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Crossing caste lines

K Satyanarayana | Updated on January 19, 2018 Published on January 29, 2016
A willing choice: Rohith Vemula redefined identity as one based on life experience, political choice and social relations. Photo: KVS Giri

A willing choice: Rohith Vemula redefined identity as one based on life experience, political choice and social relations. Photo: KVS Giri

The politics over Rohith Vemula’s caste is meant to thwart the identity he chose for himself

Rohith Vemula has sparked off a debate on the politics of caste identity and the possibility of crossing caste lines for a better future. In his suicide note and public statement he wrote, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.” Vemula, a staunch Ambedkarite, believed in the annihilation of caste identity. His life was a search for a new and liberating identity. He challenged the idea of Dalit identity based on birth, kinship relations, patrilineage and nuclear family. He redefined identity based on life experience, political choice and social relations. Vemula practised identity as a willing choice in a given situation. No wonder, the Hindutva forces and certain caste organisations turned his identity into a site of policing and tried to fix it. They did not allow his mother to mourn his death. They, the media and the police interrogated her, humiliated her, and made her personal life a public story.

Vemula was identified as a “Dalit PhD scholar” when his death was reported. Both Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) and Vemula mentioned their identities as Scheduled Caste in their memorandums to the University of Hyderabad authorities. Following Vemula’s death, the issue of Dalit identity and caste discrimination assumed importance in all the resulting campaigns and debates. The ASA filed a police complaint under the SC/ST Atrocities Prevention Act against vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile, Union minister of state Bandaru Dattatreya, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad leader Susheel Kumar and others.

The complaint was accepted on the assumption that Vemula was from a Scheduled Caste. The BJP and several Hindutva organisations, however, began raising doubts over Vemula’s Dalit identity in an apparent bid to derail the debate on caste violence, as also dilute the police case under the SC/ST Act.

An anonymous video released online shows Vemula’s paternal grandmother stating that the late scholar’s father, Mani Kumar, and mother, Radhika, were of Vaddera caste (BC). Subsequently, the media too began raising doubts about Vemula’s identity and the focus shifted to the issue of unscrupulous parties politicising caste.

Another document, an affidavit to register the birth of her second son, was released where Vemula’s mother declares herself a Vaddera. Vemula is not around to answer these charges. The ASA later released a caste certificate issued by the tahsildar of Guntur that shows Vemula as Mala (an SC). Vemula’s father, who had deserted the family more than 20 years ago, was brought in to announce his son’s caste identity as Vaddera. The Vaddera association now demanded an enquiry to ascertain Vemula’s caste identity as SC.

When the character assassination of Vemula reached an unacceptable level, his mother and her two other children declared at a press conference that they belonged to Mala caste. The mother clarified that she was informally adopted by a Vaddera family and later married to Mani Kumar. She mentioned her caste as Vaddera in the affidavit, based on the logic of patriarchal law that a married woman inherits her husband’s caste. When she separated from Mani Kumar, she moved into a Mala colony with her children. They subsequently declared themselves as Mala through certificates from the Guntur tahsildar.

The controversy surrounding Vemula’s caste identity brings several issues to the fore. Is caste a natural identity based on the patrilineage of a nuclear family? Are caste endogamy and bloodline the basis of identity? Is caste only a sociological and legal identity? Does caste have a social, moral and political content? Is identity a position that is negotiable by conscious individuals and social groups?

Vemula’s case poses a problem to the received understanding of caste identity invoked by Hindutva forces and certain caste associations. He belonged to a single parent family and mentioned suffering from loneliness in his childhood.

He claimed his mother’s caste identity as his own. He wrote on Facebook that he followed the footsteps of famous Telugu Dalit poet Jashuva, who claimed his mother’s Madiga caste (SC) identity instead of his father’s Golla (BC). He exercised his choice in favour of matrilineage. He identified himself as an untouchable and suffered social stigma and discrimination. His idea of kinship was not based on blood relations. The ASA was his family and it was based on shared political ideas and community.

He apologised to his ASA family in his suicide note. He did not subject himself to the policing of his identity as Vaddera, considered a natural identity both by society and law. He did have an SC certificate but never used it to get any state benefits or entitlements. He was admitted in the general category and demonstrated his capability by winning CSIR and UGC fellowships.

Vemula challenged the policing of caste identities and exercised his freedom to remain an outsider. He invented a new Dalit identity which is fluid, open-ended and based on certain political ideas and shared values. His caste certificate allowed him to symbolically identify with the stigmatised untouchable community. He never allowed the state rituals of identity certification to take over his right to live as a mind. His last words reveal that Vemula aspired to go beyond his birth and cursed life. He desired to be a writer, an intellectual and a Buddhist philosopher. It is ironic that the cynical forces are trying to bury him in identities policed by Manusmriti.

K Satyanarayana is a professor of Cultural Studies at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

Published on January 29, 2016
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