Three months after Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s death brought the issue of caste discrimination to the fore and sparked nationwide protests, his brother and mother embraced Buddhism in the hope of forever leaving behind the curse of the system caste.

Deceased Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula’s brother Raja and mother Radhika embrace Buddhism on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar yesterday. The initiation ceremony took place at Ambedkar Bhawan in Dadar. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Deceased Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula’s brother Raja and mother Radhika embrace Buddhism on the occasion of the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar yesterday. The initiation ceremony took place at Ambedkar Bhawan in Dadar. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

“From today, my mother Radhika Vemula and I are going to start the kind of life that Rohith had always dreamed of, the kind of life that Babasaheb Ambedkar wanted us to lead – a life without blind belief, a life outside Hindu system. From today, we are truly free. Free of shame, daily humiliation, guilt of praying to the same gods in whose name our people have been tortured for centuries,” said Rohith’s brother, Naga Chaitanya Vemula (popularly known as Raja), who travelled to Mumbai for the special ceremony that was held in the backdrop of Dalit icon, Dr BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary yesterday.

Monks march in the procession towards Ambedkar Bhavan where Raja and Radhika took deeksha. Pic/Atul Kamble
Monks march in the procession towards Ambedkar Bhavan where Raja and Radhika took deeksha. Pic/Atul Kamble

It was in the presence of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, that Raja and his mother Radhika accepted deeksha in an initiation ceremony at Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar. The Vemula family has been at the centre of the caste controversy since Rohith’s death, so it was hardly surprising that Raja was prepared with a 3-page statement that he issued to the media after the ceremony.

‘For Rohith’
While his mother hardly spoke because of the language barrier (she speaks Telugu), Raja spoke at length about how they were fed up of discrimination, much like his brother was. Rohith firmly believed in the tenets of Buddhism but had never converted, so it was in his honour that Raja and Radhika took this step.

“If my brother Rohith Vemula were alive, he would have been proud of the step we have taken today,” said Raja, adding that Rohith’s last rights had also been performed according to Buddhist traditions.

However, it doesn’t seem like the mother-son duo had told the rest of the family about their decision to convert. Rohith’s elder sister, who is married, remains a Hindu, so Raja was asked whether the extended family would support their decision. “It is our decision about the way we want to live our life. They will now know about it when they will see it on the news.”

Asked whether embracing Buddhism would allow them to lead a life without any social discrimination, Raja said, “I cannot control how people behave, but as a family, we are coming out of this system. We have nothing against Hindu religion, but we are against the ‘brahminical’ ideology that encourages discrimination… We want azaadi from the caste system.”

He recounted an encounter with his mathematics teacher: “That teacher would not touch a glass if we had drunk water from it. If somebody wishes to behave like this, how can we change it?” questioned Raja.

He also pointed out that the prime minister had remained silent on his brother’s death. “The PM is the most powerful person in the country. Even though he knows about the issue, there is not single statement or attempt to approach us by him. Nobody from the government has approached us,” he said, adding that instead of support, his family had received threats to keep mum.

Raja also repeated the family’s demand for a high-level investigation into Rohith’s death and the sacking of Appa Rao, the vice-chancellor of Hyderbad Central University, where Rohith Vemula studied and had committed suicide.

Politics
However, Raja denied that their conversion would play any role in their battle to find justice for his brother. There were several questions raised in the press meet about the matter being politicised, but Prakash Ambedkar pointed out that if anyone was looking to score political mileage out of the issue, it was the BJP. Ever since the Rohith’s death, the party has tried to be more active on the Dalit front, but Prakash alleged this was merely eyewash. “BJP is embracing Dr Ambedkar in name, but in reality, they have left behind the beliefs and principles he lived with,” he said.

Asked why the ceremony was held all the way here in Mumbai when the Vemulas hail from a village near Hyderabad, Prakash said, “The function was organised after Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother, approached me and conveyed their wish to embrace Buddhism in Mumbai.”

After the ceremony, the Vemulas visited Chaityabhumi in Dadar — where Babasaheb’s last rites took place — to pay tribute to him. For Prakash, it was the sign of things to come. “This society needs revolution. This was Dr Ambedkar’s dream. I feel that this is the beginning of social revolution.”