RDOs) and Revenue Inspectors (RIs). When Radhika Vemula went in, she found that her divorced and alcoholic ex-husband, Mani Kumar, was already in the chamber. Her objections to his presence were disdainfully dismissed. Over the next few hours, Radhika Vemula was subjected to character assassination and mentally tortured.
  •  Legal Judgements supporting Radhika Vemula and her family: The existing laws make it amply clear that law is firmly on the side of Radhika and her family. In one of the several cases that have come before the court, a recent SC judgment (Rameshbhai Dabhai Naika Vs.State of Gujarat and others, 2012) clearly lays out the rules in determining the caste of the child borne of marriages between a non-Dalit father and a Dalit mother. “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”. It clearly lays out the questions to be asked in each case. “Did his father’s non-Dalit status give him an “advantageous start in life” or did he suffer “the deprivations, indignities, humiliations and handicaps like any other member of the community to which his/her mother belonged? Additionally, was he treated like a member of the community to which his mother belonged not only by that community but by the people outside the community as well?”
  • Lived Experiences of Radhika Vemula: The lived experiences of Radhika Vemula and her family are by now well documented. Born to Dalit migrant construction labourers of the Mala group (SC), Radhika was adopted and brought up by a Vaddera woman Anjani Devi from Guntur. Though adopted by a well-educated and well-off family, she was treated in her adoptive house almost as a domestic worker. At the age of fourteen, her adoptive family married her off to Vemula Mani Kumar, without revealing her Dalit status to him. On finding out the truth of his wife’s caste, Mani Kumar subjected her to sustained humiliation and abuse. Eventually, Radhika was forced to leave with Rohith and her two other children and rented a one-room house for over two decades from 1990 in the Prakash Nagar area of Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh and brought her children up all alone, working hard at her sewing machine. The area where she used to live in had a ghetto of around 40 Dalit families where most of the people were daily wage labourers and their similar financial background helped in a strong bonding among them.
  •  Travesty of Justice by the State: The state’s move to overturn the Dalit status of Radhika Vemula and her family is but the culmination of a prolonged campaign to discredit Radhik Vemula’s life long struggle as a single mother, as an abandoned wife in an inter-caste marriage. By delegitimizing her struggle as a single parent the state has reinstated the rule of patriarchal caste hierarchy which dictates that a child belongs to the father even after abandonment. Radhika has repeatedly stated that she and her sons lived among the SC community and she brought up her children. Rohith has extensively written about the caste discrimination that his mother and he suffered. His lived experience, his social identity and his membership of Ambedkar Students’ Association clearly demonstrate this. Even in his death he chose to identify as a Dalit.

If this is the social experience of Radhika Vemula’s family, the attempt to establish their identity through the principle of patriarchal bloodline amounts to an atrocity by itself. This exercise blatantly falls back on the patriarchal law set out by Manusmriti, against which the law of the land has been framed, and has dangerous implications for the rights of women, Dalits and other marginalized groups.

This entire exercise seems a blatant and unlawful attempt to protect the accused in the SC/ST atrocities case by criminalising the victims in a terrible travesty of justice. That the entire Dalit community of the nation has owned up Rohith is an undeniable fact and to deny this, amounts to patronaging the culprits who have committed an atrocity.

We strongly condemn the systematic attack on Radhika Vemula and earnestly appeal to all those who believe in the Constitution and social justice to stand together with her and demand that the Collector of Guntur stop this witch hunt.


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