reportage Politics

From Shadows to the Stars

The defiant politics of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Students Association

By PRAVEEN DONTHI | 1 May 2016

ON THE EVENING OF 16 JANUARY, the mood on the campus of the University of Hyderabad was mellow. For around a month, there had been protests against the administration’s decision to bar five young Dalit men from using their hostels and the university’s public spaces. But support for the protests was flagging. Two days earlier, the students had tried to step up their demonstrations by occupying the administration building. But they were outmanoeuvred by the vice chancellor, or VC, Appa Rao Podile, who rallied some of the university’s staff, including mess workers, against them. These employees warned the students that they would shut down the campus messes if the blockade continued—a threat which forced them to back down.

That evening, a group of students gathered at the main site of the protests: a shack in the quadrangle of the campus’s shopping complex, popularly called the shopcom. The five students had built the structure out of vinyl posters attached to vertical frames. They arranged several of these together to create three makeshift walls, and placed a few overhead to create a flimsy roof. Looking down from the posters were iconic figures who had battled for the rights of the downtrodden: EV Ramasamy, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar. The students called their protest site a velivada—the Telugu word for Dalit ghettos situated on the peripheries of villages.

One Dalit activist struck up a beat on a dappu, a disc-shaped drum, and began to sing. The others in the velivada joined in. Seated across from him, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD student of the school of social sciences, one of the punished five, also sang along, repeating verses and joining in full-throated for the chorus. It was a song by the writer and singer Jayaraju Godishala, with a catchy, melancholy tune and a refrain that evoked the predicament of the students: “Evvaroo ee biddalu? Ningi lo nelavankalu. Evvaroo ee pillalu? Adivi malle puvvulu.” (Who are these children? Like the crescent moons of the sky. Who are these children? Like jasmines of the wild.) Vemula and the other singers smiled as they sang. “I couldn’t understand the language, but I was very moved,” Pramod Mandade, a non-Dalit supporter of the five students, who was present that evening, told me. Afterwards, the group, including Vemula, sat around a bonfire in front of a nearby hostel, talking late into the night.

The next morning, some students reassembled at the velivada to launch a relay hunger strike. Vemula didn’t attend the gathering. A little after 10 am, Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, one of the punished students, received a call from Vemula’s mother, Radhika, asking about her son. Vemula’s phone wasn’t working, and he didn’t have the money to repair it—the university hadn’t paid him his fellowship for the past seven months. Radhika was worried. She thought her son had sounded sad when she had spoken to him the previous night. Vijay made a mental note to remind him to call her.

Late that afternoon she called Vijay again, saying she still hadn’t heard from her son. Now Vijay, who had been busy meeting faculty and a lawyer ahead of a court hearing the next day, made his way to the hostel room of a senior ASA leader and PhD student named Uma Maheshwara Rao, which Vemula had been using to work after he was evicted from his own room. When Vijay arrived, he found the door locked from the inside. He knocked, “but there was no response,” Vijay told me. “I immediately called Sunkanna and Prashanth”—two other students who had been punished. “They came and knocked on the door but there was still no response,” Kumar continued. “We called the security immediately, and they opened the door.” They found that Vemula had committed suicide by hanging himself from a fan.

On a table in the room was a handwritten suicide note of startling poignancy. “I loved science. Stars. Nature,” Vemula wrote. Until then, he had been one of many Dalit students fighting for their rights. His suicide may have passed without drawing much attention—like those of the eight other Dalit students in the university who had killed themselves in the past ten years. But Vemula’s powerful final words ensured that the national media, uninterested in his struggle while he was alive, could not ignore his death. The letter’s most famous lines were shot through with what some would describe as a spiritual clarity. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility,” he wrote. “To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”

Protests erupted in the university and across the country, and the Dalit movement’s slogan—“Jai Bhim!”—rang through the streets. Vemula was transformed into an icon of Dalit resistance. As his story was retold on the front pages of newspapers and on primetime television, one photograph became particularly famous, of him wearing a green checked shirt, and smiling. It was a photograph he had been fond of, and about which he had remarked to some of his friends, “Don’t I look like a Tamil hero in this picture?” The image was reproduced on T-shirts, walls and social media profiles, and on protest placards that bobbed above crowds alongside portraits of Ambedkar.

When Vemula was thrust into the spotlight, so, too, was the organisation of which he had been a key leader. The Ambedkar Students Association, or the ASA, was formed in 1994 to assist Dalits at the university, helping them navigate the challenges of studying and living on campus. Over the next decade, the organisation grew in strength until, in 2007, it made a shift from serving as a support group for Dalits to representing them politically, by contesting the university’s student elections.

The ASA quickly became a formidable electoral force on campus, chiefly through a canny political strategy of forging an alliance that included communist, Muslim and tribal groups, and thus appealing to a wide base of students. This alliance soon dominated the university’s elections, edging out the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, which had held most of the posts till 2010.

Dickens Leonard, a senior ASA member, said their efforts were aimed at “creating a universal language of discrimination,“ a formulation that had a wide appeal. “Dalit politics is not just about Dalits, but is a counter political space,” Ramees EK, an MA student from Kerala, and the president of the Students Islamic Organisation, or SIO, told me. “It has the potential to question the hegemony of Hindutva politics. When we align with them, we see it as a coming together of marginalised communities.”

Though the ASA’s work is limited to the university campus, its success there provides some hint of a possible political future. With the Congress and the communist parties in decline, a “universal language of discrimination” could, at least on this early, limited evidence, offer the possibility of a catalyst for bringing different political fronts together to form a counterweight to the BJP’s majoritarianism.

IN THE DAYS AFTER VEMULA’S SUICIDE, numerous reports sought to piece together the events that had culminated in his death. Contradictory claims emerged about what had sparked the preceding unrest. Retracing the incidents, however, one conclusion is inescapable: the university administration and powerful BJP politicians lied repeatedly to portray the ASA as a threat to so-called national integrity, and to justify ruthless punishments for the students.

Trouble began to brew in mid 2015, before the execution of Yakub Memon, a chartered accountant convicted of providing financial and logistical support for the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, and sentenced to hang. The ASA, in consonance with Ambedkar’s views on the issue, had long opposed capital punishment. It has often argued that an overwhelming majority of people sentenced to death in the country are either from oppressed castes or religious minorities—thus making it an issue of discrimination along with general human rights. A day before the hanging, the ASA organised an event titled “Resistance gathering against capital punishment: in the wake of death sentence to Yakub Memon.”

On the day of Memon’s execution, 30 July, the Students Collective Against Fake Encounter, or SCAFE (an informal student body formed in April 2015 to protest the killings of five young Muslim men in suspicious circumstances in Warangal district), organised a namaaz-e-janaaza, a funeral prayer, for Memon at the shopcom. Some ASA members who were part of SCAFE, including Vemula, were present at the event, and some of the group’s anti-death-penalty posters from the previous day were displayed at the venue. One read, “Public conscience is Brahmin conscience. Satisfy with Muslim blood: ASA-UOH.” But though the groups came together to protest the hanging, their stances on the issue were, in fact, different. Ramees told me that though they were “on the same side, there is no real convergence of ideas yet.” The Muslim groups, he said, saw the Memon hanging as “a Muslim issue.” The ASA, on the other hand, took a wider view, against capital punishment itself.

This was apparent from Vemula’s Facebook post after the hanging. “The blood thirsty nationalism collected another head,” he wrote. “Honorable president scored a double with this. If death penalty is the only punishment we can offer to the convicted people, we must stop calling our nation democratic. #India, you have blood on your hands.” The event, like an earlier one, in 2013, to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for the 2001 attack on the parliament, went off peacefully.

BJP ministers and leaders would cite the ASA members’ presence at this event as evidence that the group was “anti-national,” and as justification for the actions against it. But in fact, the incident that actually set off the group’s battle with the administration had nothing to do with Memon’s hanging. Rather, the conflict began two days later, on 1 August, when members of the ABVP barged into a room in Kirori Mal College, in Delhi, and disrupted a screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a film on the anti-Muslim violence that gripped the district of Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, in 2013.

The ASA denounced the ABVP’s actions, and, on 1 August, released a joint statement with other Dalit student organisations. The statement condemned the ABVP for “trying to deliberately suppress all news about the wrong doings and violence of their Caste Hindu politics. We know that they have systematically constructed the Muslim community as a target of attack.” It also accused Hindu political groups of making a “deliberate attempt to forcefully unite the Dalitbahujans under the rubric of Hinduism, against the imagined enemy of the Muslim.”

On 3 August, the ASA organised a protest rally against the ABVP’s actions. In response, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, a PhD student, who became the president of the university’s ABVP unit in 2014, published a Facebook post just after 9 pm, in which he wrote, “ASA goons are talking about hooliganism,” followed by a Facebook emoticon with the caption “feeling funny.” This post was the central point of contention in the events that followed. Susheel, the university administration and BJP politicians would repeatedly claim, falsely, that the comment that sparked off the conflict was related to the Yakub Memon protests—an implausible assertion given that Susheel’s statement refers specifically to ASA’s comments on “hooliganism.”

Shortly after midnight, around seven ASA students, including Vemula, went to Susheel’s hostel room to demand that he apologise for his post, which they considered demeaning to the ASA and to Dalits. What happened during the ensuing confrontation is fiercely disputed. The ASA claimed that its students asked Susheel to come out of his room and write an apology, and then post it on his Facebook page. Though the ASA students have denied that they were violent, Susheel claimed that, in the process, they beat him up, and that, as a result, he had to be hospitalised that same night.

In the days that followed, Susheel called on his political connections to exert immense pressure on the university to act against the ASA students. His mother, Vinaya Karunakar, an aspiring BJP politician, and N Ramachander Rao, a member of the Telangana legislative council, both visited the vice chancellor to demand that he take action against the Dalit students. Susheel’s uncle, Nandanam Diwakar, the BJP’s vice president for Ranga Reddy District (which includes parts of Hyderabad), and Susheel’s brother, Nandanam Vishnuduth, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing, organised protests outside the office of the commissioner of police of the area of Cyberabad, under whose jurisdiction the university falls.

As the issue gathered momentum, confusing accounts were fed to the media about what had caused the conflict. Most regional newspapers and television channels asserted that Susheel was attacked because he challenged the ASA students’ support for Yakub Memon. According to one news snippet, the district BJYM head “demanded the arrest of supporters of Yakub Memon.”

Vemula and the other ASA students, who did not have similar access to media outlets or to people in positions of power, could only try and set the record straight on social media. On 5 August, Vemula published a Facebook post pointing out that the fight was not about Memon. “If the issue was about Yakub Memon hanging,” he wrote, “why did ABVP president post the ugly comment on ASA after so many days??” He claimed that Susheel had “confessed that the post was against ASA protest on their hooliganism” at Kirori Mal College.

The local politicians who had come to Susheel’s aid drew ministers in Delhi into the fight against the ASA. On 10 August, Diwakar wrote a three-page letter to one of the most influential politicians from the region: the minister of state for labour and employment, Bandaru Dattatreya, a senior BJP leader from Secunderabad who is currently serving his third stint as a central minister. In a sputtering letter whose subject line included the word “terrorism,” Diwakar repeated to Dattatreya a lie that was rapidly acquiring the force of truth: that Susheel was subjected to a “dastardly attack” for “protesting against the prayer meeting conducted for Yakub Memon.”

But there was, in fact, little to back Susheel’s claim that the ASA students had beaten him up. The proctorial board, under the chief proctor—an officer who typically oversees disciplinary issues—investigated the incident and, on 12 August, issued an interim report that said it “could not get any hard evidence of beating of Mr Susheel Kumar.” Susheel had claimed to the media that he had undergone surgery as a result of the attack. The hospital’s report, however, showed that he had been operated upon for appendicitis. When this came to light, Susheel claimed that his appendicitis had been aggravated by the alleged assault. But a later affidavit to the state’s high court by the Cyberabad commissioner of police, based on a certificate from the doctor who treated Susheel, refuted this claim. It stated, “Appendicitis is not due to the result or [sic] any assault and it is coincidental that existing ailment was diagnosed and treated when Susheel Kumar got admitted.” The university’s registrar, B Pandu Reddy, also rebutted Susheel’s assertion in an affidavit, saying that the “allegation that Mr Susheel Kumar was attacked is a little overboard and the petitioner is only trying to generate sympathy of this Hon’ble Court.”

In April, I spoke to Susheel’s roommate, Anand Gadekar, a PhD student of translation studies, who told me he witnessed that night’s incident. “There was no physical beating,” Gadekar told me. “Somebody pushed him, which happens usually in such situations, but there was no beating. I told this to the police and to the retired judge”—who formed a one-man judicial commission appointed after Vemula’s suicide to examine the incident. Gadekar also told me that Susheel “had the appendicitis problem for six months. I know it because he used to take tablets for that.”

But Susheel’s claim that the ASA students had assaulted him travelled, unchallenged, up the ranks of the BJP, as did the assertion that the disagreement had been over Memon’s execution. On 17 August, when Dattatreya wrote to Smriti Irani, the minister for human resource development, or HRD, he parroted the same claim. University students had “held protests against the execution” of Yakub Memon, Dattatreya wrote, and when Susheel “protested against this, he was manhandled and as a result he was admitted in the hospital.” Irani forwarded this letter to the university, and, over the next two months, her office followed up with several reminders. Suddenly, the ASA found itself pitted against the might of the central government.

On 31 August, the proctorial board issued a final report on the matter. The primary new evidence it relied on was the testimony of two unnamed eyewitnesses. (Susheel later told a television channel that these witnesses were both Dalits, and he told me that one was an ABVP member.) With central ministers urging action against the ASA, the board had hardened its stance against the ASA students. It was particularly scathing against Velpula Sunkanna, who was in the seventh year of his PhD. “He must be treated like a intruder since his presence in campus is dangerous,” the report said. (Sunkanna is from a village where, even today, Dalits are not allowed to study in the local school, but are taught separately. On 10 March, he successfully defended his philosophy PhD thesis, titled “Consciousness and mind, body problem: a dualistic approach to philosophy of mind.”) The report recommended that the five students be suspended from the university for the rest of the semester. It was approved on 8 September by the university’s executive council, its highest decision-making body.

“To all my friends, Ambedkarites and comrades,” Vemula wrote the next day on Facebook, “I am happy to say that I got suspended for a semester by UoH, because I am vocal against ABVP and RSS backed systems. And I am happier to say that I am not terrified or paralyzed.” Two smile emoticons followed the post. Vemula viewed the punishment as a sacrifice. “Malcolm X said that, Ambedkar cried it … and Dalit Panther (Black Panther) movement established it,” he posted the next day. “Only when you risk your lives, your next generations live in freedom.”

To the ASA students’ relief, a few days later, the suspension was revoked in the face of protests. “Justice takes time, but it will prevail,” Vemula wrote on Facebook. “Inevitable and cannot be manipulated.” In response to the revocation, Susheel’s mother filed a writ petition before the state’s high court, asserting that the police had failed to provide security to her son, and demanding a time-bound enquiry into the matter.

On 15 September, the then vice chancellor, RP Sharma, constituted a new committee, under the senior professor of social sciences YA Sudhakar Reddy, to look into the matter. Among the members of this committee was Arun Patnaik, a professor of political science, who told me he and Reddy “were in favour of negotiations between the students.” But “the other members thought it would be time-consuming and preferred fact-finding rather than dialogue,” he said. Because of this disagreement, he and Reddy “wanted the VC to reconstitute the committee.” But the HRD ministry had other plans. Unfortunately, Patnaik said, on 21 September, “the order for a new VC came.” This was Appa Rao Podile, a professor in the department of plant sciences, who had a history of antagonising the university’s Dalit students.

According to the Times of India, Podile obtained the post “thanks to strong backing from Union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu,” as well as the support of the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu. (All three are from the dominant, land-owning Kamma caste.) As students grew worried, Vemula appeared unperturbed. “Whoever it may be, our destiny is always at stake,” he wrote in response to a friend’s comment on Facebook. “We will have existence if we fight and we will perish if we rest. The names change, but the system remains same. So, don’t give a shit about him, think on improving our methods of resistance.”

APPA RAO PODILE’S MOST SERIOUS CLASH with Dalit students in the past occurred in the early 2000s, when he held the position of the university’s chief warden, with the responsibility of overseeing all the campus hostels. The ASA, at the time, focussed primarily on helping Dalits with administrative tasks, such as completing admission procedures and procuring fellowships. The group also sought to prevent the ragging of Dalit students, and strove to make the university environment more welcoming to them in general. Its battle with Podile was its first major crisis, which threatened its existence. But it emerged with greater resolve, and grew into the dominant political force on campus.

The ASA had taken shape in April 1994, a few years after the VP Singh government implemented the Mandal Commission’s recommendation for 27-percent reservation for other-backward-class, or OBC, individuals in government jobs. The national political atmosphere was charged with caste-related rhetoric, as dominant-caste groups campaigned aggressively against the move.

In Andhra Pradesh, the shadow of two massacres loomed over the state. On 17 July 1985, a group of Kamma men murdered six Dalit men and raped three Dalit women in Karamchedu, a village in Prakasam district. Six years later, on 6 August 1991, a group of men from the dominant Reddy caste hacked eight Dalit men to death in Chundur village in Guntur district, before discarding their bodies in gunny bags in a canal. The Karamchedu massacre occurred when the state was ruled by the Kamma-dominated Telugu Desam Party, and the Chundur massacre while the Reddy-dominated Congress was in power. Some attributed these violent acts to new political developments. “The younger generation has started rejecting the social and political subordination to the forward castes,” the human rights activist K Balagopal wrote in Economic and Political Weekly. “It is this socially and politically effective advancement … that the forward castes find so intolerable, leading to assaults such as Karamchedu and Chundur.”

Around this time, in 1990, a group of students at the University of Hyderabad formed the Progressive Students Forum, or the PSF, which brought together radical Marxist and Dalit students to represent the marginalised sections of society. “We were just 60, 70 of us,” K Satyanarayana, the first convenor of the PSF, now an associate professor at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, told me. “We had a long battle to even put up posters. We tried to counter anti-reservation protests with posters and pamphlets.”

Reservations had helped Dalits enter academic institutions, but the environment they encountered within them was far from welcoming—if anything, reservations had increased casteist hostility. Faculty discriminated against students in admission interviews even when they had done well in the written entrance exams. The faculty “used to openly make statements like ‘The horses and donkeys can’t be tied together,’” P Rajasekhar, a PSF member, now a senior professor at the Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur, told me.

This antipathy affected the students’ performance. “Most Dalit students used to drop out after two, three months,” Rajasekhar said. “The faculty blamed the students for being inadequate. The PSF raised questions. ‘If 90 percent Dalits are dropping out, it is the failure of the institution and the faculty. Is the university only for the public school educated, English-speaking students? Have you become only a certifying agency?’ I filed a case in the high court asking them to implement SC/ST Cell in the university.” Today, the cell is in place, but is overseen by the assistant registrar, and so lacks the autonomy it needs to function effectively.

Though the PSF involved itself in caste-related issues, many Dalit students began to feel the need for a separate organisation. The PSF was under heavy state surveillance because prominent Naxal ideologues, such as Varavara Rao, and the poet Gummadi Vittal Rao, or Gaddar, supported it. “Once they took us to the police station for questioning,” Rajasekhar told me. “That made me think. The participation is mostly by Dalits. Why should we get victimised? Dalit students understand Ambedkar, so I thought of starting an organisation where Ambedkar would be central.”

Many leftists opposed the move. “Those were the days when caste was not openly discussed on campuses,” Rajasekhar said. “Even if it was discussed, it was done within the Left perspective. The Left-oriented teachers showed their opposition through their disagreement, and other teachers used to fill VC’s ears against us.”

But the Dalit students persevered, and, on 14 April 1994, the ASA came into existence: an organisation exclusively dedicated to promoting the welfare of Dalit students. The challenges before the founders were considerable. “Nobody was willing to come out with the Dalit identity openly,” Rajasekhar said. “And the Dalit students were in need of an association for representation.” He recounted that the first pamphlet he wrote after the formation of the ASA was called “Social consciousness comes from the consciousness of the downtrodden.” “I wanted the students to understand Ambedkar on par with Marx,” he said.

To Dalit students, life on the campus was like walking through a minefield. The ASA felt the need to overcompensate against the biases people held against Dalits. “We discouraged drinking on campus,” Rajasekhar said. “We never encouraged such things that were considered part of Dalit culture as perceived by the dominant-caste society.” This wariness extended to opposing other practices that they felt were considered taboo, such as the “screening of porn films in hostels.” The rules weren’t intended to foster “a strict disciplinarian-type approach,” Rajasekhar told me, “but we were careful because the Dalit leaders and activists are always tarnished through cultural stereotypes that society believes are true.”

Nevertheless, the students found that stereotypes persisted. Among the most pernicious was the idea that Dalit students were violent. “They branded us as the most violent people, though everybody indulged in violence,” Rajasekhar said. “In Hyderabad University, everything is tolerated, but not violence. But the Dalit students coming from rural areas, unable to articulate or unable to figure out the discriminating ways of the elites, displayed small acts of physical aggression.”

One of the most significant issues the ASA focussed on was that of Dalit students’ access to food. Many of the students obtained regular access to food for the first time only after they arrived at the university. To be allowed to eat in their hostel mess, students had to hold a mess card and settle bills every month. Dalit students often relied on fellowships to pay a part of these dues. “The differential amount between the scholarship and the mess bill had to be paid by the students,” Kali Chittibabu, a former ASA member and now a professor in the school of social sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in Delhi, told me. “The defaulters were mostly Dalits.”

Defaulters would have their mess cards cancelled. Those who didn’t have the cards “used to wait for the mess to get over and eat the leftover food,” Gummadi Prabhakar, a senior ASA leader told me. “They used to get the leftover dal and make rice in their friends’ rooms. Many of them are now professors.” Often, senior Dalit students would contribute money to the ASA to help out students with mess card problems. “The ASA tried its best to make sure that nobody’s mess card was discontinued,” Prabhakar said.

To deal more effectively with some of these mess-related troubles, ASA members would volunteer as mess secretaries, who were responsible for running them. But allegations of corruption began to be levelled against some of these individuals. ASA students I spoke to agreed that some of the group’s students did make money from their positions, but that Dalits were unfairly singled out. “Corruption is nobody’s exclusive prerogative,” Satyanarayana, who was a student till 1996, told me. KY Ratnam, a Dalit professor at the university, who was a warden in the early 2000s, told me of an instance where a dominant-caste student was involved in misappropriating a sum of Rs 60,000. “The vendors will offer money on their own,” Satyanarayana said. “But a stereotype was created that Dalits were corrupt.”

Dalit mess secretaries strove to help students with their bills, aided by a system whereby most students paid their bills every month, while those with financial hardships paid them at the end of each semester, usually the time when scholarships were disbursed. But systems such as these were dependent on the whims of individuals in power, which became clear when Dalits were faced with someone who brought prejudice, rather than empathy, to their job.

Appa Rao Podile was one such individual. B Nageswara Rao, who was a PhD student then and is now an assistant professor at the university, told me that after assuming charge as chief warden in 2011, Podile discontinued the flexible payment system. “He said the chief warden’s office didn’t have funds,” Nageswara said.

Then, claiming that he wanted to stem corruption, Podile moved to privatise the messes, overruling opposition from many students. With the help of a Dalit professor, Bellamkonda Raja Shekhar, Podile devised a purchase system whereby supplies would all be procured from a single vendor. “They said the prices will come down,” Ratnam told me. “But instead, the cost went up, and the bill almost doubled. When I protested, they said I was encouraging corruption.”

Ratnam, who, as warden, served under Podile, did not unthinkingly obey his superior’s orders. As a Dalit himself, he understood the students’ concerns. “Once, during a hostel feast in 2002, some dominant-caste students accused the mess secretary, Istharla Krishna Rao, of serving beef in the name of mutton,” Chittibabu told me. After a clash between Dalit and dominant-caste students over the issue, the latter “complained to Ratnam, who was the warden. But he didn’t punish them.” Soon after, Podile stripped him of his financial powers. “A professor junior to him was given the power to issue cheques,” Chittibabu said. Ratnam was put “in charge of sanitation and gardening,” Chittibabu added—an assignment that Dalits interpreted as a casteist affront, since subordinated castes have traditionally been forced into sanitation work.

The ASA and the university’s association of scheduled caste and scheduled tribe employees submitted a memorandum to the vice-chancellor and to Podile, asking that the decision be revoked. At an ensuing meeting, recalled Nageswara, who was present, Podile said, “This is an administration issue. I know what to do. You are crossing your limits. You are questioning things not under your purview.” According to Nageswara, Podile then “provoked us by saying that the reserved category students are bringing down the standards of the university”—one of the most commonly deployed insults against Dalits. An anonymous piece on the news website The Wire, by one of the Dalit students involved, recounted that Podile asked his security guards to throw the students out. “A scuffle broke out and some glass got shattered,” the piece claimed. People who were present told me that, in the melee, students slapped both Podile and Raja Shekhar.

Seven students were taken to a police station. They sought help from prominent leaders, including “Bandaru Dattatreya, who was then a minister in the NDA government,” Nageswara said. According to him, not only was Dattatreya unsupportive, “he said that we were Naxalites and he put a lot of pressure on the police to punish us.” He recounted that a sub-inspector told him that Dattatreya had been calling his superior “every couple of hours.” According to The Wire’s contributor, Podile managed to extract an apology from one student, which “lost the case for the students. The young student who had been allegedly lured into handing in an apology attempted suicide by consuming poison. He was hospitalised for 15 days but survived the attempt.”

Ten students were expelled at first. But the punishment was reduced to a two-year suspension after the students, with the help of the Dalit lawyer Bojja Tarakam, moved the high court. When asked why only Dalit students had been punished, the then vice chancellor responded, “I am not casteist. Please don’t give this a casteist slant. The assaulted warden also belongs to the SC community.” (This year, Smriti Irani deployed a similar defence in Rohith Vemula’s case, telling the media that a Dalit had headed the committee that punished the students. This was a lie. The faculty member she meant, Prakash Babu, had only been co-opted as a member of the committee, which was headed by Vipin Srivastava, a professor of physics.)

The rusticated students used the two years of their suspension for fieldwork. When they returned to the university, Podile used his influence on the executive council to have their punishment extended. “They kept postponing our admission and we served one-and-a-half years’ more punishment than the court had ordered,” Nageswara, who is now an assistant professor in the university’s economics department, told me. “We told them, ‘We will either become radicals or commit suicide because we can’t go back, as our parents have expectations.’” With support from a faculty member, they were able to return to the university.

The students were determined not to let their careers derail. Many of them proudly told me that, out of the ten students who were rusticated in 2002, eight are professors at various universities, one works with a multinational company in Hyderabad and one works with an NGO in the city. As Vulli Dhanaraju, one of those who was rusticated, said, “We wouldn’t have been here if we were not serious about studying.”

THE ASA STUDENTS’ FEARS ABOUT Podile’s ascendance to the post of vice chancellor last year proved well-founded. According to Patnaik, the dialogue committee that he was part of could have resolved the problem in “another two weeks.” But, he added, “the new VC wasn’t interested in taking forward the dialogue team. I could sense his mood. He dismantled everything and revived the old proctorial board report”—which recommended the students’ suspension. Podile next constituted a sub-committee of the executive council, headed by Vipin Srivastava, to examine the matter. But Srivastava himself had a poor history of handling Dalit student affairs, having been the head of the university’s school of physics when Senthil Kumar, a Dalit PhD student, committed suicide in 2008, after the university failed to allot him a PhD supervisor for more than a year.

The ASA students were not informed of the new committee or contacted by it to present their version of the story. Thus, it came as a shock to them when, on 16 December, the university announced a new decision. The committee’s new report reiterated the same lie: that “the problem started after Yakub Memon’s hanging—the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) held demonstrations condemning the hanging and displayed placards,” in response to which Susheel had posted his Facebook comment. Concluding that the two parties had different versions of the night’s events, the committee relied primarily on the additional testimony of two security personnel who were present. According to the report, the officers did not testify that the ASA students had assaulted Susheel. Nevertheless, the committee concluded that their description of the events was proof of assault. Referring to the pressure put on Susheel to write an apology, the report said, “The Committee noted that this amounts to severe pressure and threat that could be perceived as impending assault.”

The committee had decided to issue what it termed a “lenient” punishment to the ASA students: for the rest of their time at the university, they were to be barred from the hostels and the administration building, as well as from “other common places in groups.” They were also banned from contesting elections. “They are permitted to be seen only in the respective schools/departments/centres, library and academic seminars/conferences/workshops,” the order said.

To the students, this was a humiliating punishment, almost a recreation of the power structure in their villages, which consigned Dalits to specific ghettos to enforce what sociologists describe as “social death.” “This decision of suspension was arrived by the Executive Council, the highest apex body of the University without conducting any enquiry,” the ASA posted on its Facebook page. “Isn’t this similar to a dominant-caste ostracising a Dalit-household from the village; here, 5 senior research scholars who happen to be from Dalit background are outcast from the day-to-day activities of the university space.”

The decision was announced on 16 December, following which the chief warden placed additional locks on the latches of the doors of the five students’ hostel rooms. Patnaik argued that the collective ostracisation smacked of caste-based punishment. “There is no space for group punishment in modern jurisprudence,” he said.

Poignant pictures appeared on Facebook, of three students walking out of their hostels carrying their meagre belongings—a mattress, a mat, a box, towels. Vemula, among them, was pictured clutching a large portrait of Ambedkar.

They spent two days in the open, and then fashioned their velivada out of ASA banners. Their health suffered. Seshaiah Chemudugunta contracted a fever, and Dontha Prashanth, who was asthmatic, had trouble breathing. But they were determined to stay the course. “We have faced a lot of discrimination since our childhood,” Chemudugunta, who was born in a family of bonded labourers, and is now an orphan, told me. “But now as ASA activists we didn’t want to take it lying down. If we don’t protest such an insult, who will?”

The students believed that there were larger political motivations behind the punishment. “We admit the fact that Dalits roaming in the campus, talking about Ambedkar and resisting Hindutva is unacceptable and indigestible for the UoH administration,” Vemula wrote on Facebook on 18 December. “We would have felt proud if the Vice Chancellor has told that we were suspended because we organized Ambedkar Vardhanthi, Babri Masjid demolition day and Beef festival in the last week.” Dalit assertion “has been met with these kind of cunning suppression all over India,” he said. “The fake complaints and fake people might be triumphant at UoH today, but they cannot succeed in burying the truth forever. It’s Christmas month, resurrection is more than likely in this season.”

But Vemula soon grew disheartened by the lack of response to their struggles. Podile made no effort to reach out to them. Other Dalit groups, too, largely overlooked them. “Ever since we started our velivada protest, there was no response,” Chemudugunta told me. “Just small Dalit organisations, but none of the big leaders. Rohith once said, ‘Anna, nobody is coming. Not even Gaddar, Manda Krishna or Vimalakka’”—well-known local Dalit and leftist activists. All three visited the campus after Vemula’s suicide.

AT FIRST, THE 2002 RUSTICATION EPISODE set off a crisis of confidence in the ASA, with many prominent members forced off campus for several years. But the group emerged from this difficult period with greater determination, and, in 2007, plunged into the university’s electoral politics. Political groups, including the ABVP and the SFI, had been formed on the campus in 2002. In 2007, the ASA decided to compete with these organisations in elections. “The seniors used to say ours is a self-respect movement, not a political one,” said Vulli Dhanaraju, who returned to the campus in 2005 after his rustication, and considers himself a bridge between the first and second generations of the ASA.

The ASA sought an alliance with the SFI, but wasn’t taken seriously. “When we had the discussions with the SFI, I put forward my demands: the president’s post and the ASA name on the banners,” Dhanaraju told me. But, he said, they rejected the ASA’s demands, saying, “You don’t have enough votes, just 50-60.” The results of the election proved the SFI wrong. “We got 197 votes when the winning votes were 457,” Dhanaraju said. The ABVP won as a result of the votes the ASA drew away from the SFI.

The ASA’s clout only swelled in the following years. With the introduction of a combined bachelor’s and master’s course, the number of votes needed to win went up. According to Dhanaraju, the ASA won 600 votes in 2008 and 700 in 2009. Both years, the ABVP defeated the SFI.

The SFI decided to seek an alliance with this emerging force. “In 2010, the SFI came to us again and I put forward a formula for the posts,” Dhanaraju told me. “President and joint secretary in one basket. And general secretary, sports secretary, cultural secretary in the other. Choose one for a period of two years, I told them.” Dhanaraju also insisted “that the banner colour has to be red and blue”—the colours associated with communism and the Dalit movement, respectively. The SFI “consulted the state committee and chose the first combination,” Dhanaraju said. “We got a bumper majority.”

The ASA’s most significant strategic move was its alliance with campus Muslim groups. “Till 2008, Muslim students were with the SFI,” Dhanaraju told me. That year onwards, according to him, between 50 and 60 percent of Muslim students shifted their allegiance to the ASA. The Muslim Students’ Federation, or MSF “started and put up a poster declaring support for the ASA,” he said. As the alliance was shaping up, the SIO, too, approached the ASA. “I said culturally you have your own group, but politically support the ASA,” Dhanaraju told me. “Though the MSF and SIO clash in Kerala, they came together to support us.”

The ASA was a limber political outfit. Dhanaraju told me that, unlike the leaders of the ABVP and the SFI, who were answerable to parent political organisations, he had a free hand to take decisions for the ASA, and to criticise parties, even ones ideologically similar to them, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party. “For us, Ambedkar’s ideology is important,” Sunkanna told me. “Not Mayawati or anybody else. We had criticised the Republican Party of India when they supported Shiv Sena with the slogan, ‘Shiv Sakthi plus Bhim Sakthi.’”

Dhanaraju, who revived and steered the organisation successfully through the choppy waters of electoral politics, obtained a PhD in history, got a job and left just before the elections of 2011. But he selected a candidate for the post of ASA president: Dontha Prashanth, one of the students who was rusticated in 2015. The ASA-SFI combination won the elections, and, for the first time in the university’s history, a Dalit became the president of the student union. “We proved that the Dalits can also become presidents and we are not here just for shouting slogans for others,” Pedapudi Vijay Kumar told me, sitting in the velivada. “We proved that we could run the student union.”

Prashanth recounted that he felt significant pressure to be an efficient leader. “I used to do a lot of background research before I went to meet the VC or the administration while fighting on any issue,” he told me. In one instance, when a few OBC students were denied admission on the grounds that they were from the “creamy layer” of society, and thus not eligible, Prashanth researched the rules, and then practised an argument against the decision in a “mock session” with a friend, “who acted as the VC and posed questions” to him. Thirty OBC students secured admission “because the VC was convinced,” he told me.

The ABVP has been largely kept out of student union posts since 2010, defeated by the ASA-SFI alliance, along with other organisations who joined the alliance, such as the Dalit Students Union, the DSU, the Bahujan Students Front and the Tribal Students Forum. By 2013, the ASA had grown sure enough of its electoral clout that it split from the SFI, to form the United Democratic Alliance, a coalition primarily of Dalit and Muslim groups. It also nominated some dominant-caste students into leadership positions, a powerful signal of the clout that Dalit students wielded. In the 2014 elections, this alliance won the post of the student-union president, marking itself out as a potent new political force on the campus.

THE RECENT SUCCESS OF THE ASA in the student politics of the University of Hyderabad belies the incredible hardships that most of its members have endured to enter the world of academia. In Vemula’s case, much of his story remained hidden while he was alive, emerging only when reporters descended on the university after his suicide. “Even his closest friends did not know the entire family history. Everybody knew bits and pieces,” wrote the journalist Sudipto Mondal in a biographical report in the Hindustan Times.

Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, was informally adopted from a Dalit Mala labourer family by a woman named Anjani Devi, who belonged to the OBC Vaddera caste. But rather than treat her as a daughter, she treated the girl as a maid. Devi kept Radhika’s caste a secret and married her off to Mani Kumar, a Vaddera. On discovering the truth, Mani Kumar, who used to beat Radhika already, grew even more violent. When she moved back to Devi’s house with her two sons and a daughter, they continued to be treated as servants.

“Yes, this is our truth,” Raja, Rohith’s brother, told Mondal. “This is the truth that my brother and I would want to hide the most. We felt ashamed to reveal that the woman we call ‘grandma’ is actually our master.” Vemula’s childhood friend Sheikh Riyaz told the paper that his “family story haunted Rohith all his life,” and that he “faced caste discrimination in the house where he grew up.” But, he added, Vemula did not give up hope for his future. “Instead of succumbing, Rohith fought it out,” Riyaz said. “He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further.”

Vemula hinted at his origins in a July 2015 Facebook post about a renowned Telugu poet. “Mahakavi Gurram Jashuva (1895-1971) was the first compelling organic Dalit voice in Telugu literature, who exposed the hypocrisy of caste ideology,” he wrote. “Jashuva was born to a Dalit (Madiga) woman and Golla (BC) father. He, in his whole life strongly asserted his mother’s identity and voiced for the abolishing of untouchability and for women rights.” Vemula, too, embraced the identity of a Dalit. After his death, politicians attempted to avoid being charged under the stringent SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act by claiming that Vemula was not a Dalit. “They are trying to erase his whole existence,” Leonard told me. “The life he lived as a Dalit.”

Other ASA students had broken through similarly complex webs of experience. Uma Maheshwara Rao told me that his grandfather was a beggar, and that he himself had had to work as a daily labourer to fund his education. Many other ASA leaders support their families financially while running the movement.

Seshaiah, one of the rusticated students, recounted how reading Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste had shaken up his life. “Then I realised how the Hindu society oppressed us and why Ambedkar hated Hinduism,” he said. This led him to aggressively reject even the traces of Hinduism in his life, which were associated with close personal memories. “I used to keep an idol of Subramanya Swamy in memory of my mother who passed away in my childhood,” he said. “I also had a Hanuman idol because some teacher told me he is a tribal. I threw those two things away from the window of my hostel.”

Another student told me about the particular problems that he faces as a Dalit Christian. “If I don’t have a Christian name, the church in the village won’t allow me to get married,” he said. “If I have a Christian name, I can’t avail reservation, which is my right as a Dalit.” A Dalit’s “status doesn’t become any better” through conversion, he said. “I have to suffer the same humiliation and discrimination. We are forced to have two religions and two names.”

Students who escaped oppressive environments were often dismayed to reach the university and find that similar kinds of hostility awaited them there. “Back home they are big people, their families are proud of them,” but in the university, they are seen as people “who don’t belong,” Leonard, who is a Dalit Christian, told me. People look at Dalit students and ask, “Why are you even here?” Leonard said. “We are not imagined as people sitting in the library, attending seminars, talking to a professor, engaged in research.”

Many students I spoke to described how faculty members discriminated against Dalit students, usually under the guise of maintaining “merit” as a standard in the university. “There is a wide gap between the social background of the teachers and some of the students,” G Haragopal, a retired professor of the university, told me. “Some of the faculty members carry a lot of prejudices with them. They are not just indifferent but their attitude borders on hostility. I don’t think it ever strikes them that transforming the society is also the responsibility of an institute of higher learning.” As evidence of the system’s casteist bias, many students pointed out that even those who had been admitted to the university in the open category, and not on reserved seats, would find that on result notification lists, their names would have one star, two stars or a hash against them, corresponding to whether they were from a scheduled caste, scheduled tribe, or other backward class.

Gummadi Prabhakar explained that the bias against Dalits was only aggravated by the support that the government extended to them, in the form of fellowships. “The discrimination by the faculty increased manifold after that because we started wearing good clothes and shoes,” Prabhakar told me. “They felt like we were getting money for no good reason. And that we were wasting the country’s money.” He added: “The fellowships led to an identity crisis among Dalits. The economic problems got solved but the social problems remained unaddressed.” Satyanarayana echoed this idea. “Some of the enabling measures are turning out to be disabling,” he said.

Students told me that faculty often introduced academic obstacles to block students’ progress. One such hurdle was the introduction in the mid 2000s of coursework for PhD students. “The faculty introduced coursework in PhD, and said the guide will be allotted if you pass that,” Prabhakar said. “They would then fail them. There would be no fellowship. The coursework became a way to stop the benefits coming from the state to the Dalits.”

He cited Senthil Kumar, a PhD student of the school of physics, who killed himself in 2008, as an example of a student who collapsed under this kind of oppression. Kumar was the first member of his community in Tamil Nadu—known as the Panniyandi, and traditionally engaged in pig-rearing—to reach a university. He was awarded a fellowship for his PhD, but was failed by his supervisor in his coursework, and was then denied a guide for more than a year. In February 2008, he killed himself by consuming poison in his room.

Students told me that the administration also targeted their funds. “The new punishment of the universities is to cut the fellowships and economically hit you,” Satyanarayana said.

As the ASA helped Dalit students negotiate these challenges, it inspired fierce loyalty among its members. “My parents gave me birth,” Uma Maheshwara Rao told me. “But the rest, the words I speak, the chai I drink, the scholarship I draw, the dignity I have is all thanks to Ambedkar and the ASA named after him.”

The association had an occasional ally in the SFI, which had a more prominent presence on the campus. But as the organisation and its members grew more assertive, its political strategies and goals diverged from those of the SFI. The ASA sought to represent the unique experiences of Dalits, and viewed Brahminism, not capitalism, as its prime enemy. It interpreted the Left’s focus on class as a preference for reservations based on class and not caste—which it believed ignored the complexities of the Dalit experience. It also believed that the Left targeted only Hindutva, and not Hinduism itself: an approach they considered flawed.

“Hindu communists are not against Hinduism but only against Hindutva version of it,” Chittibabu Padavala, a Dalit sociologist, wrote in the web-zine Raoit, about the position of Dalit Marxists. “We reject both. We consider that Hindutva poses immediate and pressing deadly threat but Hinduism is more pernicious, though a deeper yet long-term problem. This tricky but deadly difference requires us to respond to Hindutva without delay but treat Hinduism as the main and ultimate enemy. For us, Hindutva is more honest and authentic version of Hinduism. It represents the extension of what old Hinduism does to Dalits round-the-clock in all walks of life to new victims: Christians and Muslims.”

When Vemula arrived at the university in 2010, he first avoided politics, but then found himself drawn to the SFI, which he joined in 2012. He contested for a position on the board—an elected student body—of the school of life sciences, and won. The senior ASA leaders Sunkanna and Prabhakar told me that they saw him as a talented and intelligent student, who would be an asset to their organisation. They tried to convince him and two other active Dalit members of the SFI to join them, but all three refused.

But in 2013, Vemula was spurred to quit the SFI. In December that year, Madari Venkatesh, a Dalit PhD student of the Advanced Centre for Research in High Energy Materials, committed suicide in his hostel room; the administration hadn’t allotted him a guide for three years. A number of student organisations came together to protest the issue, demanding, among other things, that the vice chancellor, Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, be removed. But the head of the SFI, Pulathota Paramesh, refused to support the demand. According to Ramji Chintagada, now the ASA president, he did this “for his own selfish reasons.” But, Chintagada added, Paramesh “told the ASA and others that Rohith and I, Dalits in the SFI, took that decision. He blamed it on us.” When the Dalit students attempted to raise the issue, Chintagada said, “he started sidelining us. We complained to the other SFI leaders but in vain.” Peeved, Vemula and Chintagada “decided to quit and join the ASA.”

Vemula’s shift from “Marxism to Ambedkarism” was “a conscious move into building a new future on the basis of more humane, more inclusive society,” he wrote on Facebook. Left movements, he felt, claimed to be progressive, but maintained “the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender.”

But despite Vemula’s enthusiasm for the ASA and other Ambedkarite movements, the events surrounding his death suggest that he grew disillusioned with the rifts between them. According to the other punished students, and his friends, he was disheartened that no support came forth from activists, leaders and intellectuals for their velivada protest. “There is a deep sociological truth embedded in the delayed support to the social boycott protest of the Dalit students from the Dalit activists and groups,” Mahboob Basha, an associate professor of history at Maulana Azad Urdu National University, in Hyderabad, told me. “They have also accepted caste discrimination and atrocity as a normalised phenomenon. Could there be any bigger tragedy in a society? One has to invite death on himself to catch attention.”

The ASA also appears to be weakened by internal differences along caste lines between Dalit groups—specifically between students of the Mala and Madiga castes, with the latter accusing the former of being what one Madiga student described to me as “Brahmins among Dalits.” The ASA, which is predominantly Mala, has over time made efforts to be more inclusive. In 2010, the association extended its support for the Madiga community’s call for separate reservations for its members within scheduled-caste quotas. The group has also had Madiga members and leaders in its ranks, such as Vincent Benny, who served as the president of the student union between 2014 and 2015. (It has also tried to bring more women into the organisation.) Despite these attempts, in the 2015 elections, held in October, while the ASA was battling the social boycott, the Dalit Students Union, a largely Madiga group, aligned with the winning SFI coalition.

Differences between the groups continued to surface from time to time. When Susheel claimed he was beaten up, there was at first no eyewitness to support his claim; the two unnamed eyewitnesses that the executive committee later referred to were both Madigas—a fact Susheel has been vocal about on news channels. The ASA members told me they knew who the eyewitnesses were, but that they preferred not to talk about the matter.

Many expressed concern about the division between the groups, saying that the dominant castes tended to take advantage of such differences. In both the 2002 and the 2015 incidents, the administration punished Mala students and spared Madiga students—a strategy that ASA members believe is aimed at breaking any unity between the groups. Around seven ASA students reached Susheel’s room on the night of 3 August. Two of them were Madigas. The name of one of the two, Vincent Benny, appeared in the first proctorial board report, but did not appear in subsequent reports—with no explanation for the omission. The students who were suspended were all Malas. In the 2002 incident, too, the Madiga students were left out of the investigation, though an eyewitness told me that the first student who slapped Podile was a Madiga.

When I tried to discuss this divide-and-rule approach with the ASA students in more detail, they told me that it was too sensitive to talk about. When I approached the Madiga DSU leader Uday Bhanu, he, too, refused to comment. During the protests after Vemula’s death, the groups worked together, setting aside their differences to battle a common enemy.

ON 24 JANUARY, a week after Vemula’s death, the University of Hyderabad announced that Appa Rao Podile had gone on leave, with his replacement officer, Vipin Srivastava, citing “personal reasons” for the departure. It was a small sign that the university was willing to try and cool tempers. But since Srivastava had been part of the committee that punished the Dalit students, and had been the head of the school of physics when Senthil Kumar committed suicide in 2008, he too was an unacceptable interlocutor in the eyes of much of the student body.

In the face of protests at the end of that week, Srivastava also went on leave, and another senior professor, M Periasamy, took up the role. Periasamy, the first OBC individual to hold the post, adopted a far more thoughtful approach than Podile had, making a clear effort to address students’ concerns, and assuring the media that some of their demands could be met. After months of exhausting protests, the students saw some hope of relief.

That hope was shortlived. On the morning of 22 March, even as dialogue with Periasamy was underway, the vice chancellor’s secretariat sent out a one-line email to staff and students, which read: “Prof Appa Rao Podile resumed the charge in the forenoon of March 22, 2016.” Students were aghast. Just when it seemed there could be some resolution, they would once again have to deal with a man who they believed carried a toxic bias against Dalits.

That same morning, a group of students from the Joint Action Committee—an umbrella group that included members of the ASA, formed to support the five suspended students—gathered at the vice chancellor’s campus residence, known as the “VC’s lodge,” to protest Podile’s return. They learnt that he was holding a meeting of the executive council, and that many ABVP students from the school of life sciences—where Podile is a professor—were with him. The JAC students were provoked by what they saw as the administration’s partisan behaviour. “We told TV Rao, the chief security officer, that we want to meet the VC—but he said a meeting is on,” Ashok Dara, a senior ASA leader, told me. They waited for 15 minutes, he added, and then saw that the students inside were filming those who had gathered outside as they argued with the security guards. According to Dara, the JAC students demanded that the ABVP students exit the premises, in response to which the latter shouted at them to go away. “We have the same right as they do to sit in the VC bungalow,” Dara said. “Is he the VC of only that group?”

The JAC students tried to enter the room, which led to a skirmish. In the fight, students damaged the premises of the VC’s lodge, breaking window panes, flower pots, a television and other objects. But while the administration and the media portrayed the damage as being solely caused by the JAC group, the students I spoke to said the ABVP, too, was responsible for at least some of the damage. “We did some damage but nobody focussed on the damage they had done, but blamed it on us,” Dara told me.

“For three months we did a very peaceful protest, madam, we never did any vandalism or property destruction of our university,” an anguished Prabhakar of the ASA told the CNN-IBN reporter Sakshi Khanna. “We are human beings. Why he came again? He hurt our sentiments. Because he is the first culprit in the Rohith Vemula case.”

At around 11.30 am, police arrived on campus, even as the JAC students continued their efforts to enter the VC’s lodge. Wearing riot helmets and carrying protective shields and sticks, they continued to pour in and assembled at the lodge until they outnumbered the students present. The students remained undeterred. That evening, at around 5.30 pm, the police started forcefully vacating the protesting students from the premises.

Though several television journalists were present by this time, they recorded very little evidence of police action, instead focussing only on the lodge’s broken property. The mainstream media’s emphasis on the vandalism over the police crackdown lent credence to the Dalit students’ fears that coverage was biased, playing up the stereotype of the violent Dalit.

The clearest video available of the action shows students cowering and clinging to each other as the police drag them out of the lodge compound. Throughout, the students scream at the police, insisting that they are protesting peacefully.

In the absence of media footage, the most detailed accounts of the police’s excesses are in first-person video testimonies shot by students and uploaded onto YouTube. In these testimonies, women students said that members of the police abused them, threatened them with rape, and molested them. In her testimony, Akshita, an MSc student of physics, recounted that the police said, “You girls should behave like girls, not like prostitutes.”

According to Munna, the police took three hours to clear the students from the lodge. In the chaos, 27 people were picked up and bundled into police vehicles; among them were two faculty members, KY Ratnam and Tathagata Sengupta, as well as one film-maker, Moses Tulasi. “The police said, ‘Why are you standing here? Go away,’” Ratnam recalled. “I said, ‘I am faculty here, you are beating my students without a reason.’ They said, ‘Take this fellow as well.’” When Sreerag Poickadath, a Dalit student from Kerala, asked the police why they were picking up a professor, he, too, was forced inside the police van.” One student, Gautam Uyyala, who was filming the incident on his cell phone, told me that a policeman said to him, “Why don’t you film your mother and sister naked?”

The 27 people who were detained were transported in one group of nine, and another of 18. People in the latter group were beaten all the way from the university to the police station, according to Poickadath, who was among them. “In the van, a police slapped and asked me if I was a Muslim because of my beard without a moustache,” he told me. One sub-inspector, he said, told him, “I will kill all Muslims today.” Poickadath added: “While beating us, they said things like, ‘You eat beef and conduct beef festivals,’ as if it was a crime.’”

According to Poickadath, the students were not allowed to use their phones. They were also not produced before a magistrate within 24 hours, as required by law. “The judge did not give us an earlier time. The time she gave us is when we produced them,” the Telangana home minister Nayani Narasimha Reddy told Frontline magazine. But a report by Sudipto Mondal for the Hindustan Times revealed that there were networks of power working against the students—Dharmavarapu Varoodhini, the magistrate who was hearing their bail plea, is married to M Vijaykanth, who works in the law firm of the BJP MLC Ramachander Rao, accused in an abetment of suicide case filed by the police after Vemula’s death.

Five days later, on 28 March, those who had been detained were granted bail. More than a thousand students welcomed them back to the campus. But from the day of his return, the vice chancellor had turned the campus into a kind of fortress, barring the entry of outsiders and the media. The activist Yogendra Yadav, who was denied entry, called it “a 2,500-acre jail.” Prominent intellectuals and activists who visited the university in solidarity gave speeches outside the gate, while students stood inside and listened, in protest. As of the end of April, the blockade was still in force.

In the first week of April, I managed to get inside the campus to assess the mood. Munsif, one of the arrested students, told me, “22 March is the biggest blow to the culture of dissent that was the hallmark of this campus.” Though some students who had been arrested had returned inspired, the police had managed to instil fear in many others. “The semester is going to end and the holidays will begin,” Sunkanna told me. “I don’t know what to do, but we have to do something. We wanted to intensify the movement in April, but students are scared of cases.”

Political support had waned by this time, as had attendance at the evening velivada meetings. The VC was stationed in his bungalow and had been conducting all his official work from there instead of the administration building. A posse of 20 policemen provided him with round-the-clock security.

Poickadath offered a theory for why the student struggle at Jawaharlal Nehru University, which was occurring at around the same time, was receiving far greater support from faculty. “The protests in JNU had more faculty participation because it was not an anti-caste movement,” he said. “A Brahmin professor can come wearing the cloak of Marxism and talk about campus freedom. But here they have to criticise the privilege they are born with, so they don’t come and participate. They will be forced to talk about caste and criticise it, so they are wary. Their silence means they are casteist.” His conclusion was, “If you try to annihilate caste, the state will throw you in jail because it is a Brahminical state.”

Prashanth told me that in the government’s unbending support for Podile, he saw parallels with the situation in Gujarat after the violence of 2002. “Despite a lot of pressure, the RSS and the BJP kept Modi in the chair, giving him power to crush his opponents and establish his command,” he said. “Appa Rao is a hero for the RSS, as he performed his dharma.”

“Sustaining a movement for a Dalit cause is difficult because socially, politically, economically and legally we are not strong enough,” Sunkanna said. “The enemy is stronger. No sources outside the campus to lead the movement. It is an academic struggle and only students can speak about it.” But he did not concede defeat. “I can’t say we have lost the battle yet,” he said. “But I can’t predict the outcome. There is a legal battle going on and a student movement. If it was a fight between two individuals or two groups, it was OK. This is a fight against the system and the state that is thousand times more powerful than the ASA. Still, we are fighting and we will fight till the end.”

On 13 April, the university’s student union held a general body meeting to vote on a resolution demanding the removal of Podile from the post of vice chancellor. It was near unanimous: 948 students voted in favour of the resolution, while only one opposed it.

Sunkanna told me that some faculty members were trying to persuade the students to back down from their demand, warning them that the government might “bring in an RSS strongman to replace him.” According to Sunkanna, the teachers say, “This man has already been cornered and tomorrow if you put forth any demands, he will accept them.” He continued: “To them, I said only one thing. ‘Let someone stronger come, let Modi himself come. If he does anti-Dalit activities, we will fight against him too. But punish Appa Rao before that.’”

notes on nationalism

This article is a part of ‘Notes on Nationalism,’ a series by The Caravan that considers various aspects of the public discourse around sedition, nationalism, and Indian identity. You can read other pieces in this series here, here and here

ON THE EVENING OF 16 JANUARY, the mood on the campus of the University of Hyderabad was mellow. For around a month, there had been protests against the administration’s decision to bar five young Dalit men from using their hostels and the university’s public spaces. But support for the protests was flagging. Two days earlier, the students had tried to step up their demonstrations by occupying the administration building. But they were outmanoeuvred by the vice chancellor, or VC, Appa Rao Podile, who rallied some of the university’s staff, including mess workers, against them. These employees warned the students that they would shut down the campus messes if the blockade continued—a threat which forced them to back down.

That evening, a group of students gathered at the main site of the protests: a shack in the quadrangle of the campus’s shopping complex, popularly called the shopcom. The five students had built the structure out of vinyl posters attached to vertical frames. They arranged several of these together to create three makeshift walls, and placed a few overhead to create a flimsy roof. Looking down from the posters were iconic figures who had battled for the rights of the downtrodden: EV Ramasamy, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Bhimrao Ambedkar. The students called their protest site a velivada—the Telugu word for Dalit ghettos situated on the peripheries of villages.

One Dalit activist struck up a beat on a dappu, a disc-shaped drum, and began to sing. The others in the velivada joined in. Seated across from him, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old PhD student of the school of social sciences, one of the punished five, also sang along, repeating verses and joining in full-throated for the chorus. It was a song by the writer and singer Jayaraju Godishala, with a catchy, melancholy tune and a refrain that evoked the predicament of the students: “Evvaroo ee biddalu? Ningi lo nelavankalu. Evvaroo ee pillalu? Adivi malle puvvulu.” (Who are these children? Like the crescent moons of the sky. Who are these children? Like jasmines of the wild.) Vemula and the other singers smiled as they sang. “I couldn’t understand the language, but I was very moved,” Pramod Mandade, a non-Dalit supporter of the five students, who was present that evening, told me. Afterwards, the group, including Vemula, sat around a bonfire in front of a nearby hostel, talking late into the night.

The next morning, some students reassembled at the velivada to launch a relay hunger strike. Vemula didn’t attend the gathering. A little after 10 am, Pedapudi Vijay Kumar, one of the punished students, received a call from Vemula’s mother, Radhika, asking about her son. Vemula’s phone wasn’t working, and he didn’t have the money to repair it—the university hadn’t paid him his fellowship for the past seven months. Radhika was worried. She thought her son had sounded sad when she had spoken to him the previous night. Vijay made a mental note to remind him to call her.

Late that afternoon she called Vijay again, saying she still hadn’t heard from her son. Now Vijay, who had been busy meeting faculty and a lawyer ahead of a court hearing the next day, made his way to the hostel room of a senior ASA leader and PhD student named Uma Maheshwara Rao, which Vemula had been using to work after he was evicted from his own room. When Vijay arrived, he found the door locked from the inside. He knocked, “but there was no response,” Vijay told me. “I immediately called Sunkanna and Prashanth”—two other students who had been punished. “They came and knocked on the door but there was still no response,” Kumar continued. “We called the security immediately, and they opened the door.” They found that Vemula had committed suicide by hanging himself from a fan.

On a table in the room was a handwritten suicide note of startling poignancy. “I loved science. Stars. Nature,” Vemula wrote. Until then, he had been one of many Dalit students fighting for their rights. His suicide may have passed without drawing much attention—like those of the eight other Dalit students in the university who had killed themselves in the past ten years. But Vemula’s powerful final words ensured that the national media, uninterested in his struggle while he was alive, could not ignore his death. The letter’s most famous lines were shot through with what some would describe as a spiritual clarity. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility,” he wrote. “To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”

Protests erupted in the university and across the country, and the Dalit movement’s slogan—“Jai Bhim!”—rang through the streets. Vemula was transformed into an icon of Dalit resistance. As his story was retold on the front pages of newspapers and on primetime television, one photograph became particularly famous, of him wearing a green checked shirt, and smiling. It was a photograph he had been fond of, and about which he had remarked to some of his friends, “Don’t I look like a Tamil hero in this picture?” The image was reproduced on T-shirts, walls and social media profiles, and on protest placards that bobbed above crowds alongside portraits of Ambedkar.

When Vemula was thrust into the spotlight, so, too, was the organisation of which he had been a key leader. The Ambedkar Students Association, or the ASA, was formed in 1994 to assist Dalits at the university, helping them navigate the challenges of studying and living on campus. Over the next decade, the organisation grew in strength until, in 2007, it made a shift from serving as a support group for Dalits to representing them politically, by contesting the university’s student elections.

The ASA quickly became a formidable electoral force on campus, chiefly through a canny political strategy of forging an alliance that included communist, Muslim and tribal groups, and thus appealing to a wide base of students. This alliance soon dominated the university’s elections, edging out the RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or ABVP, which had held most of the posts till 2010.

Dickens Leonard, a senior ASA member, said their efforts were aimed at “creating a universal language of discrimination,“ a formulation that had a wide appeal. “Dalit politics is not just about Dalits, but is a counter political space,” Ramees EK, an MA student from Kerala, and the president of the Students Islamic Organisation, or SIO, told me. “It has the potential to question the hegemony of Hindutva politics. When we align with them, we see it as a coming together of marginalised communities.”

Though the ASA’s work is limited to the university campus, its success there provides some hint of a possible political future. With the Congress and the communist parties in decline, a “universal language of discrimination” could, at least on this early, limited evidence, offer the possibility of a catalyst for bringing different political fronts together to form a counterweight to the BJP’s majoritarianism.

IN THE DAYS AFTER VEMULA’S SUICIDE, numerous reports sought to piece together the events that had culminated in his death. Contradictory claims emerged about what had sparked the preceding unrest. Retracing the incidents, however, one conclusion is inescapable: the university administration and powerful BJP politicians lied repeatedly to portray the ASA as a threat to so-called national integrity, and to justify ruthless punishments for the students.

Trouble began to brew in mid 2015, before the execution of Yakub Memon, a chartered accountant convicted of providing financial and logistical support for the 1993 bombings in Mumbai, and sentenced to hang. The ASA, in consonance with Ambedkar’s views on the issue, had long opposed capital punishment. It has often argued that an overwhelming majority of people sentenced to death in the country are either from oppressed castes or religious minorities—thus making it an issue of discrimination along with general human rights. A day before the hanging, the ASA organised an event titled “Resistance gathering against capital punishment: in the wake of death sentence to Yakub Memon.”

On the day of Memon’s execution, 30 July, the Students Collective Against Fake Encounter, or SCAFE (an informal student body formed in April 2015 to protest the killings of five young Muslim men in suspicious circumstances in Warangal district), organised a namaaz-e-janaaza, a funeral prayer, for Memon at the shopcom. Some ASA members who were part of SCAFE, including Vemula, were present at the event, and some of the group’s anti-death-penalty posters from the previous day were displayed at the venue. One read, “Public conscience is Brahmin conscience. Satisfy with Muslim blood: ASA-UOH.” But though the groups came together to protest the hanging, their stances on the issue were, in fact, different. Ramees told me that though they were “on the same side, there is no real convergence of ideas yet.” The Muslim groups, he said, saw the Memon hanging as “a Muslim issue.” The ASA, on the other hand, took a wider view, against capital punishment itself.

This was apparent from Vemula’s Facebook post after the hanging. “The blood thirsty nationalism collected another head,” he wrote. “Honorable president scored a double with this. If death penalty is the only punishment we can offer to the convicted people, we must stop calling our nation democratic. #India, you have blood on your hands.” The event, like an earlier one, in 2013, to protest the hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted for the 2001 attack on the parliament, went off peacefully.

BJP ministers and leaders would cite the ASA members’ presence at this event as evidence that the group was “anti-national,” and as justification for the actions against it. But in fact, the incident that actually set off the group’s battle with the administration had nothing to do with Memon’s hanging. Rather, the conflict began two days later, on 1 August, when members of the ABVP barged into a room in Kirori Mal College, in Delhi, and disrupted a screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a film on the anti-Muslim violence that gripped the district of Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, in 2013.

The ASA denounced the ABVP’s actions, and, on 1 August, released a joint statement with other Dalit student organisations. The statement condemned the ABVP for “trying to deliberately suppress all news about the wrong doings and violence of their Caste Hindu politics. We know that they have systematically constructed the Muslim community as a target of attack.” It also accused Hindu political groups of making a “deliberate attempt to forcefully unite the Dalitbahujans under the rubric of Hinduism, against the imagined enemy of the Muslim.”

On 3 August, the ASA organised a protest rally against the ABVP’s actions. In response, Nandanam Susheel Kumar, a PhD student, who became the president of the university’s ABVP unit in 2014, published a Facebook post just after 9 pm, in which he wrote, “ASA goons are talking about hooliganism,” followed by a Facebook emoticon with the caption “feeling funny.” This post was the central point of contention in the events that followed. Susheel, the university administration and BJP politicians would repeatedly claim, falsely, that the comment that sparked off the conflict was related to the Yakub Memon protests—an implausible assertion given that Susheel’s statement refers specifically to ASA’s comments on “hooliganism.”

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Praveen Donthi is a Staff Writer at The Caravan. He is trained as a researcher in modern Indian history and became a journalist by accident. He has previously worked for Tehelka, Hindustan Times and Deccan Herald.

READER'S COMMENTS

11 thoughts on “From Shadows to the Stars”

This country is crippled by 3 evils –

1) Entrenched interests who exploit Dalits and supress their rights. These entrenched interests work on the basis of class and not caste. Case in point – richer Dalits exploit poorer Dalits.

2) Missionary inspired and crypto Christian “intellectuals” like Kancha Illaiah and Arundathi Roy who spew out half baked lies to drive a hatred towards Hinduism by Dalits to ensure mass conversions. Brahmins are convenient scapegoats. Just like Hitler found Jews to be convenient scapegoats.

3) The lack of a honest debate on caste based reservations. Every party, BJP included is scared to touch them because of the fear of losing votes. It is ironic that someone who is very rich like the son of an IAS officer gets reservations whilst a dirt poor upper caste chap gets shut out even though he is meritorious. What is the incentive to be meritorious ? Forget the merit argument, even from an equity perspective, is it right for a rich dalit to snatch opportunities from a poor dalit? How ironic is it to have caste based reservations to abolish caste?

Dear RAJ,
I think you are the most illiterate person even though educated.
your first point rich dalits exploiting poor dalits, stands outdated since you gave the examples of IAS officer. In India there is hardly 2-3 IAS officers are there whose fathers had been IAS officer from the SC community. So if we can just put in percentage it will come to less than 1%.
Your second notion about Kancha Illaiah and Arundhati Roy, is very absurd. These two people are the writers in present times but the conversion is going on since last 200-400 years. You are bugged with them because you belong to same bunch of people who relishes killing and raping the people from lowest strata. Instead of purifying HINDU society, you are trying to purify the people by reconverting them back. Brahmins had never been scapegoats on the other hand they are the butchers who kill without using their own hands, by fueling disharmony in the country.
Third notion about debate on reservations. You have very little knowledge about reservations. Again your example of IAS holds no ground, since I had already told you the percentage. Kindly read the book on The rise of Meritocracy. There is nothing called as merit. You can only compare merit when two children have been raised equivalently in all respects from KG to PG.

Kindly shrug off your pathetic mentality and if you really want to do an experiment, exchange your children with a children of tribal. Then after 20 years when you had raised the children of tribal and your children raised by tribals, make them to compete with each other based on merit. Your own blood related child will hardly get passing marks while on the contrary the tribal children raised by you will outclass your own blood children.

If you can do this, then only talk.

Hi Praveen,

You have written so well that I may believe it’s all true which is otherwise one-sided and half truth

Dear Surya,

Why did you bother reading when you believed it was cooked up. Slowly & slowy the noose that killed Rohit will turn into a snake and bite RSS in 2019.

very good readable article. it will be more real if you post some evidences. its time to awake and rise and fight against the evils in our system, and particularly casteism. social equality is more important than political and economical equality. outside the hcu campus also the protest is much. but its not enough. do perceive it. waiting for the report of commission as the time limit is over.

Good article. It would have been better if Susheel Kumkar’s view of the “beating” incident been obtained. Did you attempt to interview him? Same goes for Dattatreya, Irani and Appa Rao. Same goes for Periasamy- what exactly does he think about this. In the interest of fairness & possible alternate view points attempts should have been made to interview them.

There is factual error in this article, I just read in the print issue (pg 34, column 2, first paragraph)
the author puts “black panther” in bracket for Dalit panther.
Dalit Panther and Black Panther are not the same, in fact movements which happen in differnet countries. Dalit Panther was inspired by Black Panther, but IT IS NOT Black Panther.

This must be the first article of this length which I have ever read with so much interest. Though there is a huge partiality in this writing, which justifies only one side in all the events, the cause is clear and pure for which the bias may be justified. Hope this article helps at least some people open up their minds.

Pathetic article.. The article gives all masala one sided but doesn’t explain one simple fact why did Rohith Vemula who sang songs till 10 pm with his friends suddenly commit suicide that night.. what happened suddenly in 2-3 hrs for him to become so depressed.. There is absolutely no focus on that part of the story.. it just vents about blaming all non SCs for the situation of dalit students. .. Utterly hopeless

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