Rohith Vemula suicide: 8 years on, case in limbo as officials dither over his caste certificate

The lawyer representing Rohith said the investigation is stalled as the Guntur district authorities are not issuing his caste certificate.

ByAjay Tomar

Published Jan 21, 2024 | 3:00 PMUpdatedJan 21, 2024 | 8:43 PM

Rohith Vemula case: Eight years after the suicide, caste certificate investigation stalled despite family submitting evidence

On 17 January, well-wishers quietly observed the eighth death anniversary of Rohith Vemula — the suspended University of Hyderabad (UoH) research scholar whose death by suicide alleging caste discrimination had caused a national furore.

It has been eight years as well since an FIR under sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and for abetment to suicide was filed by four other research scholars — Dontha Prashanth, Vijay Kumar Pedapudi, Seshaiah Chemudagunta, and Sunkanna Velpua — who were suspended by the UoH along with Rohith Vemula.

The case, which was filed against the then UoH vice-chancellor P Appa Rao, also named former BJP MLC N Ramchander Rao and two students: Susheel Kumar and Krishna Chaitanya, both members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

However, South First has learnt that no charge sheet has been filed in the case to date — primarily because the Guntur district’s collector’s office still has not provided Vemula’s caste certificate, which would help determine his Dalit status.

On the other hand, two cases were filed by the UoH and by ABVP leader Susheel Kumar’s mother against the suspended students and/or the members of the varsity’s Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA).

According to the lawyer of the suspended students, Jai Bheema Rao, while the case filed by Susheel Kumar’s mother was in the Telangana High Court, the case of SC/ST atrocities and abetment of Rohith’s suicide was still “under investigation”.

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‘Investigation stalled’

Bheema Rao told South First, “All the accused in the SC/ST atrocities case had approached the Telangana High Court as they alleged that Rohith did not belong to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. Those caste petitions are pending.”

Rohith’s brother Raja Vemula told South First the family had submitted caste certificates and other relevant depositions to the Guntur collector’s office a couple of years back.

Bheema Rao pointed out that the Guntur collector had conducted an “exclusive inquiry” into the matter and examined all related evidence.

It should be noted that the Guntur collector-cum-magistrate initially issued an SC certificate to Rohith, which was later contested and put on hold. As a result, a re-inquiry was initiated into the matter.

“It was found that Rohith belonged to the SC community; now that has to be declared by the authorities. I don’t know what is preventing the district collector and revenue authorities from passing the order now,” said Bheema Rao.

He said that all of Rohith’s family members and witnesses had been examined. But the complainants and their witnesses were not coming forward.

“Still the collector is entertaining them and keeping the matter in abeyance,” said Bheema Rao, adding that it is a “strategic step” by the authorities.

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Mother’s caste

A Hindustan Times report said that while Rohith’s mother Radhika belonged to the Mala (SC) community, his father Mani Kumar was from the Backward Class (BC) Vaddera community.

However, after a few years of marriage, Radhika separated from her husband over his abusive and violent nature, and brought up Rohith as a single parent.

The case would only move forward once Rohith’s caste certificate was cleared by the authorities.

“There is an interlinking between caste certificate and caste petition. But the authorities are inquiring half-heartedly. I don’t know why they taking this much time, more than a year, in deciding Rohith’s issue when we have provided all the evidence from our side,” Bheema Rao asserted.

Additionally, the charge sheet in the case has not been filed. “The investigation is not moving forward because the district authorities are not issuing the caste certificate. Once the certificate comes, the caste petition will be moved and the charge sheet will be filed. That is how the game is going on,” Bheema Rao said.

The lawyer added that the other cases would be taken up in the high court by the end of January.

Guntur Collector and District Magistrate M Venugopal Reddy told South First, “I am not aware of the case as of now. But the family members can visit us tomorrow (Monday) as we are also taking up public grievances. Once getting a hold of the matter, I will direct the concerned Revenue Department officials to proceed further.”

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The caste dilemma

In 2016, a few months after Rohith’s suicide, a one-man judicial commission headed by a former judge of the Allahabad High Court, AK Roopanwal, held that Rohith was a Vaddera BC — his father’s caste — and not a Mala SC.

However, rejecting the judicial commission’s report on Rohith Vemula’s suicide as “fake and fictitious”, the then National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) chairman PL Punia asserted the deceased PhD research scholar was a Dalit.

He added that the commission was constituted to determine why Rohith committed suicide and the people accountable for his death. But, instead of adhering to its terms of reference, the commission was busy ascertaining his caste.

Punia also said Guntur’s then district collector, Kantilal Dande, had issued a conclusive report stating that the deceased person belonged to an SC caste.

In 2016, when TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu was the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, the then Guntur collector (Kantilal Dande) received a complaint that Rohith did not belong to the SC community. Subsequently, he referred the matter to the District-Level Scrutiny Committee (DLSC), which carried out a detailed inquiry (re-probe) regarding the caste status.

Referring to the DLSC recommendation, Dande reportedly said the SC certificate was “fraudulently” obtained by Rohith and his mother Radhika.

“My mother was served a show cause notice by the DLSC to prove her claim of being a Dalit within 15 days. So, we appeared in front of the then-Guntur joint collector and submitted evidence. But there were no proceedings for the next couple of years,” Rohith’s brother Raja Vemula said.

He added that, in 2019, a new collector (Kona Sasidhar) took charge and oversaw the proceedings himself.

“We submitted all the evidence and depositions to him and he transferred the matter to the DLSC for a fresh enquiry,” Raja said, adding that since then there had been no proceeding in the matter.

A research scholar who was suspended along with Rohith, on condition of anonymity, told South First, “The same district collector (Dande) came and said that my colleagues were misled and Rohith was not an SC but a BC. It shows what kind of understanding the then chief minister (Naidu) had with the BJP (in power in Delhi). He was also in alliance with the BJP during the Vajpayee government.”

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Suicide and its aftermath

The suicide by Rohith on 17 January, 2016, had not only triggered a nationwide uproar but also sparked a huge political storm. Opposition parties launched a massive attack on the BJP-led Union government over the issue.

Several political leaders, including Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, had reached Hyderabad to show solidarity with students protesting against the UoH administration and the HRD Ministry (now Education Ministry) for driving Rohith to death by suicide.

Gandhi was also joined by Rohith’s mother Radhika during the Hyderabad-leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in November 2022.

Rohith's mother Radhika Vemula during the Hyderabad-leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in November 2022.

Rohith’s mother Radhika Vemula during the Hyderabad leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in November 2022. (Supplied)

“A lot of people people got involved in the case and tried to dilute it. I think they have achieved in weakening the case,” the research scholar told South First.

He added that while it was no secret that Rohith’s father was a BC, he had the equal right to his mother’s caste as she is the one who raised him.

“The father is a BC man. There is no doubt about it and no one is hiding that. But when he (Rohith) was around four or five, his mother separated from his father. She belongs to the Mala community. So, she would have wanted her children to go with her caste, which is not wrong. It is not a crime. Children have the right to carry the caste of both parents. How can they declare that he is solely a BC?” the research scholar asked.

Citing an example, the research scholar claimed, “Suppose I am a Dalit who marries a Brahmin woman. it does not mean my wife will become a Dalit or vice-versa. But our children will have a chance either to continue with their mother’s legacy or father’s. That option is there in the constitution.”

The Tamil Nadu government in 2021, issuing a clarification on one of its own Government Orders from 1975, reportedly stated that the offspring of inter-caste couples could opt for the caste of either of their parents.

In January 2016, Rohith committed suicide in one of the UoH’s hostel rooms, leaving behind a suicide note.

He and four others were suspended by the varsity’s administration over allegations of being involved in “casteist” and “anti-national” activities as members of the ASA.

Subsequently, he was also expelled from the university hostel as a result of which he is said to have spent several days without any shelter. Protests rocked the country with academic fraternity terming it as an “institutional murder.”