The importance of being Rohith Vemula

There is something worse than nudging a young man of promise towards suicide. It is the depravity of fudging its meaning, the mockery of casting the dead into a coffin of falsehood. So, Rohith Vemula is reconfigured as a victim of clinical depression. Depression is not such a bad thing. Deepika Padukone too admits, after all, to being depressed on and off. Rohith’s mother should be grateful, no? 

Are we such poor readers that we can't even get a suicide note all right? Suicide is the most unambiguous statement in the world. And yet, we don’t seem unable to read the ‘suicide note’ in the dark-light of the ‘suicide’ it corresponds to, and its familiar-yet-bizarre context.

“Please serve 10 mg of Sodium Azide to all Dalit students at the time of admission with the direction to use it when they feel like reading Ambedkar.” Surely, a sentence burdened with depression. “And supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students.” Yet another sting of depression. Granted.

Who but cretins will argue that Rohith was not depressed? The question to ask is not if he was depressed at the time of taking his life. Of course, he was not amused while putting the noose around his neck!

The question to ask is, “Was he dep-ressed as Deepika Padukone is depressed? There is no difference — you really think? — between celebrity depression and Dalit depression?”
The clue to the meaning of Rohith’s suicide (including the suicide note) is in the words, “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” These words burn me more than the sight of a body dangling from a ceiling fan.

Can a human being be more brutally candid than telling you that his death is prefigured in his birth: that Dalit birth is de facto death? Do we want the curse of being born “Dalit” put more chillingly than this?

Caste is the minefield in which birth becomes a “fatal accident”. The Hyderabad Central University, its vice chancellor, the feisty human resource development minister, the entire education system, the total scheme of things where Dalits are allowed only a token, shadowy presence are the dark clouds hovering over every drop of blood that Rohith’s mother shed in giving birth to her child of promise. In his Dalit birth was his death, the wrenching apart of his body from his being.

The university is but a small part of the much larger purgatory for the Dalits. If even a rudimentary notion had held ground that Dalits, too, are human beings, Rohith’s stipend would not have stopped arbitrarily for seven months. There is a harsh, murderous reality that the suicide of this hypersensitive, extremely promising young man highlights. What is that reality?

Society, all through human history, has been divided unequally into two blocs. There is the privileged class-caste-minority, known in different societies by diverse names. Dronacharyas school them in skilled violence. There is the underprivileged, degraded majority: the Ekalavyas of a society. 

The ‘elite’ or the ‘leisure class’ have several distinctive features, one of which is the latent entitlement to oppress (Forget not Ekalavya’s severed, bleeding thumb). If an oligarch defrauds a national bank of hundreds of crores, it is called, “non-performing assets.” If a farmer, on the other hand, defaults to the tune of a few thousand rupees, he has no option but to “perform” suicide (A case of “farmer depression,” so it is ok.)

Rule of law
Now, in this day of democracy and rule of law, the elite do not hunt animals. They hound helpless human beings. “Dalits” are a safe game. If you don’t know how exhilarating it is to play cat-and-mouse with them, you are a dude.

When Rohith Vemula writes, “Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than alive. ‘From shadows to the stars’. Bye...” he is light years ahead of you and me in exposing this reality. The crocodile tears we shed for him are like acid rain on the roof of his ultimate statement — “I cannot take it any more”. That is why he pleads for measured doses of Sodium Azide to be supplied free.

Many Dalits like him cannot afford it. So it needs to be supplied by the vice chancellor, who, like a cheerful hunter cuts off Rohith’s lifeline with routine nonchalance and is, perhaps, congratulated by his cabals. Can even a Dalit student survive on air for more than seven months, what do you think? Not even this vice chancellor’s mongrel can. And many seem surprised that Rohith was “depressed!”

Those who are familiar with the rudiments of social history will know that violence punctuates the grammar of being elite. War, for instance, is an elite game. So is corruption, which is institutionalised violence. So is communalism, caste oppression and intolerance. Power is a paltry thing if it cannot hurt and humiliate. The more vulnerable the victim, the greater the exhilaration of hunting him.

But, stop a minute. Let us not explain Rohith’s way just like that. The matchless merit of his suicide note —the haunting power and nobility of its style and sentiments — are like the ruddiness that fires the east, foreboding the dawn of a new era. From my four-decades long experience in academia, I can vouch for this: a silent revolution is under way. Merit is rising, Phoenix-like, out of the ashes of Dalit degradation. 

The elite has begun to lose out “on merit.” I challenge one out of a million children of privilege to write a piece like Rohith’s suicide note. Rohith may have committed suicide. But he may not be dead yet.

I am pretty sure he is not. You will see him at large on the subcontinent, stalking the faltering steps of the oppressors, in the years to come. Souls like that of Rohith Vemula’s don’t wither away.

(The writer is Principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi. Views are personal)

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