26 years old Rohith Vemula, who wanted to reach the stars, become a science writer like Carl Sagan, is no more today. Perhaps he wanted to reach the stars, because his life had been oppressed, abused and separated his mind from his body. He may not have thought that he would make the world quiver with his emptiness. Many do not know who this young man was, the aspiring author who could write only a suicide note in the end, as he himself said.
His emptiness straight away touched every life hidden behind masks, sugar or salt coated revolutions, biased ideologies, materialist concerns. He was not a big leader, who lived all his life for a country to mourn, he, and his views were not even known much to the outside world. He was just a young man who realised what is life, in a very short period of time, just after living only a quarter of it, something difficult for people who have lived even for a century to understand.
He was not just a scholar from a University, who rushed to finish degrees and to search for good income jobs. His dream was never to become a billionaire. He wanted to see a different world, in pursuit of which he shifted from Marxism to Ambedkarism. But he failed to understand these ‘isms’ were also caught up in ‘self images’. He was not a weak person to kill himself, there’s no evidence for that. Let’s be honest, ‘Killing’ or ‘Murder’ is not a suitable word for Rohithh, dammit!
This man loved even his death, while most people are not even ready to hear the word. His last words, “I am happy dead than being alive”. This is not a just sentence to think over, this is a sentence that should all of us to hang our heads in shame, I feel. He wrote his suicide note with passion, but proved what he was in spirit and letter by not complaining about anyone. How can anyone or a few persons be blamed for his death, though a couple of culprits were easily visible, based on little evidences? When this country with its narrow perspective is rotten to the core, reduced to worshipping cows and killing humans, killing people for honour — how can we expect an environment which is friendly for every human being, especially for those whose birth is a ‘fatal accident’ and a ‘curse’?
His suicide letter is not enough to understand who was Rohith Vemula? This emptied space which he left us isn’t really suffocating? Are we somewhere feeling guilty for his death, for our helplessness to give breathing space for such young, dynamic, talented, budding scientist. Rohith wanted to become a scientist. Yes, he was a scientist; many claim he was a philosopher but to me he was a scientist as well, with his quest for knowledge, questions to search and research upon. He left a lab with tools, he got the answer, and now it’s our turn to discover what it was.
Many who have not seen Rohith Vemula even once or heard about him are connecting themselves to his sudden disappearance, to his (half)done, (un)finished life. That silent exit pushed all of us into the fire, he became a wild fire that is spreading across the world now, crossing borders. When he was alive, an NRI friend Venkat Maroju organised a protest in front of Harvard, but after his death it happened in many parts of the world.
His death cut across all ideological lines. For me this is the bigger battle to win. Revolutionaries do not speak about caste but now irrespective of ideologies Rohith brought all of us onto one platform to speak about caste discrimination, especially in educational institutions. Except religious thugs, pseudo activists, and middle class people, everyone is coming on to the road to fight for justice for Rohith. So many articulations, creative writings are coming up on his name, describing his life and death. Now Rohith Vemula’s decision to empty his body, separate his mind from his body took a few hours or a couple of days to make. But that decision opened a Pandora’s Box, now he is questioning every stake holder who is part of the state, educational institutions, leaders and cadre in movements, his fellow students and learned silent spectators.
The State is busy using all the government machinery to disprove his caste identity, to escape the atrocity case filed against central ministers, local legislative member, other political party leaders and one or two upper caste teachers. This is not insignificant news. In front of his dead body, the protesters insisted on getting an FIR copy and our police did it within hours. That was Rohith; otherwise, it takes ages to file an atrocity case even against a small leader, leave alone a minister. We all know that in this great democracy, police stations, courts and jails are meant only for those who are fighting for rights, who come from marginalised communities, untouchables and minorities. But this young man, happily dead, compelled them to be brought into the people’s court. ManuSmriti Irani and startup fame Modi may get over this case through false reports and commissions but will they survive the people’s anger? The verdict has already been given by the sensible, responsible citizens of this country who believe this was a state murder in an educational institution.
I guess, he just started his journey into the politics he believed in. The basis for the shifting of ideologies, thoughts and politics was humanity, equality, fraternity, which we, Indians, sorry not Hindus , proudly claim in our constitution. WE are feeling guilty, he made everyone of us to feel guilty. Rohith Vemula, his unforgettable name and mysterious smile shall, perhaps, haunt us throughout our lives.
Who killed Rohith? Without any hesitation, I would say “All of us”. Our silence towards a monstrous, cancerous problem called ‘caste’ in this country. Why am I saying this? I was there with the students’ protest from the beginning. On the 7th day, they held a round table meeting, calling everyone to let them know why they are fighting, but very few organisations turned up, even those that turned up were those I had invited. From day one they were asking me to write about it, I wrote but unfortunately it was published after a week. By then they were tired.
‘Akka! Why is no media reporting it’, they asked. One or two channels reported briefly. The day before Rohith’s exit, I stood with them in the tent, talked to all bigwigs sitting along with them. I got funny answers for not coming, but I don’t want to discuss them here now. But by then, a round table meeting was announced. I had attended even that and again went back to HCU with a couple of organisations. As I arrived and settled to speak, we got a call that Rohith had hanged himself.
For a moment I thought, I heard it wrong. I saw students had been flocking towards the NRS Hostel, like they were taking part in a running race. Later I came to know it was room no: 207. I myself ran so fast after so many years…I can still feel those moments of tension. When I was approaching the hostel, I could hear sounds of breaking or bashing doors, screaming and big cries. I was still hoping and rushed to the room..he was lying on the bed, or maybe, he was kept on the bed. I was asking them to check his pulse, maybe we can save him. They said sorry, he was no more! What? I shouted. Yes! He was no more! Within no time, the university doctor came and said, it was more than 6 hours! Lost hopes..My young comrade/Bhimrade was no more.
Why I am narrating this painful picture to you all, because this is all due to the silence of ours. We, the great comrades, revolutionaries and activists comfortably can speak about things which are not visible practically, like Imperialism, Iraq War, Capitalism etc. Endlessly we speak and we write. There we don’t see which caste person is speaking and of what class, it is considered as universal. But in India the caste ghost is so huge that it cuts across all ideologies. Caste is capital here, it is feudal as well, it is investment and it is labour, it is production. We don’t understand this, but what we learnt from Russia or China is considered the final word. Perhaps if we had spoken about it from day one of their protest, they would have gained strength. Rohith perhaps, would have tried to connect his body to his mind and people. They wanted media’s attention when they sat in protest, they were not there, but when he left, you name the media, it was there. You name the leaders; they were there now in queues.
Does this convey that only a death can move all of us? Only an exit gives an entry for many leaders to play politics? Only bloodshed will give way to speak of revolution? Did Rohith expect this, that only his death can move the media, leaders and the world? Don’t we know that this is a failed democracy and in this country, people are punished for their birth which is not in their hands? Then why don’t we speak? Why do Tsundur, Karamchedu, Laxmipeta, Khairlanji and others not get justice until today? Yes, our silence killed Rohith! My statement as a teacher, my declaration today is that our educational institutions have become, in their own words, “Casteist’, ‘Hindu extremist’ and ‘Pro-Hindu hubs’. They kill when we are alive and they kill even after death by dissecting our life, inch by inch.
If Rohith had a tag of Reddy, Rao, Sharma or Shastri, by now we would have got volumes of literature and see stupas around the world perhaps. But still Rohith Vemula, at this critical juncture, where India is seeping into dangerous politics, stirred politics. The entire world is thinking about how to democratise institutions, how to give space for everyone to live, leave emptiness, connect body and mind. Rohith Vemula is not a just name, now it is the mantra of the day, which everyone can chant without any caste, creed and religion. The real tribute to him is to do nothing but ‘speak’ injustices, discrimination in the name of caste, class, gender and religion.
Sujatha Surepally teaches at Satavahana University, Karimnagar, and blogs at www.surepally.wordpress.com