Today in Dalit History we celebrate the strength and resilience of a Dalit woman, Radhika Vemula. Born of Dalit parents, she was adopted by a Shudra couple when she was still a baby. Throughout her life, she experienced several confusing realities; as an adopted child in a non-Dalit home, as a spouse in a turbulent and inter-caste relationship and in her struggle to raise her three children with little support.
She managed the economics of her household with tailoring, embroidery, construction and domestic work. There were dire times for the family when it was difficult to pull together three square meals a day. Radhika and the children all worked wage labour jobs on the side but she still encouraged them to come back after their work and read too. She was a mother determined to educate her children and sent all of them to college.
Being bright children, they were all admitted into good schools. When both her sons were in college, she made the decision to further her own education. She began a Bachelors of Arts degree through a distance-learning programme offered by Sri Venkateshwara University. So while her children were students furthering themselves, she was too!
The family was proud of their exremely intelligent older son Rohith Vemula on his admission into University of Hyderabad (uoH). They also finally experienced some financial breathing room when Rohith began receiving a monthly scholarship at his PhD programme. Radhika and the family were deeply shocked when they discovered that UoH, in association with right-wing Hindu political forces, had institutionally murdered their son and brother.
In the hard days that followed, Radhika’s deep sense of grief has been seen to be matched only by her incredible resilience and commitment to obtaining justice for her son. Rohith’s death, had thrown her right in the eye of a storm. She has been protesting outside in the same location at UoH that Rohith had when he had been unfairly expelled by the administration. She has unflinchingly experienced police brutality along with the other student protestors. She bravely calls out Minister Smriti Irani as one of her son’s murderers and refused Prime Minister Narendra Modis’s fabricated sympathy. She stands tall, leading her other two children and all the other students fighting for justice at UoH. In a towering act of revolution, on the significant occassion of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary, she renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism. She affirms that she did so in order to honour the memory of her son and to escape the root of their oppression.
In the face of the agonizing loss of her son, the defamation of their family, the breaches of her privacy, the continuous harassment she faces – there is one thing that is clear. Radhika Vemula is never a victim. She is a warrior obliterating every injustice on her path. We mourn with her and we honour the fierceness of a Dalit mother. Power to her struggle. Jaibhim!