Sadhana is commemorating International Women’s Day by standing in solidarity with Radhika Vemula. We share her grief due to the loss of her son Rohith to casteist discrimination; we condemn the emotional and physical attacks on her integrity and person she has suffered at the hands of police more than once. Sadhana honors Radhika Vemula and pledges solidarity with her, and all those fighting against caste discrimination. We call on Hindus in India and around the world to join us in standing firmly against caste and casteism. If we are all one, interconnected and equally connected to the divine, then we all should have equal access to justice. Join us in declaring that it is unacceptable, unjust and un-Hindu to discriminate on the basis of caste.
We call on Hindus in India and around the world to join us in standing firmly against casteism.
Rohith Vemula was a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad and an activist against Hindu nationalism and casteism. When he and other representatives of the university’s Ambedkar Student Union raised their voices against extremism they were branded as extremists themselves and anti-nationals. The intense pressure to which Rohith was subjected due to these accusations, as well as the political skirmishes between his group and the ABVP (a right wing-affiliated student group) and the withdrawal of his PhD stipend from the university, led him to a place of utter desperation and hopelessness. On January 17, 2016, Rohith took his own life.
Rohith became an icon for student and Dalit activists fighting against caste discrimination and related injustice. His eloquent, heartbreaking suicide note was widely published and read.
Rohith’s mother, Radhika Vemula, was determined to honor her son’s memory by continuing his struggle, despite her grief and the fact that she had never been involved in politics before. In the year since Rohith’s death, Radhika has been tireless in her advocacy: speaking out in cities and villages across India about the discrimination towards Dalit students on university campuses and in the broader society; giving support to other mothers of Dalit children who have lost their lives; standing with women’s organizations and shelters across the country; and participating in protests for Dalit rights and human rights.
On more than one occasion Radhika has been arrested, beaten and even dragged on the ground by police. Perhaps most insidious is the way the BJP government has questioned Radhika’s status as a Dalit. The government is claiming that Radhika is actually an OBC (Other Backward Classes/Castes) and not a Dalit, and that she faked the family’s caste in order to be eligible for benefits. They have brought Rohith’s father into court hearings, though he is Radhika’s ex-husband whom she divorced because of his alcoholism and abuse and has never played a part in raising his children.
Radhika and her surviving children believe that this is a ruse by the Indian government to revoke Rohith’s Dalit status so that the ministers involved in the case will be spared prosecution for caste discrimination and abuse, a punishable offense. Further, they believe that Rohith’s father was brought to court hearings in order to incite disagreements between him and Radhika, thereby implying to the world that Rohith’s depression merely stemmed from family disharmony.
While the interconnected and multi-layered issues of Rohith’s personal life and his political activism are difficult to fully understand from afar, this much is clear to us: Radhika is a single mother who has worked hard to raise her children and provide them with an education by doing intense manual labor. She has lived as a Dalit, in Dalit communities, and has raised her children as Dalits. Questions about her caste identity on the basis of her ex-husband’s caste are preposterous and vicious. Rohith died because he had a dream of building a movement for justice, and the discrimination he faced due to his caste and his political opinions led him to take his own life.
Rohith Vemula died because he had a dream of building a movement for justice.
It is a disgrace and travesty that such a mother, rather than receiving awards and accolades, has instead been assaulted and arrested, and had her very integrity questioned. We call on the Indian government to put an end to this harassment and torture of the Vemula family and of Radhika Vemula in particular.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a full week after Rohith’s death to utter his name and comment on the situation. When he finally broke his silence, this was what he said: “A son of my country, Rohith, was compelled to commit suicide. What suffering his family is going through, I can feel that pain… Ma Bharti (Mother India) has lost a son. Reasons may be there. Politics may have been there. But the fact is that a mother has lost a son. That pain I can feel. We want to take the country to a position where the youth are enthusiastic and are capable of facing any odds and achieve Dr Ambedkar’s dream.”
If India truly wants Dalit youth to achieve Dr. Ambedkar’s dream, we cannot attack and disrespect the grieving mother of a Dalit son for whom life was so hopeless that he committed suicide. We must honor this brave woman who, instead of giving in to despair, has kept the flame of her son’s passion burning. Radhika Vemula is determined that her son’s death will not be in vain, that his memory and everything he stood for will be a lasting inspiration and engine for the justice movements in India today. Radhika is a tremendous inspiration to all of us in Sadhana.
Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus is a platform for Hindus committed to the vision of social justice we believe is at the heart of our spiritual tradition: ekatva (the oneness of all), ahimsa (nonviolence), and seva (selfless service). We seek to mobilize Hindus to speak up whenever justice is denied.
Images published with permission from Raja and Radhika Vemula.