Rohith Vemula's suicide note is remarkable because it embraces immortality at the very moment when death grips. This immortality consists in his having produced a document of unusual beauty and universal longing that is bound to become a classic in the literature of caste oppression and violence - for the paradoxical reason that it goes well beyond caste. Indeed, the word "caste" finds no mention at all in Rohith's letter. His dilemma appears more fundamental. Rohith sees himself condemned to live in a world of mean and heartless human distinctions, including but not confined to caste, where personhood is reduced "To a vote. To a number. To a thing." This is an unbearable affliction.
It is a basic right, Rohith's letter argues, to be "treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living." To be deprived of this right is to live on as a zombie. Better to meet death halfway. That is the essence of Rohith's plea and we should take it very seriously since it could well be a pathfinder to a better, more morally sustainable future not only for Dalits, but for all Indians.
Much has already been written on the subject by now, but I wish to focus here on a phenomenon that forms part of the broader context under discussion which has not received much attention. It strikes me that two kinds of "Study Circle" are now part of many of our elite educational institutions. These circles comprise "The Ambedkar Study Circle" and its apparently opposite ideological pair
"The Vivekananda Study Circle". To my mind, both these reading groups have great symbolic import today, not only in Rohith's case but more generally.
IIT Madras, for example, has student members belonging to each group. IIT Delhi has a flourishing Vivekananda Circle and has recently initiated an Ambedkar reading group following Rohith's suicide. Here, the relationship between what our young choose to read, and their vision of who they are to become, is key to an analysis of the future of our universities, where some of the most promising minds in the land are nurtured.
Rohith Vemula was one such mind, representative of a youthful, demographic cohort destined to rule our country a decade or two down the line. A socially underprivileged student who found a place one of our most prestigious central universities in one of the most culturally and historically important of our cities, Hyderabad, Rohith clearly possessed an active social and political conscience. In short, this was the sort of individual we should never have lost to terminal depression.
What went wrong?
In this piece, I want to suggest that what went wrong stemmed directly from what went right. This is where the business of the "study circles" is relevant. Rohith, like many of his fellow students, was shaped by his reading, which is exactly what a good university education should do. Part of the central mission of any university is surely to introduce its students to life-changing texts. If, as part of an Ambedkar Study Circle at his university, Rohith therefore read texts such as "The Annihilation of Caste" which raised his consciousness about social inequality in India and prompted him to raise his voice against regimes of elite privilege, this seems fully in keeping with the overall goals of a system of learning.
Even if he was not "legally" a Dalit, as has recently been contended, the fact that Rohith signs off his suicide note with "Jai Bheem" is significant. It could indeed be argued that Hyderabad's lively university environment and his readings at his "study circle" in fact educated Rohith into more boldly identifying himself as a Dalit. That is how he saw himself in his "mind", which he considered, quite reasonably, to be the most critical component of his being. Rohith's identification with his Dalit roots is, in turn, ratified by his mother, who points out that his non-SC father left her while her third child was yet unborn. She thus brought up her children on her own as "Malas" and declares sharply: "My children are as much Dalit as I am."
One cannot but be reminded in this context of the famous episode in the Upanishads in which the maid Jabala advises her son Satyakama when he wants to study to be a Brahmacharya that he should frankly admit the truth when questioned about his gotra. It is unknown, she informs him, as she simply could not identify his father. Satyakama goes on to become a famous sage whose truthfulness is widely admired. If Rohith was not extended a similar latitude in our modern times, we have only ourselves and our pitiless social order, so reliant on thoughtless discriminations and iterated violence, to blame.
Inspired by Ambedkar's words, Rohith, like Satyakama, envisaged an equal world where his birth would not be held against him. In this sense, being part of a study circle of fellow students who engaged in sustained thought around such themes was the right direction in which to go. It constituted education in the truest sense, and was indicative of the fact that the university environment was doing what it was meant to do i.e. encouraging independent thought and discussion. How could any of this be wrong?
What went wrong was something else entirely. Rohith came to realize, as so many do, that the emancipative doctrines he was reading clashed with the mire of contemporary realpolitik. This painful schism led to what he calls "a growing gap between soul and body", turning him, he perceptively notes, into an unnatural being, a "monster". As he puts it, "my birth was my fatal accident." A fatal accident that the legendary Satyakama managed to avoid millennia ago - but not Rohith in twenty-first century India. So the urgent question now becomes: how do we prevent that disastrous descent into despair that Rohith experienced?
One simple suggestion derives from those self-organizing and proliferating "study circles" I mentioned earlier. At the present time, we are prone to seeing Vivekananda studies and Ambedkar studies as polarized in the same way that we might perceive Marxism and Gandhi's doctrines as poles apart. However, the true exercise of intellectual freedom in our universities will come when these "camps" come to argue respectfully yet rigorously with each other, attend each other's events and defend each other's rights. Rohith's tragic death has once again placed on our universities a long overdue civic burden - that of establishing a new era of studies situated at a socio-political "cross-roads" where Vivekananda can meet Ambedkar with vigor and without rancor.
Both these eminences were more than capable of such a conversation. But are we?
(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)
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