A Year of Rohith Vemula:Of Dissent, Of Reclaiming Self, Of Rejecting Victimhood

January 17, 2017, 4:00 pm
A Year of Rohith Vemula:Of Dissent, Of Reclaiming
Self, Of Rejecting Victimhood
A Year of Rohith Vemula:Of Dissent, Of Reclaiming
Self, Of Rejecting Victimhood

A Year of Rohith Vemula:Of Dissent, Of Reclaiming Self, Of Rejecting Victimhood

For Vincent Vangogh

“Sunflowers truly are

The self-expression of your


But, brother

You’ve forgotten to paint

One of the colours of the sun!” –Namdeo Dhasal.

They didn’t let Him Say what he wanted to Say!

Today it has became a year after Rohith Vemula committed suicide due to institutional torture by the BJP government. The major gathering space of University of Hyderabad, the shopping complex became the immediate shelter for the five Dalit students including Rohith who got suspended after a false case was filed upon them by an ABVP leader Sushil Kumar. Thus the space was named ‘Velivada’, meaning Dalit Ghetto. University of Hyderabad’s shopping complex is Velivada now, it is no more the ‘shopping complex’ where students chat over chai! The tent they built out of flex boards with printed images of Dr. Ambedkar, Buddha, Savitri Phule, Jyotiba Phule, Ayyankali, Periyar etc. is still intact, surviving several attempts of demolition by the University administration.

Pic Courtesy Dalit Camera 
Pic Courtesy Dalit Camera 

Rohith, with his rebellious grammar, spoke against many things openly, invited open criticisms and believed in dialogue. Rohith had firm belief in rationality, in science. He wrote: “in schools and even in universities science is taught like the lectures of a dead white man. Science is lively, fun, evergreen and beautiful.” But the very way he was treated by people who also believed in science and rationality never chose to stay away from practicing caste. The following is an abstract for a paper presentation, ‘Discovering Caste Prejudices in Science Laboratories: Unheard Narratives’ which Rohith had submitted to his department, clearly shows how caste prejudice worked even inside science laboratories in university spaces.

“Ideally, science laboratories are seen as rational, non-stigmatic avenues of research. Basic sciences, especially Life Sciences and Chemistry in HCU are considered as best research spaces in india. But these same spaces also have an untouched side of reproduction of caste inequalities. The rampant effect of caste relations inside HCU campus with specific to practices in science laboratories define the interpersonal relationships of the students. An amicable alliance between faculty members and the authority of these groups is largely driven by caste nexus. The inter play of Caste, Religion, Region and Gender are major determinant factors which affects the political structures of both laboratory space and classroom. Students and faculty who come from dominant sections consciously or unconsciously become major actors in maintaining this subtle hierarchy. Starting from the “star” mark in results notification, till the share in career/future opportunities, reserve category students face various forms of exclusiveness/humiliation in these spaces. The lack of social capital in research institutes across the nation and abroad, non-dominant caste students are forced to depend heavily on the mercy of their professors, who were in turn the perpetrators of these hierarchies. Sometimes, this form of discrimination is invisible and it is unintelligible. This paper mainly attempts to map this hidden caste nexus in formation of relationships and the impact of identity on ‘consensus building’ through my four years lived experiences in Life Sciences School. This paper also tries to reflect on the reproduction of inequalities in higher education spaces.”

This abstract was not selected for the seminar. Later after his suicide Professor Chinnaiyan Lakshmanan let this out. On January 17th, this enthusiastic science student and booming writer got added to the long list of Dalit students who committed suicide in the university, mostly PhD scholars, due to humiliation and negligence.

In front of interview panels of Brahminical professors whose hostility reminds one of firing squads, how does a student hold his or her own? These professors, who on the one hand might have mastered nuclear physics, but on the other hand cradle their dearest caste prejudices, represent only one dimension of the problem of caste terrorism in academia. When combined with right-wing political student groupings like the ABVP, it reaches a deadly high.
Meena Kandasamy, Author

For Rohith, following Dr.Ambedkar wasn’t ‘doing identity politics’, he calls it ‘struggle for recognition ’. For him it was keeping oneself away from victimhood, an urge to attain better life. He wasn’t a pessimist, though he lived his end years in dystopia. Rohith was disillusioned by the flaws of the Indian mainstream left, and its inability to understand the flaws of current social order which is built upon caste. He believed that without understanding and undoing caste, no social revolution is possible. Ambedkar too had written about how political reform is impossible without social reform, in his Annihilation of Caste. Being a staunch critic of the Indian left, Rohith reacted with much furor to Sitaram Yechuri in a facebook post after he addressed students in University on a lecture and demanded reservation in the private sector for lower caste people. Rohith asked a significant question, why CPI(M) hasn’t had a single Dalit politburo member in 51 years. He wrote: “I hope comrades would have at least a session dedicated to understand what Marx meant when he borrowed the sentence ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. It is a deliberate, immodest blunder from the Left side for remaining blind to the need of Dalit leaders in Indian society.”

As the self proclaimed saviour of the oppressed, the Indian left has shown utter indifference to the question of caste and patriarchy. It never addressed nuances that could split ‘class unity’. Caste could only distract class unity. Indian communist and theorist, and Kerala’s first Chief Minister, in his book Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi(1948) wrote: “Caste is the greatest contribution from Arya Brahmins, not just for Kerala, but for the whole country. Caste system has a very significant role in India’s social growth. It is only after the categorization of occupation on the basis of caste, agriculture, other manual labours, trade, art, literature and weaponry got flourished. Kerala has become a lunatic asylum because of caste system, but needless to say, without caste system, Kerala’s rich culture wouldn’t have evolved like this.” Later, in the preface to the fourth impression of this work, EMS wrote: “the result of this caste system is the emergence of the recognizable developmental political force is that of avarna Hindus or non-Hindus. And the savarna hindu force is regressive.”

And B R Ambedkar wrote in his Annihilation of Caste: “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation, you cannot build up a morality. Anything that you will build on the foundations of caste will crack, and will never be a whole.” And he wrote caste dumped generations into eternal servitude. “On account of the caste system they could receive no education. They couldn’t think out or know the way to their salvation. They were condemned to be lowly and not knowing the way of escape and not having the means of escape, they became reconciled to eternal servitude which they accepted as their inescapable fate.” Ambedkar calls the caste system not mere division of labour, but ‘division of labourers’. He defines it as a hierarchy in which the divisions of labourers are graded one above the other. This hierarchy kills people. AIMIM President Asaduddin Owaisi says: “Ambedkar is a bigger leader than Mahatma Gandhi...had Ambdekar not given a secular ad class-free constitution, the level of injustice in the country would have been much more and the RSS people would not have left any opportunity to spoil the situation.” The Dalits and Muslims are fighting together against their common enemy and the Indian left finds it uncomfortable to join them and form a grand alliance against the saffron power.

The number of Ambedkar statues seen in south Indian cities/ towns/ sub urban areas/ villages shows how much he is wanted for the masses. An almost absence of his statues in Kerala represents the hatred or strangeness to his writings, vision, emancipatory idea of social justice through annihilating caste. The mainstream left organizations are afraid of Ambedkar. Organizational attempts that could beat them is attacked physically or in other ways. Ambedkarism is immediate than any other ‘ism’

Rohith’s Final Letter: The Current World’s Manifesto and a Pro-Life Deal.

His suicide note or his final letter to the world, where Rohith wrote about how the value of a human being is reduced to immediate identity, a vote, a number, he questions the brahminic state that negates lives, that kills and jails its own people for no reason, that starves its own people, that rapes its own women, serves its purpose of being the current world’s manifesto for equality and justice. It magnifies the hollowness an individual felt due to the rotten system called caste, extends its hands to the world’s oppressed masses. How can we call something justice, if it never does do justice to any of the oppressed communities, living in margins?

in the country’s present hyper nationalist mood, every kind of other is a suspicious figure, a ready-made scapegoat for any failure that befalls politicians determined to make india great again: the secessionist Kashmiri, the impure Dalit, the traitorous beef eating Muslim, the woman who speaks her mind, the anti-national journalist, the dissenting writer
Mirza Waheed, Kashmiri novelist

Rohith was an ‘impure Dalit’ other in this country and for speaking against the savarna state, he got murdered. After Rohith’s suicide many more narratives of caste atrocities came out. Many universities across the country formed ASA units, students from the marginalized communities organized in the name of Ambedkar. These were counted as anti-national activities by the government. And JNU termed as anti-national university after the students held a memorial gathering on February 9th, the day in which Afzal Guru was hanged. The ‘traitorous beef eating Muslim’ Muhammad Akhlaq got lynched in Dadri, UP.

The discrimination will not end with Rohith. Rohith couldn’t bear the brunt of sleeping in the open for a long. To his friend he said that it is difficult for him to stay in the Velivada at 2 in the noon and 2 past midnight. These times had extreme temperature. He learnt by his life and told others that seasons are cruel to its people. Seasons have shown their faces to those who slept in the open, temporarily or permanently. He had distinct thoughts on human-nature relationship. He wrote: “I loved science, stars, nature. But then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature.”

One of the demands of the movement was to enact Rohith Act, an act which will ensure legislative protection for students from marginalised communities in higher educational institutions. Rohith had written: “No suicides on campus. I want a democratic campus where casteism do not kill my brothers and sisters.” But proceedings are not yet moved.

Dalits in Una fought back to the gorakshaks, who attacked them in public. They rallied asserting their rights, they dumped dead carcasses of cows in the corridors of government offices. And asked the government to keep the cow’s tail and demanded their land. They said they’ll not touch dead cows anymore. Jignesh Mevani, leader of Una Dalit Atyachar Ladhai Samiti demanded the government’s ‘waste lands’should be given to each Dalit family. The question of land, which is unaddressed in the case of Dalits came onto surface once again. Mevani calls for Dalit assertion that carries material assertions as well, which can decrease the existing social disparity, along with anti-caste sloganeering. The challenge that Dalit politics faces, according to Mevani is that it rarely addresses the material needs of Dalits.

Those who believes annihilation of caste is primary can’t attach themselves to the practicing Indian left which almost neglects the existence of caste inequalities. The demands Jignesh Mevani put forward can be traced back to Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party which stressed the need of abolishing Jagirdari system (a land tenancy system implemented by the Delhi Sultanate). The party also demanded equal work rights for Dalits in industrial labours. The party was not welcomed or supported by the communist leaders who were afraid of split in the workers’ votes. The current movement also asserts the need for more practical action along with fighting for self respect.

“Misery befalls no one
because of a coward
Riots break out nowhere
because of a coward
Nothing gets destroyed
because of a coward

A coward
does not draw his sword
or aim it at a tree
to check its sharpness
Why, a coward has no sword
to begin with” –Perumal Murugan (A Coward’s Song/ Ezhai than padalgal)

Thus wrote Perumal Murugan breaking silence two years after he dived into ‘not-writing’ as a protest against the intolerant Sangh forces who burnt his book. Rohith was no coward to keep calm and endure. The pro-life sentiment which coloured each and every word Rohith wrote shall stay forever.

Current state of Affairs

2016’s students union election was something the student community all over the nation hopefully looked at. A grand electoral alliance resisting the saffron was possible and expected in the campus’ political environment. There were complications regarding choosing an ally until finally United Front for Social Justice was formed with Left, Dalit, Bahujan, Tribal unity who excluded Ambedkar Students Association. The major alliance took the election in electoral hand without considering the election as part of the movement for social justice even when it was Vijay Kumar, one of the five suspended students contesting for the President post. Election was a close call where ABVP won by a very small margin. Even while everyone was certain of the chances of the vote splitting in favour of the killer organization ABVP, the lack of grand alliance implicates how difficult it is to form a Dalit- Left unity.

“I am an M.Phil student of Mahathma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. I have been brutally attacked by a gang of four SFI members, including the SFI Unit Secratary on Tuesday night. I was totally unaware about the reasons for the encounter. You may be well aware of this incident since then I and my friends including girls have been blackmailed and asked to keep silence regarding above incident. They have accused us of running Ganja Mafia in the campus. Is it the only way to answer to the political dissent and ideological differences by attacking and murdering? And even after that it doesn’t quench the thirst for blood and you had to go to the extent of accusing me of using Ganja.

Why are you -who are the so-called patrons of students and their rights- attacking a poor Dalit student who has come for higher education? Do you have any idea about the hurdles I had to go through to reach here? When the responsibility of an entire household lies on my shoulder, is my hunger for acquiring higher education a crime?

With all the lies and torture you put me through, you are killing the dreams of my parents who are ordinary daily wage workers.Those Comrades of yours who accuse me for using Ganja has not been able to provide any evidence regarding that, because in reality I have not even smoke a cigarette.

While India is going through a phase of suppressing the voices of disagreement and I know very well how difficult is the survival as a Dalit.The struggle for life and survival is a necessity for me, my family and my community. And that alone is the cause why I haven’t given up on my life.”

Vivek Kumaran, an Mphil scholar from MG University Kottayam writes an open letter to the SFI leadership. He was attacked inside the campus for being an Ambedkarite, for his efforts to bring up Ambedkarite politics in the campus. In Kerala campuses it is difficult to beat the left ally. Vivek Kumaran’s open letter and Rohith Vemula’s suicide note travels parallel to an extent.

“ Just as the Manusmriti ordains the outcaste to leave the caste quarters, the very ritual of punishment appeared to have all the symbolism that accompanies a caste cleansing. Education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students: they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, discontinuation. In a society where students have waged massive struggles to ensure their right to access higher educational institutions through the protective, enabling concept of the reservation policy, no one has dared to shed light on how many of these students are allowed to leave these institutions with degrees, how many become dropouts, become permanent victims of depression, how many end up dead.” -Meena Kandasamy.

We do not have an exact number of how many of the students from marginalized communities continue studies, how many drop out from studies, how many have killed themselves during their studies, how many have felt alienation and ruined in depression due to the system of caste. The anti-reservation Savarnas and the Hindutvavadis think that only those with intellect and ability can rule the nation. Only the creamy layer can lead the nation. The land, its institutions, trade, education etc have been ‘reserved’ for the savarnas while avarnas continue cleaning manholes and railway tracks, according to the Hindu code of law, the Manusmrti. Even then, which part of the nation is shining? The Modi government is blind to the nation’s reality while they telecast an advertisement that asks people not to defecate in the open. The lower caste people keeps cleaning its primary infrastructural facilities like railway and they themselves are forced to defecate in the open! Caste is the shit deposited daily on the nation’s railway tracks. Why does India having an alarming number of farmer suicides? Why do dalit, adivasi children die out of hunger and genetic diseases? Isn’t it because the laws and rules of the nation favour only a particular class of people? It’s because caste system is unbreakable in all its spheres, be it political, economic, and social. The immediate answer to these questions lies in annihilation of caste.

The idea of Justice

Justice is not something you can assure someone. How realistic is 'justice for the murdered'? Justice for a dalit young man who hanged himself? Finally everything is a story with enough twists and turns. Enough pain. Enough bloodshed. There is nothing called justice in the world. Nobody can assure justice to anyone. If there is political freedom that can be brought out as a result of political privilege, there we can enjoy the resultant nicety of political freedom which is cultural freedom, since none of us are free in this world.

Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother has barred from entering the campus after the police’s brutal attack on students and the mass arrest that happened in March 2016. The university gate is still closed in front of her and any other outsider. Raja Vemula, Rohith’s brother who is an Msc graduate from Pondichery University is driving goods autorikshaw to earn a livelihood. He didn’t accept any job offers from political leaders and thinks that if he does that, that would not favour his brother’s ideals. Rohith’s body was cremated without letting his family and friends know. Questions are still fuming around his caste status even after his suicide. The university gate filters those who can and cannot enter. The iron gate remains as a physical symbol of ghettoizing.