Fresh probe ordered into Rohit Vemula's caste status

In a fresh controversy over the caste of Rohith Vemula, the Hyderabad university research scholar who committed suicide in January this year, a fresh probe has been ordered by Guntur district collector Kantilal Dande to determine whether he was a Dalit or not, saying that Vemula's caste status is shrouded in ''ambiguity''.

Incidentally, Dande himself had submitted a report to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) stating that Vemula was a Dalit who belonged to the Mala Caste, which is listed in the Scheduled Caste category in Andhra Pradesh, earlier in June 2016. Dande's report, cited in The Hindu newspaper, also stated that Rohith's family was living below the poverty line.

However, according to The Times of India, Dande has now done a U-turn and stated that a fresh probe into Vemula's caste identity was needed as two previous reports that looked into Vemula's roots gave contrasting accounts. One of the reports, prepared by the Guntur administration where Vemula was born, concluded that he was a Dalit, while another report submitted by the Gurajala district administration, where Vemula's father is from, said that he belonged to the OBC category.

Dalit is an umbrella term used in India to denote Scheduled Castes, whereas OBC is a caste category defined under the Mandal Commission and has higher social status than Dalits.

Dande said that he had only forwarded the Guntur administration report to NCSC and a fresh enquiry was needed to determine whether Vemula was really a Dalit.

However, Vemula's caste status has been mired in mystery ever since the news of his suicide hit the news. Determining his caste status has been even trickier as his parents were separated, but never officially divorced, and Vemula was brought up by his mother and her adopted family.

Vemula's mother has claimed that though her husband was a Vadara (an OBC), she was a Mala Dalit and her husband did not have anything to do with the upbringing of Vemula or his siblings.

The controversy around Vemula's caste first started two days after his death after a caste certificate signed by Vemula's mother surfaced in several media reports. These reports that claimed Vemula belonged the 'Vadara' community which comes under the OBC category. Then, countering these claims Vemula's own caste certificate, issued by the government of Andhra Pradesh was cited, which categorises him as a 'Mala' Dalit.

Vemula, who was doing his PhD from the Hyderabad University, was active in student politics and called himself an 'Ambedkarite'. He was also a former member of Ambedkar Student Association, a student union actively campaigning for SC/ST students' cause. At the time of his death, he was suspended from the college under a disciplinary order issued at the behest of union minister Bandaru Dattatreya and university vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile.

The varsity had alleged that Vemula and his friends had assaulted an ABVP leader - a claim that is largely contested - with whom they had fought on a previous occasion over the screening of the controversial documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai.

Union minister Dattatreya and varsity vice-chancellor Podile, prime accused in the Rohith Vemula case, are being charged under the SC/ST Atrocities (Prevention) Act for abetting Rohith's suicide.

According to the Times of India report, neither Rao nor Dattatreya have been questioned so far in the case. The police claim that the collector hasn't sent the proper caste status of Vemula, which is essential for the case.

As the controversy around his caste identity grows, it is but ironical that Vemula in his suicide letter had said, "The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing ... my birth was a fatal accident".