On January 17, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad, was found dead — having committed suicide by hanging himself with a poster of the student group he headed. Rohith was the leader of the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA) and a strong political voice on campus — and he was a Dalit.
Dalits — officially described as a Scheduled Caste — are a group of people who have been discriminated against historically under the Hindu caste system. Although after independence, the concept of “untouchability” was officially abolished, Dalits continue to suffer prejudice, injustice and resentment. These feelings stem not only from casteist Hindus but also those who view the reservation of positions in government and at educational institutions for Dalits as unfair — very much like those who view affirmative action as reverse racism in America.
The circumstances around Rohith’s suicide are being contested even as I write this, but a few dominant narratives are emerging. They all have in common that fact that in December, Rohith and four of his friends, all members of the ASA, were suspended. The charge against them was that they had attacked the head of a rival student political group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — and even though they were found innocent in an initial inquiry, the decision was reversed in December.
The altercation between the ABVP leader, Susheel Kumar, and the ASA members is still of uncertain origin. Some say ABVP members tried to oppose the ASA’s protest of the death penalty for Yakub Menon, a terrorist who carried out attacks in Bombay in 2007, and got into a fight there. Another story goes that the altercation occurred when the ABVP protested the screening of the movie “Muzaffarnagar Abhi Baki Hai,” a movie about rioting that affected the Muslim minority — which took place under the governance of the BJP, the ruling party in India.
Another fact is that a BJP Union Labor Minister, Bandaru Dattatreya, wrote a letter calling Rohith Vemula’s actions “anti-nationalist” and “casteist” on August 17, 12 days after the initial inquiry set up by the university. The office of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) then sent five reminders to the University of Hyderabad seeking a reply to this letter.
Although the HRD Ministry denies that it exerted pressure on the university to suspend these five Dalit students, it is undeniable that they acted in favor of the ABVP, the rival group opposing Rohith. And here another contention arises — some say the ABVP is the student wing of the BJP, while others say it is really the student wing of the more extreme RSS.
The BJP, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, won the elections after sweeping the country in what has been called the “Modi wave.” His popularity is only tempered by the various accusations by liberals that he is a right-wing extremist — accusations that gain strength from the brutal Gujarat riots of 2002 that happened under his governance and his origins and continued existence as a member of the RSS. The RSS is a right-wing Hindu nationalist group that promotes a “cultural” agenda it calls Hindutva — based on Hindu culture. As it states on its website, “Expressed in the simplest terms, the ideal of the [RSS] is to carry the nation to the pinnacle of glory through organizing the entire society and ensuring the protection of Hindu Dharma.”
Dharma is a hard word to translate, but it refers to a Hindu system of law and the individual fulfilling his/her obligations in that system, and it is inextricably linked with the caste system that depends on individuals to fulfill their positions in society as defined by their families. The caste system stems from an old story of the god Brahma written in the Rig Veda. According to the story, people were manifested from different parts of his body — priests and teachers from his forehead or mouth, kshatriyas (warriors and rulers) from his arms, traders from his thighs and so on. Dalits, or harijans as they used to be called, were storied to come from Brahma’s feet — as the dust on them. From this was justified a system of “untouchability” — the idea that even touching the shadow of a Dalit pollutes a Hindu of higher caste.
At the University of Hyderabad, there have been 10 suicides — nine of which were Dalits. And yet — it is the death of Rohith Vemula that stirred the nation and evoked a petition from professors from universities around the world, including Stanford, demanding justice. It is easy to understand why: In Rohith and his friend’s suspensions, in their physical exclusion from spaces rings the psychological effect of segregation, the heritage of casteism — the same story repeated through time of “you don’t belong here, you are not us, you are something lower.” It also points to something deeply troubling — that of government involvement in an independent university, on behalf of a casteist group.
But perhaps the strongest motivator for this outpouring of sympathy and indignation is the suicide letter Rohith left the world with — and the eloquence and anguish that ring through it. In one part he writes, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”
There is a dichotomy that seems sacred — between the individual and the political — between a personal and a social identity. But for Dalits — and for other people discriminated against for things as arbitrary as race or ethnicity or gender — it is immensely difficult to disentangle identity from politics.
Amartya Sen, in his book “Identity and Violence,” speaks of multiple identities — the idea that I exist not only as a woman but also as an Indian and a fan of the Bachelor. He then moves to explain how violence forces us to assume only one of these identities — even if that isn’t how we choose to view ourselves. Like a man in Nazi Germany who becomes first a Jew, or a woman in 1850s America who becomes first a slave or a child shivering in a camp who becomes first an immigrant.
In that vein, violence can simply be naming, and that naming becomes a theft — it steals our most basic right of telling our own story and defining ourselves on our own terms. When the world views you on its own terms, you are forced to define yourself by or against it — and fighting to remain independent of those politics is a fight in and of itself.
And in Rohith Vemula’s life and death is the perfect articulation of that theft.
Which is why, when I started reading about Rohith, every reference to his caste made me cringe. Here was a man who died because the world couldn’t see him outside of his caste, and yet here we are, after his death, doing the very same thing.
But Rohith Vemula’s death, for all its particulars, is prompting a reckoning in India — a reckoning of the place of caste in our lives. And the paradox of addressing pressing and sustained issues like casteism is that to make people care about the issue, it needs a face. And yet that face is inevitably human — and therefore a person who is being claimed by people for their own cause. In that, there is the constant danger, and the realization of that danger, of misusing Rohith’s words, of assigning to him a hero status that is too simplistic.
Rohith wrote in his suicide note, “Do not trouble my friends or my enemies,” and yet a case was filed against Dattatreya, the BJP is being attacked and everyone associated with Rohith or the ASA is being hounded down for interviews by major media outlets.
Does that mean we are overstepping — that we are claiming his body, already engraved with a history of theft — to advance our own agendas?
Afterall, Rohith Vemula’s death is no longer his — in the public domain, his death is to Indians a sign of casteism, institutionalized murder, government interference in universities and extremist right-wing nationalism.
Rohith Vemula, by his own choice or by his circumstances or his eloquent prose, is now the face for the fight against caste discrimination in India.
I don’t want to claim Rohith Vemula’s body for my cause or speak for him. But I do think there are very few moments in our lives when our conscience is upheaved by a social issue — and what a million deaths and years of suffering couldn’t do, Rohith’s sacrifice may be able to do.
And it is not just because of his death — Rohith Vemula inspires because of the force of the life that preceded his death. Rohith asked so little of the system — he did not even ask for the reserved seat available to the Scheduled Castes in his university. All he asked for was to be treated as an individual, not just a Dalit. And even in that basic right, the system failed him. It pushed this man, who wanted to be the “Carl Sagan of India,” who dreamt of touching the stars, into the realm of identity politics by refusing to see him as human. And until his last days, he fought the fight he was forced into by an accident of birth.
B.R Ambedakar — a Dalit man educated at Bombay University, Columbia University and the London School of Economics — was the first law minister of independent India and the architect of its constitution. He fought for the rights of Dalits in free India — and today, that fight continues in his name with organizations like the ASA. And in that fight, countless lay down their lives, because as Ambedkar writes, “Life should be great rather than long” — and for too many young Dalits, greatness in life is full of opposition.
Assigning our own meaning to Rohith’s death and making Rohith an icon does not reduce the terrible nature of what happened — but what has been a fruitless struggle for so many Dalits for so many years could finally, through Rohith’s words and all the meanings we find in them — find fruition.
I think it takes a lot to make people care — and people care about Rohith. And we desperately need that upheaval of our conscience that Rohith’s death sparked. So, even if it is uncomfortable, we must stand witness to his death, to pay attention to the question it asks, that why couldn’t this man be who he wanted to be? — why was he reduced to an identity assigned due to an accident of birth? If we do not view his death as a consequence of the life he lived, we will be failing him yet again. So yes, Rohith Vemula’s death is political, and yes, it is about caste, and to free people from that same label of caste, we have to remember him by his. Even if that means that Rohith, even in his death, will have Dalit affixed to his name.
Rohith spoke his final words with a force that shook people all over the world. Hopefully, it will also shatter the silence surrounding this issue — so that finally, Dalit voices can be heard, and heard in solidarity and with respect from those of us who have lived so comfortably with silence.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.