What could possibly drive a research scholar pursuing the highest academic qualification in an esteemed institution to take the desperate step of ending his life? Surely, it cannot be reasonably interpreted as an act of personal choice governed by an individual’s preference. After reading the suicide note, it is hard to argue that he acted of his own free will. The ‘choice’ was enforced upon him. It was a choice (as in case of farmers in Vidharba), shaped more by an institutional experience rather than personal failure.
He was a Dalit. The “fatal accident” of his birth gave him an identity which bears heavily and adversely upon every aspect of the life of its bearer. His suicide note painfully observes that being born in Dalit family, unfortunately, amounts to an “unappreciated childhood.” It is in fact, a humble phrase for the viciously discarded and miserable childhood experiences of those children, defined by indifference, discrimination, routine humiliation and acute desperation.
Being born in a Dalit family invariably means facing permanent condemnation for being one. This identity unfavourably determines the locality and neighbourhood, source of family livelihood, marriage, peer group, educational experience, workplace treatment and often your political leanings as well. They live a segregated existence, like the Harpic bottle and toilet cleaning brush, in dark corners of civilized habitation, to be used for ‘Bharat Nirman’ and ‘Swachh Bharat’ and disposed of once they are empty of their utility. They struggle to keep their body and soul together by doing undignified and devalued jobs at the lowest possible wages. The menial, often filthy, work they do is euphemistically classified under the ‘informal sector’. They are denied even the experience of the most intimate and fundamental feelings of love and self-respect when it comes to choosing their partners or pursuing knowledge.
Our ‘sanskari‘ society exorcises the dangerous sensibilities of love and self-respect (reserved only for sons of Manu and the rich) through ‘customary’ practices such as khap killings, public stripping, harassment and other time-tested and law-proof methods. The attitudes of people in the workplace and elsewhere constantly remind them of their smallness and worthlessness, stripping from them even a semblance of self-respect and dignity. The historically conditioned, existential quagmire and daily hardship force them to adopt identity and redistribution as rallying points in their politics. Unfortunately, politics does not serve them well either as the Dalit leadership begins to imitate their opponents in style and method, thus alienating their brethren.
Rohith, being a sensitive individual and a keen scholar, had felt the pain and despair that was part of his personal and collective experience. These experiences shaped his political sensitivity but never allowed the feelings of resignation in members of his community to disconnect him from his love for the stars, the heavens and science. He believed in the power of science as a vehicle for fulfilling his cherished dreams. However, that amounted to a leap of faith for an individual living in a country where two former Chairmen of the most esteemed scientific organization (ISRO) are affiliates of the obscurantist and communal RSS. The university and political environment, therefore, turned out to be a space for systematic strangulation of his dream. A dream which dared to bypass the karmic ritual order of caste and look to the god-less skies for deliverance. Sadly, the method utilized by the university administration and central government to clip the wings of a Dalit group of ‘anti-nationals’ and ‘extremist’ defying the sanatana agenda were meticulous and time-tested.
Firstly, the university tried to muzzle the protesting voice of its students by withholding their scholarship on the arbitrary grounds of ‘lack of paperwork’. Rohith along with other students had not been getting any financial support from the institution for the last six months. Secondly, they were suspended from the university under the false pretext of ‘political violence’ against a leader of the ABVP (a notorious outfit of whining and snobbish individuals yet to wean themselves off their imaginary ‘bharat mata‘). Thirdly, on the third day of this month, they were thrown out of their hostels to live in a tent outside, waging a lone battle against the institution’s frozen sensibilities and the cold weather. This systematic diminution of a spirited individual into an aggrieved and disheartened self, amounts to killing the spirit and the body that valued it.
Rohith Vemula had to pay the price for holding on to dreams that fuelled not only his political convictions but also his desire to transcend the boundaries that have historically chastised, delimited and desiccated the life of Dalits in India.