Kids at work: a Dalit activist in India

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Kids at work: a Dalit activist in India

What is life really like for millennials? What do they think about their uncertain futures? Meena Kandasamy writes about Ravali Medari, a Dalit student activist.


‘People don’t like Dalits talking about the truth,’ says Ravali Medari, a student activist at the University of Hyderabad.

Ravali Medari is different now. She was a quiet teenager and her elder brother had to fill out her university application form for her. Now she is a strong student activist. ‘I am very different from when I first came here three years ago,’ she says.

University in India is hard work, and the studying, competition, and stress are too much for many students. 22-year-old Ravali has done all of these and at the same time started a revolution. She is studying for a Master’s degree in anthropology the University of Hyderabad, which after the past two years is now the centre of a student revolt.

The university was in the national headlines for many months after the death of Rohith Vemula, a young Dalit PhD student. He took his own life on 17 January 2016. Rohith’s suicide started a reaction all over India about freedom of expression, state repression, and caste inequality.

He and four other Dalit students spoke against rightwing Hindu extremism. The university suspended the students, took away their accommodation, and stopped Vemula’s monthly money.

Dalits are the lowest in the Indian caste system and find discrimination in all areas of life. The university’s action with Rohith and his friends was more caste discrimination. It shamed them publicly and it planned to stop them.

Ravali is also a Dalit and remembers it clearly. Vemula’s very sad suicide note was in newspapers across the country and it led her to taking political action. ‘I think that the message of Rohith was that we should speak for ourselves,’ she says. ‘It was a letter for his right to live.’

Ravali was at the centre of the protests which shut the university with police and armed paramilitaries on the big green campus. She is a star singer and actor in a progressive theatre group, and her strong speeches made people listen.

‘People don’t like Dalits speaking the truth,’ Ravali says. ‘The university showed discrimination. With all the police on the campus, yes, they were trying to scare us. But that’s because they are scared of us. That’s why they try to stop our rights.’

At first she was vice-president of the Marxist group Students’ Federation of India at the university. But the caste problem led her to join the Ambedkar Students Association to which Rohith Vemula belonged. It was named after the revolutionary Dalit leader, Ambedkar, from the time of Indian independence.

A picture of Dr Ambedkar is the only thing on the walls of her student room, I ask Ravali how she is an activist and a student at the same time. Like most students at university in India, she has a lot of work. I waited for over two weeks for her to have time to see me for this interview.

‘Sometimes I read a lot, and I stay inside my room,’ she says. ‘When I go out and meet people, we always talk for hours. All of my friends on the campus are in a student organisation, so we always have lots to talk about.’

‘All this politics, listening to debates, helps me with my studies, helps me understand the world around me,’ she says.

Ravali knows the problems for the Dalits in rural India. Her family live in a small town called Manthani in Karimnagar district. It is about six hours by car from Hyderabad. Ravali says that there are thousands of children there but only three high schools that teach in English. She had to travel outside town each day to go to an English-speaking school.

English in a fast growing, globalizing India is important, but often your caste or your class decide if you will go to an English-language school.

‘A few of our Dalit students find English difficult and leave the university. They feel like outsiders,’ she says. ‘Of course, it is a problem for them. But I think it is important that we stay on and show that we are not inferior.’

We talk about the strong competition for university places that is a problem for young Indians. She says: ‘The competition comes from the market. Universities work like markets.’

Ravali says she wants to do a PhD but not yet. ‘I need a break,’ she says, ‘but I’ve already chosen the topic of research: protest music.’

There is nothing certain about her plans for the near future. ‘I will do what I’m doing now,’ she says. ‘Working against caste and capitalism.’

Meena Kandasamy is a poet from Chennai, and an activist and writer in London. Her latest novel is When I Hit You: Or, The Portrait of the Writer As A Young Wife (Atlantic Books, UK).


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).