Vijay was one of Rohith Vemula’s closest friends, and was also suspended from hostel with him.
Ramanathan S.| Thursday, March 24, 2016
All photographs by Ramanathan S

At the main entrance to the University of Hyderabad, Telangana police and the campus security were busy preventing Rohith Vemula’s mother from entering the campus. Amidst all of the commotion, I walked past the gates into the campus, to a more silent atmosphere. As I moved away from the entrance, the lights of TV cameras fell dim, and the cacophony of slogans and arguments faded away.

On Wednesday, the University banned entry for everyone except students and staff. No outside politician, student or journalist was allowed in. Kanhaiya Kumar was not allowed to enter, and neither was Rohith’s mother. Journalists spent the whole day in front of the gates, getting roasted in the dry Hyderabad sun.

The University’s Shopping Complex, an open area called Shop Comm, is the epicenter of the ongoing protests, and is about hundred meters from the main gate.

At Shop Comm, a tent has been erected for the protests. There is a main dais with a huge poster of Rohith Vemula in the background. Students are sitting on the dais discussing issues, joking around or just staring into the distant darkness in silence. There is no noise, and the cool night breeze is easing the tension away.

Beside the dais is the Rohith Smarak Stupa, a concrete mini-memorial built in his memory. Pictures of Rohith and Ambedkar are kept on it. To its right is the Vellivada (Dalit ghetto), a small enclosure where the core group of protesters, including the 4 Dalit students who were initially suspended along with Rohith, have been camping since his death.

Sitting on one corner of the dais is Vijay, one of Rohith’s closest friends who was also suspended from the hostel initially. As I sit down to chat with him, a student walks up and asks him jokingly, “Why are you absconding?”

“What?” Vijay asks.

“You are accused number 30 in the FIR, and you are listed as ‘absconding’.”

“Really? I am here,” says Vijay, laughing and looking around at his friends.

In the FIR filed by the Hyderabad police for the ransacking of the VC’s house on Tuesday morning, 30 students and 2 staff members have been listed, of which 27, including the two staffers, have been arrested and are now in judicial custody at the Cherlapally jail. Five of them, including Vijay, are listed as absconders.

They have all been booked on charges of rioting, voluntarily causing hurt with dangerous weapons, use of assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharging his duty, unlawful assembly and damaging public property. Some protesting students say they were instigated into the violence by ABVP members, many other say it was the ABVP which indulged in the vandalism. ABVP flatly denies all allegations.

Vijay is honest, and agrees that there is a possibility that both sides could have indulged in vandalism, but insists that the VC’s return was pre-planned and was meant to instigate violence.

Students at the University are worried for the 27 comrades who were picked up by the police. For more than 24 hours, the police kept them in the dark as to their exact location. “Two of our professors have been arrested, and I saw Ratnam sir being beaten up by the police. Today I went to the police station with the family of Tathagat sir to find out where he is, and they refused to tell us. They were talking the language of vengeance. Cops were threatening us, saying now you will see what will happen.”

Other eyewitnesses, including journalists, corroborate that at least one professor was manhandled by the police during the lathi charge on Tuesday evening.

Inside the campus, throughout the day, students were not given any food or water, and the WiFi internet connection was down. Following the vandalism at the VC’s office, the non-teaching staff at the University had gone on strike, leaving hundreds of students scrambling for food and water. So students took to cooking on their own.

“We went to the mess and took out the rice and dal to cook,” says Vijay, “But the police did not want us cooking at Shop Comm, in front of everyone. They came and stopped us, and one student was also taken away into the van and beaten up. But we went behind the stores and cooked. There they allowed us,” says Vijay, “they just don’t want the world to see we are defying them.”

For dinner, students and faculty from EFLU, OU and some other organizations had sent food and water. Students passed food around in an orderly manner, and ate in silence.

Twenty-six-year-old Vijay is pursuing his PhD in political science at UoH, and has been a student here and a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association for 7 years. The son of agricultural labourers from Mupalla village in Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh, Vijay too is from the Mala community, like Rohith and his mother.

His parents don’t make more than five or six thousand rupees in a month, and don’t get work every day. He has been supporting them from out of his scholarship.

In the past three months, his life has changed unrecognizably. “We wanted to finish our studies and go, I was preparing for the civil services. But now, we have become anti-national,” he says, “My life is in trouble. We have been booked in two cases, and we have no one to save us, even our lawyers are poor.”

At the moment, the entire Rohith Vemula movement is in a confused state. Their immediate goal is to get their 27 comrades out on bail, and so their attention is divided. The fear is that they will remain busy fighting these everyday battles and lose the war eventually.

Beyond holding the VC accountable for the death of Rohith, the main group of protesters also fear that if the VC is allowed to stay, he will target them. “We cannot live here. We have fought him so hard, if he is back now then he will not spare us,” says Vijay.

S Munna, another member of the Joint Action Committee who has also been declared absconding by the police, said the same on Wednesday evening when I met him. “The police are searching for me, which is OK. But the VC will make sure that our careers are destroyed. Munna is now keeping a low profile.

The anger of these students is not blind, and their answers are patient, well thought-out.

“My politics is about strengthening the roots, and we are the roots. If the roots are strong, the branches will be stronger. All political, social and economic benefits should flow to the roots. Everyone should get their due share,” says Vijay, clearly explaining in English that they are not asking for special treatment, but just to be treated like anyone else.

And it isn’t just for the Dalits in the campus for whom Rohith’s death has been life altering.

Behind the dais, sitting in the darkness were three students – Harini, Keerthana and Ruci. For Ruci, being a student from Manipur has meant facing racist experiences in the past, and she understood social injustices just too well. She could understand what the ASA students were fighting for right from the beginning.

But for Keerthana and Harini, from Kerala and Bengaluru respectively, Rohith’s death brought home casteist social injustices that were always present around them, but which they never really understood.

“I knew Rohith from before, I knew he was a campus politician. But I used to think of them as people who would always politicize small issues and make a big deal. But when he died, it shook us. I realized what kind discrimination exists among us,” says Keerthana, who is among the few hundred regular protesters of the Rohith movement.

And they are participating in the protests despite parental pressure. “My parents want me to just quit. They know that I am a part of all the protests, but I cannot stop. This is too important for us,” says Harini.

Where is all this headed? No one has a clue, but there is hope among some of these students. “At the very least, we want the VC to go away.”

The hope for Vijay, however is vanishing. “Some of us are discussing that we might have to take TC and leave. We cannot live here, and we are scared for our lives. We are not happy about leaving, but are being pressurized into it. May be we can step out and take the battle to the outside world,” he says, as he looks away, staring at Rohith Vemula’s stupa near the dais.

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