Kids at work: a Dalit activist
Ravali Medari has come a long way. Once a softly spoken teenager, whose elder brother had to fill out her university application form on her behalf, she is now a fierce and charismatic student activist. ‘I was not this Ravali when I first came here three years ago,’ she says.
University in India is hard work, with levels of studying, competition and stress that prove overwhelming for many students. 22-year-old Ravali has balanced these while at the same time fomenting a revolution; over the past two years, the University of Hyderabad, where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in anthropology, has become a crucible of student revolt.
The university hogged national headlines for several months after the death of Rohith Vemula, a young Dalit PhD student who took his own life on 17 January 2016. Rohith’s suicide provoked a backlash all over India, opening raw wounds concerning freedom of expression, state repression, and caste hegemony.
He and four other Dalit students had dared to speak up against rightwing Hindu extremism. In response, the university administration suspended the students, evicted them from their accommodation and stopped Vemula’s monthly stipend.
Dalits form the lowest rung of the Indian caste system and face discrimination in all areas of life. In many ways, the university’s treatment of Rohith and his comrades resembled the caste ritual of excommunication. As an act of public shaming, it was meant to crush their spirit and strike at the core of their identity.
Ravali – who is also a Dalit – remembers the events vividly. The heartbreaking and radical suicide note left behind by Vemula, which was reproduced in newspapers across the country, led to her political awakening. ‘I think that the message of Rohith was that we should speak up for ourselves,’ she says. ‘It was a letter for his right to live.’
Ravali was at the heart of the protests which put the university into lockdown, with police and armed paramilitaries deployed on the sprawling, green campus. A star singer and performer in a progressive theatre group, her fiery speeches made her stand out.
‘People are intolerant towards Dalits speaking up,’ Ravali says, recalling the days of tumult on campus. ‘The institution was intolerant. With all that police presence on the campus, yes, they were trying to intimidate us. But that’s because they are scared of us. That’s why they try to curb our rights.’
Initially she was vice-president of the Marxist group Students’ Federation of India at the university, but the underlying caste aspect of the struggle led her to join the Ambedkar Students Association to which Rohith Vemula belonged – named after the revolutionary Dalit leader from the era of Indian independence.
Under an image on a calendar of Dr Ambedkar, the only decoration that graces the bare walls of her student room, I ask Ravali how she balances activism with academia. Like most students at university in India, her course load is heavy; I had to wait for over a fortnight until she could manage to fit in the time for this interview. She brushes off the question.
‘Sometimes I read a lot, staying inside my room,’ she says. ‘When I go out and meet people, we end up talking for hours. Each of my friends on the campus is associated with some student organization or the other, so we always have lots to discuss.’
Whoever came up with the stereotype about millennials being selfish has not met Ravali. There seems to be no line between where her education ends and her efforts at changing the world begin.
‘All this politics, listening to debates, helps me with my studies, helps me understand the world around me,’ she says.
Ravali knows the barriers erected against Dalit communities in rural India. Her family live in a small town called Manthani in Karimnagar district, which is about six hours by car from Hyderabad. Ravali says that despite the thousands of children, there are only three high schools that teach in English there, and she had to travel outside town each day to attend an English-speaking missionary school.
The ability to speak English in a rapidly globalizing India is important, but access to English-language schools is often determined, in practice, by caste and class.
‘I have seen a few of my fellow [Dalit] students who struggle with English leave the university, feeling alienated,’ she says. ‘It is inevitable that they develop a complex. But I think it is important that we stay on and show that we are not inferior.’
We discuss the rat race for university places that seems to dominate the concerns of young Indians. Her analysis is astute: ‘The competitiveness is created by the market. Universities work like markets themselves, on a first-come, first-served basis. They tend to look at an elite family where the third-generation is entering higher education as equal to someone who is the first from their family to do so – using the individualistic politics of merit to justify this.’
Ravali reveals that she has a PhD on the horizon, but not for a while. ‘I need a break,’ she says, before adding, ‘but I’ve already selected my topic of research: protest music.’
On her plans for the near future, there is nothing definite. ‘I will be doing what I’m doing now,’ she says. ‘Countering caste and capitalism, both.’
Meena Kandasamy is a Chennai-born poet, activist and writer based in London. Her latest novel is When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (Atlantic Books, UK).