by Jakob De Roover
When a person close to us commits suicide, we often struggle to make sense of the act and of the experiences that led to it. In the case of Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide, no such predicament appears to face the many academics, activists, politicians, and journalists commenting on it. No, they know what caused his step: the oppressive caste system and the caste discrimination of the Hyderabad Central University authorities. What is the evidence? The clarity of his suicide note, they say, which is “full of serious lessons for India’s caste-ridden society”: it shows how “the Hindu caste system still lives in the Middle Ages” and is no less sinister and monstrous than the Nazi regime. In an open letter, a long list of academics (arrogating the voice of “the global scholarly community”) suggests that caste discrimination pervades the premier higher education institutions in India and drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide. This type of account has inspired forceful protest, political campaigning, and disciplinary measures on the university campus where the tragedy occurred.
There is something bizarre going on here. When you make the effort of reading Rohith’s farewell letter, you will see it does not once mention caste, the caste system, or his status as an untouchable. Still, that is the one thing that commentators keep mentioning. Thus, they ignore, deny, and distort the experiences that Rohith tries to express in his letter. Instead of taking his moving words seriously, they simply appropriate his voice to rehash an age-old stale story about ‘the caste system’, which we have inherited from nineteenth-century Protestant missionaries and colonial Orientalists. Thus, these commentators reduce his entire existence – all his concerns, dreams, and deeds – to victimhood, to ‘being a Dalit oppressed by the caste system’.
Some argue that Rohith is clearly referring to the effects of caste discrimination, when he writes the following: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.” Now, what makes him experience himself as a monster? What prevented him from becoming the writer that he dreamt of becoming? One answer is: the oppressive caste system. But how does one establish that without adding all kinds of assumptions that may be there in one’s head but not in the world and certainly not in Rohith’s letter?
Another answer is much simpler: it is the life he had led the years before his suicide, which prevented him from becoming a science writer and made him experience himself as a monster. What life is that? That of a member of the Ambedkarite movement on one of the Hyderabad university campuses. To know what this kind of life looks like and why it prevents one from realizing one’s dreams, we need to go beyond the stale stories about ‘caste discrimination’ that the mainstream media keep repeating. We could start by examining what has actually happened on Hyderabad university campuses over the last decades because of the tyranny of Ambedkarite caste politics. We could start by showing some minimal honesty about the goondaism and terrorizing of students and teachers that occurred for many years, all in the self-interest of a small group of people who claim to be the representatives of the Dalits and whose life revolves around enforcing this status.
Some claim that Rohith’s letter describes his being an untouchable as a curse. Actually, he writes the following: “All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Thus, he connects life being a curse and the fatal accident of his birth to childhood loneliness. It is unclear how that is related to being born in a particular jati. Anyone with some first-hand experience knows that children growing up in the many jatis today classified as ‘untouchables’ or ‘Dalits’ are not generally lonely during their childhood. They play with children from their own and other jatis; they have friends; they have brothers and sisters; they are not alienated from other human beings. They are also generally not unappreciated children. After all, if this is the claim one wants to make, one would also have to suggest that parents and family members from the jatis in question generally do not appreciate their children (a claim that is hardly acceptable). So what then is the supposed link here between childhood loneliness and the oppressive caste system?
More evidence of caste oppression is read into Rohith’s concern that the value of a man is “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.” If one insists on interpreting this in terms of the oppressive caste system, one can always do so and reproduce all the clichés. But then one has to again add premises that are not there in the letter.
Why not understand this in terms of the words that Rohith himself uses? Then this passage appears as a profound reflection on the terrible form of identity politics that has developed in India. Being ‘a Dalit’ or ‘an untouchable’ has become the only central ‘identity’ for people like Rohith, because this is what is demanded from them, not by ‘the caste system’ but by the political institutions and ideological movements built around a particular story about Indian society. Just look at how Rohith has been treated since his suicide: he is endlessly presented as ‘an untouchable’ or ‘a Dalit’; he is thus being reduced to what certain people see as ‘his immediate identity and nearest possibility’. He is transformed into a thing that plays a welcome role in the political campaigns of Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, Derek O’Brien, and in the ideological posturing of JNU academics and writers for The Hindu and similar newspapers. They have not taken his experience seriously and treated him as a mind. Instead, “in dying and living,” he has become an instrument for their own agendas.
The response to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and to his letter is indeed a symptom of a corrupt system, not the so-called ‘caste system’, but something very different: namely, the systematic corruption of politics, academics, and the media in India, which is so manifest in their reporting about, and responding to, the genuine problems in Indian society. Today, this system is doing to Rohith what has been happening again and again from the colonial era onwards: inflicting violence upon people’s experiences instead of making sense of them and rehashing moralizing ideology in the name of social science.