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
“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
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.
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.
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.”
40 monks came together at Ambedkar Bhavan to usher Raja and Radhika Vemula into Buddhism in an initiation ceremony attended by close to 100 people. Bante (Buddhist priest) Dhammarakshit performed the ceremony while others contributed in the prayers. The priest read out principles of Buddhism in Hindi to the Vemula mother-son duo. The principles were then explained to Raja in English, and he in turn explained it to his mother.
Bante Dhammarakshit, the 63-year-old monk who performed the ceremony said, “This ceremony could have been conducted anywhere, but Mumbai is where Dr Ambedkar’s last rites were performed and that added more meaning to the ceremony.” “The Vemulas met Prakash Ambedkar several times, after which they requested to convert to Buddhism. Deeksha can be given and accepted at any age after 18. While the Deeksha indicates that their conversion is complete, they will have to follow all the principles to rightfully embrace Buddhism,” added the priest.
Change in caste status?
“Dr Ambedkar wanted to come out of the caste system and so he embraced Buddhism. However, I do not know what will happen to the caste status of the Vemula family. If they continue to live with the caste certificate issued to them, they will continue to avail facilities mentioned in the Constitution for the reserved category,” said Constitutional expert and retired HC Judge Hosbet Suresh.
The Ambhore family
Also present for the ceremony were the parents of Aniket Ambhore, an IIT-B student who fell to his death from the institute’s terrace in 2014. Aniket’s parents had also alleged that he was subjected to caste discrimination on campus. In the recent past, the Ambhore family extended support to the Vemula family. Aniket’s mother, Sunita said, “We are glad that Rohith’s parents are demanding justice. They have our support and that of many others from the country. The decision to convert to Buddhism is not to fight with the government, but their tribute to Rohith and their willingness to embrace a religion that does not discriminate.”
Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar from Hyderabad Central University (HCU) committed suicide in his hostel room on January 17. He and four of his friends had been suspended from the hostel and were allowed restricted entry on campus following a complaint of alleged physical assault on a student leader from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Rohith’s death sparked a much bigger controversy and nationwide debate over caste-based discrimination.