In India, like elsewhere, the university is a place of upward mobility. It is also the tense meeting ground of social difference; of young people across caste, gender, religious, and sexual identities who encounter each other in the space of the classroom, where the divide between urban and rural, between English and the regional languages, and between those from radically different family backgrounds is acute, and agonistic. It is a space of relative freedom where young people can meet across boundaries in an otherwise deeply regulated, hierarchical social order. Debates over affirmative action, especially access to education, have been contentious and ongoing since the government decided in 1990 to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report. The entry of Dalits (ex-untouchables) into the university has been particularly fraught: Claims for mass education and the right to self-representation have been key sites of struggle in a social order that is predicated on the divide between intellectual and manual labor, between “thinking” and “doing.” The presence of outcaste subjects as emancipated Dalits thus takes on a special relevance: their presence as scholars and thinkers effects a key transformation of the public sphere, and alters the symbolic economy of caste.
Universities have not taken kindly to this transformation. Dalit students have been subject to routine social violence, which is typically ignored except when it has ended in their self-sacrifice. A report by concerned university teachers of the University of Hyderabad mentions no less than nine reported Dalit suicides between 2001 and 2013 as a consequence of the discrimination Dalit students face. The absence of robust mechanisms to protect students at risk, together with a contemporary political culture of aggressive Hinduization and cultural intolerance has now claimed its latest victim, Rohith Vemula.
Dalit doctoral student Rohith Vemula died by suicide on Sunday, January 17, 2016 in Hyderabad. His death followed a period of extended conflict between campus student groups over political censorship and evidence of state interference in disciplining Rohith and his comrades, all of which appears to have been animated and exacerbated by the caste identity of the students. Described as an instance of “institutional murder,” Rohith’s death has exposed a long record of discrimination against Dalit students, and confirms that caste prejudice is ongoing. Rohith’s suicide note has stunned the nation, and his death has incited mass revolt on college campuses across India. If the university has been a key emancipatory site for Dalits, Rohith’s death illuminates both the radical force and the accompanying violence that is attached to the simple demand for a right to education.
The events leading to Rohith’s suicide date back to July 2015, and reflect ongoing conflict between Dalit student politics, predicated on demands for self-respect and equality, and intolerance of progressive politics on college campuses across India. Twenty-five year old Rohith was a science student at the Central University of Hyderabad, and a member of the Ambedkar Students Association. In addition to fighting for the rights of Dalit students on campus, the ASA protested capital punishment, and challenged efforts to censor a film screening about murderous attacks on Muslims in the north Indian town of Muzaffarnagar in 2013. An altercation with members of the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), the student wing of Hindu nationalist forces, including an alleged attack on one of its members, followed. Similar conflicts between the ABVP and progressive student groups, especially those committed to anticaste traditions of radical equality, have taken place across college campuses. For instance, members of the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle at the prestigious IIT Madras (IIT-M) also faced harassment and political intimidation by campus authorities in the summer of 2015. Ambedkarites’ commitment to constitutional equality is at odds with Hindu nationalists’ doublespeak regarding their investment in upholding caste hierarchy, while paying lip service to an anemic concept of social inclusion: hence the agonism between the student groups.
Rohith and four ASA activists were suspended after an inquiry by university authorities. It is now clear that the ABVP brought political pressure to bear on the case through the Union Minister of State for Labor, and BJP leader, Bandaru Dattatreya, who wrote to the Human Resource Ministry (central government) in August to urge action against the ASA students. Dattatreya alleged, “Hyderabad University … has in the recent past, become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics.” The ASA students were merely exercising their constitutional right to question the status quo, and to extend political solidarity to movements for civil and minority rights. Still, the desire to discipline Ambedkar Students Association apparently went so deep, and the autonomy of the university meant so little, as to require the intervention of the political party in power, the BJP, at the highest echelons.
The ASA activists were allowed to attend class but barred from public spaces on campus, such as the library and the cafeteria, and their stipends were withheld. (Social boycott has strong resonance with earlier practices of caste excommunication, when Dalits were forbidden from using public amenities. It is entirely possible that the ASA activists perceived this as passive outcasting from the student body.) On January 3, authorities evicted the five students with their things—a portrait of Ambedkar, sheets and mattresses, a steel box. Rohith and his friends stayed in a tent erected inside the college campus, which they named Veli Veda (Dalit ghetto), Shortly after, on January 17, Rohith hanged himself from a ceiling fan in a hostel room. He apologizes in his suicide note for using a friend’s room for that purpose: “Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.” (Anna, literally elder brother)
The local BJP leader and the Vice-Chancellor of Hyderabad University have both been booked for abetting Rohith’s suicide. In the meantime, the political machine has kicked into action, and the BJP has further distinguished itself through a multipronged smear campaign.
Let us begin with the end of Rohith’s stunning note: A legal statement of self-responsibility:
I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.
Yet the “formalities” that aim to preempt a criminal investigation and criminal charges against anyone for murder or abetting suicide, and that are self-consciously ventriloquized in the suicide note, are less a counterpoint to the political nature of the suicide than a moment in the latter that consigns Rohith’s case to a higher court. What will have taken place with his death is not a matter for the criminal justice system. It requires recognition by the historical justice system.
What Rohith wrote above the postscript to his note is even more devastating. It implicates the social order that has excluded him, and prevented the dreams of this radical humanist. He notes that he had always wanted to be a science writer, “like Carl Sagan,” but that his suicide note is “the only letter I am getting to write.” He mourns the fact that “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. … Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”
Rohith was deeply sensitive to the cruelty of an order that predicates life on the accident of birth
Anguished by the artifice of his fellow travelers, Rohith is also reminded of his dependence, and the dependence of others on him. Rohith had tried to supplement the wage his mother earned as a tailor with his student stipend. And so Rohith notes that the financial wellbeing of his family now depends on his Junior Research Fellowship: “I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that.” Rohith also mentions the importance of an unpaid loan, which he recalls while dying: “I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.” We do not know the details behind the debt, but we do know about the cycle of giving among Dalit families: Educated Dalits hold study circles for their juniors, urban families take in impoverished students so that they can get an education, and people pool their resources to educate bright youngsters because they are a community asset and collective pride. Education is a debt incapable of return: It can only be carried forward to new generations who must be encouraged to see themselves as “glorious,” as “made of stardust.” Perhaps Rohith’s focus on dreaming, his persistent claim on the right to think (and dream) as a force that transcends the material fact of dependence and destitution, is what most alarmed his detractors. The Ambedkar Students Association drew on the radical anticaste tradition inaugurated by thinkers like Jotirao Phule, Periyar, and, most of all, B. R. Ambedkar, who prioritized intellectual emancipation as the key to challenging the dehumanizing order of caste.
Rohith was deeply sensitive to the cruelty of an order that predicates life on the accident of birth. His was the dependence of an impoverished student on his stipend, but he also exceeded it: The dependence was predicated on his birth. Rohith writes, “My birth is my fatal accident,” and speaks about an existential loneliness that has been with him from childhood. All birth is accidental, yet the inequality of caste intervenes, and structures the arc of your life on the accident of birth. In caste society, for Dalits, merely living could be fatal. To annihilate caste and exit its suffocating confines is to experience rebirth. In the anticaste tradition the rebirth is radical because it indicts the violence of caste: To become Dalit (literally “ground down,” “crushed,” “broken”) is to claim the name of a primal wound and make it yours, and thus humanize yourself. If this is a difficult journey for Rohith and his comrades, it is an even more painful journey for those who inherit caste privilege, its beneficiaries: We are asked to occupy that impossible space between history and responsibility.
Rohith’s absence of anger—as he outlines the many ways that his dreaming was already foreclosed well before he contemplated ending his life—is remarkable in this regard. “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself.” It is as if this young philosopher has let go, and arrived at a moment of detachment that resembles that last great act of Ambedkar’s own life: his Buddhist conversion. It is said that the tenor of Ambedkar’s last text, The Buddha and His Dhamma, which was written just before his death in 1956 and published posthumously, “… registers [Ambedkar’s] experience of tiredness with the social science mode of reasoning. … By giving up a certain kind of language I believe he was giving up the system that gave birth to it.” Here letting go is not a “giving up” so much as it is a “traveling over” to a new way of making sense of the world, and one’s place in it. The ethical comportment of the New Buddhist is predicated on the exit from Hinduism, “a religion of rules,” into a world of principle. Of course it is possible to overstate the analogy between conversion and annihilation, between coming into Buddhism and choosing social exit from a despairing world. Yet we must surely take seriously the remarkable words of a young man who writes, “If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.”
The decision to end life is unknowable, even when the social diagnostic surrounding suicide appears to provide compelling cause, or a sympathetic reading of voluntary death. What we do know is that Rohith’s exit was final, and thus more shocking and powerful than the social deaths Dalit students suffer daily on their campuses. There could be value in noticing an empathetic affinity between Rohith’s note and the other notes, written and unwritten, of hope and despair: Walter Benjamin’s suicide when he was unable to cross the border checkposts between occupied France and Spain in 1940, or Paul Celan drowning himself in the Seine in 1970, each weary and desolate about being Jewish in a postwar Europe haunted by the Holocaust. And then there are the many ordinary suicides, deaths of despair, which lack the publicity of those other, more famous deaths.
In the archive of Dalit political culture the example of Vilas Ghogre is perhaps most proximate, and powerful. He is at the center of a documentary by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, Jai Bhim Comrade, which pays homage to Dalit martyrs, both known and unknown.The focal point of the film, however, is shahir (balladeer) Vilas Ghogre, of the Avhan Natya Manch, the cultural front of a Marxist-Leninist organization, who was humiliated by lifelong poverty and later expelled from the party for his “left deviation.” Ghogre committed suicide in 1997 to protest police firing on innocent Dalits in Mumbai’s slum colony of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar.
Patwardhan’s film begins with a scene of stark bodies lifting waste at the Mulund garbage dump (Mumbai), a major site of Dalit activism where Ghogre’s musical talents were first discovered. The film then takes us on a tour of subaltern urbanity through places of waste, refuse, and informalized existence, for these are the places from which the organic intellectuals of the Dalit movement emerged. Dalit critique emerges in the film as sound, and especially as song: Jai Bhim Comrade traces the musical traditions of tamasha and jalsa, Ambedkari geet (songs commemorating Ambedkar), Ghogre’s own performances, and those of the recently banned Kabir Kala Manch. Indeed, the film begins where Patwardhan’s earlier film on urban demolitions ends, with the unforgettable voice of Vilas Ghogre, who sings about state violence and caste dispossession.
When he died, Ghogre chalked his suicide note on the wall of his zhopadi (shanty) like graffiti, that quintessentially urban form of subaltern speech: “I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity. Shahir Vilas Ghogre.”
Rohith’s note leaves us between viewing his death as a political act—essential if we are to produce a model of responsibility that is attentive to the historical violence of caste—and his careful effort to mark his own actions as a form of self-erasure that is both quiet and introspective. It is we who need the courage to knit together his political self and the utopia he imagined with his radical letting go.
Like Ghogre, Rohith ends his note with a salute to Ambedkar: For one last time, Jai Bheem. This is Ambedkar the reluctant founding father, who chaired the committee tasked with drafting the Indian Constitution, but who was not above rejecting the document he had birthed: “I am quite prepared to say that I shall be the first person to burn the [Constitution]. I do not want it. It does not suit anybody. If our people want to carry on, they must remember that the majorities cannot ignore the minorities by saying: ‘Oh no, to recognize you is to harm democracy.’” This is Ambedkar who stands at the threshold of a new order. He faces the future, but even his greatest efforts are haunted by the past. Rohith’s note reminds us that there can be no prescription for how we are to reckon with that past. But transcend it we must.