The death of Rohith Vemula brings us face to face with the horrible cruelty of caste and the absence of basic civic virtues – the kind of virtues that make us human and civilized. This explains the nationwide and spontaneous outpouring of grief, rage and anger at the tragic end of Rohith’s young and promising life. Of course, there were the Hindutva groups in league with the casteist university system (as the various news reports suggest) which made life suffocating for Rohith and other Ambedkarite students, but Rohith’s decision to end his life, as his farewell letter makes clear, was also dictated by the larger oppressive socio-academic circumstances that variously smother the life and dreams of millions of young Dalits. Many Dalit students have been forced to commit suicide in Indian universities in the recent years. More than 20 suicides in institutions like IITs and AIIMS in the last 10 years suggest that the institutional discrimination is rife against Dalits, especially in the higher centres of science, medicine and engineering.
The society that forces an impassioned lover of life to take his life is a sick society. Yes, Rohith Vemula was a lover of life and a science enthusiast. Right from his impoverished childhood, he waged a desperate but determined struggle for educating himself. In the recent years he combined his personal struggle with the larger social fight for equality and justice. With the encouragement of his gutsy mother who supported him by labouring and tailoring, he managed to clear two Junior Research Fellowships and then succeeded, against the terrible bureaucratic and brahmanic odds, in getting admission for his PhD research in Science Technology and Society Studies at Hyderabad Central University. This was a brilliant achievement for a first-generation student like Rohith, but he also had a range of other dreams he wanted to pursue.
Rohith’s unforgettable farewell letter and the bits and pieces of information (floating on the social media since his death) give us a glimpse into his incendiary mind and soul.
He was a brilliant student with stars in his eyes. He would look at the stars and dream of becoming a writer. “A writer of science, like Carl Sagan”, as he writes. He also talks about his love of nature and his love of people, but the people have separated themselves from nature and other people. His alienation from the hierarchical social relationships and his resentment at the humiliating identity (that was thrust upon him) find unmistakable expression when he writes, “… Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. … I was always rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident.”
This moving letter, in which he talks about his socially produced desolation and loneliness but refuses to name and shame his torturers who virtually forced him to end his life, shows the immense beauty of his soul. Full of deep allusions and metaphors, this letter will endure in our memory as an unparalleled prose-poem—a prose-poem that brings out devastating truths about our dehumanizing culture of caste, hierarchy and power.
Apparently, in his short life, Rohith had faced and suffered many cruel slings and arrows of life. Yet he had a wide range of social, cultural and intellectual engagements that tell us about his restless energy, incendiary intellect, and a passion for transformative politics.
Rohith had been associated with the leftist Students Federation of India (SFI), which he had to forsake because of ‘ill-treatment’ by his fellow comrades. Rohith had a problem with the brahmanical Left in India, not with Marx. Later, he joined the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), with which he remained deeply attached till the last. He was a staunch Ambedkarite, and was popular among ASA members.
He was an Ambedkarite and a Marxist. And he was keen to bring Muslim and Dalit students together to fight the oppressive forces of caste, class and communalism. He had participated in the protest against the controversial hanging of Yakub Menon last year. And he and his Ambedkarite associates incurred the wrath of the right-wing forces for supporting the film Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baqi Hai that exposes the sinister Hindutva politics. He had also participated in the beef festival last year. But his main fight was against the casteist mindset and brahmanical social order. His main target was injustice in all its forms.
For his subversive activities, he and his friends became the eyesore for Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP-RSS. The ABVP accused the ASA of “casteist and anti-national” activities, and alleged that they have brought a culture of violence in the university campus. After this, a faulty investigation found five ASA students, including Rohith, guilty of the assaulting an ABVP leader for which they were suspended by the university administration last year. Later, on the same trumped-up charges, they were barred from access to the public spaces in the campus and also thrown out of the hostel, and thus forced to live out in the open.
The Dalit students began protesting against their university suspension and expulsion from hostel. All of them were deeply traumatized. After his stipend was stopped in August 2015, Rohith’s poor family was struggling to support him. He had to borrow Rs 40,000 from a friend to make ends meet. All this took a heavy toll on his life, and he went into depression. His excruciating suffering can be gauged from an angry but poignant letter he wrote to the vice-chancellor in 2015, sarcastically asking him to provide nice ropes and euthanasia facilities for all the Dalit students. But instead of providing a helping hand to the tormented students, the university authorities continued their witch-hunt against them. It was under such oppressive circumstances that Rohith decided to end his life.
By not blaming anyone for causing his death, Rohith showed his astonishing magnanimity but this does not absolve those who directly or indirectly aggravated his melancholy and hopelessness. While the Hindutva forces and the university authorities directly harassed and hounded him and other Dalit scholars, all those who normalize the cruel discrimination of caste and brahmanic social order in everyday life have also played a part in Rohith’s death.
The expressed and unexpressed contents of Rohith Vemula’s farewell letter leave little doubt that he was in love with life, nature, science and humanity. But the oppressive social reality and the discriminatory university broke his spirit and snuffed him out in the prime of his life.
In his death, Rohith Vemula has left behind a grieving mother, a devastated family and a larger family of millions of grief-stricken Indians. In his farewell letter, he has left us with many hard questions. The questions that the empathetic and enraged Dalitbahujans, Leftists, Feminists and other like-minded activists should earnestly engage with in order to come together to fight a decisive battle against the ruling dark forces of caste, Brahmanism and Hindutva.
Published in the February 2016 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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