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One Year Since Rohith Vemula’s Suicide, And Nothingness

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Have you ever felt inconsequential? I’ve felt that way quite often. It’s one of the most unwanted feelings that kills your self-esteem. But it is not like we feel that way all the time. In our own individual ways, we are privileged too. I for one am putting an extra packet of sugar in my cappuccino today. I think I deserve it for the morning jog and then for climbing four floors to work. Everyone has their own understanding of what they deserve. That sense of understanding can be faulty for others but it works very well for us.

I felt inconsequential yesterday because I saw it as January 17. It has been a year since Rohith Vemula, a PhD student committed suicide in the hostel of the University of Hyderabad before writing one of the starkest, yet the subtlest suicide note ever. “My birth was a fatal accident,” the Dalit scholar wrote.

A death that led to major protests in the country. While some discussed whether this was a death due to suicide or essentially a murder because of lack of help to the person suffering; others got into an investigation about whether Rohith was actually a Dalit or not. The then education HRD minister was in question. And Mrs Smriti Irani had taken down the Rajya Sabha with a rather dramatic monologue, where towards the end she said that “If you are not satisfied with my reply (about Rohith’s suicide), I will cut off my head and place it at your feet.”

Very soon, another inconsequential student leader called Kanhaiya Kumar got arrested for saying ‘anti-national’ stuff, was jailed for months, and in the end, the court released him on bail with a warning. Somewhere in the middle of the year, Una in Gujarat rose to popularity when some of its young men were beaten for skinning a dead cow. Jignesh Mewani, a lawyer and human rights activist (refraining from calling him a ‘Dalit activist’ because he has worked for land rights for farmers and various other activities too), came out as the Dalit leader. With him, an entire team of boys, men, women and the old set out for a walk from Ahmedabad to Una in a symbolic effort to make people aware and seek justice for Una boys and even Rohith. There are various activists and academics who’ve spoken and written a lot more for this issue. They have definitely done more than the commoners like me, who just sit here and write articles. But I am not sure how much is going to be enough.

Last year was a year that saw a sudden peak in the arrests of people for calling spade a spade (speaking against the government). Some were arrested merely because of their social media posts and some detained just for speaking out on the days of important government events. We sat here as mere spectators, sitting and writing Facebook posts or participating in the ‘literary article war’ (a phenomenon where you share an existing article to a Facebook friend to prove your point, and then they share something, and the game goes on).

Mujhe khud ko bhi hai tatolna
Kahin hai kami to hai bolna
Kahin daag hai to chupaaye kyu?
Hum sachh se nazrein hataaye kyu?

Whenever I listen to the song from Satyamev Jayate, these lines shine out separately. I make a mental note. Last year, we wanted, even more, to live in the world of no complaints. Every time you’d point out something needs to be improved or something was wrong, there would be a bandwagon of policing that would tell us how nothing was wrong and how it was all our perspective and how we should try to see the positive side of things.

Some people asked why Rohith’s suicide was so different. They would ask why we wouldn’t say anything when farmer committed suicides. “So many people commit suicides. This was a normal case of depression, please don’t make this a caste issue.” Well, I would say that he was depressed (if at all he was) because he was discriminated because of his caste. Hence, it is a caste issue.

And it is definitely different than any other thing. A girl knows when she is discriminated against because of her gender. That is an added discrimination above any other human discrimination. And then towards the end of the year, demonetisation happened. And some of the people changed sides because for the first time they saw what bull-crap was being sold until now. For the first time, they were affected of all the shit and will continue to be affected.

Just last week, this soldier complained against the inadequacies of his daily requirements on the border; yet none of those so called nationalist frontiers stood up to bring out the so called nationalistic questions. You know why? Because suddenly the soldier and the government were different entities. In order to speak for the soldier, (“Who stays awake on the borders so that you sleep well at night“), one had to speak against the government, which is equivalent to God. What a tough call to make!

Of course, I am privileged enough that I live to write this post. I don’t know where else in the world would I like to settle if not India. The US is the same thing after Trump. I was born here. I love my country. In fact, I might even be cowardly to leave Gujarat. But, given all that privilege, my heart aches today for Rohith. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, Appa Rao hasn’t resigned yet. Why? Students still struggle under extreme surveillance. A meeting took place yesterday at the UoH campus to ” reject victimhood and reclaim resistance.” Rohith’s mother, the men who survived at Una and the brother of Akhlaq (lynched in Dadri) were there.

The irony is that Rohith’s case won’t even be part of our children’s history textbooks because it will be appropriated. My heart aches to just think about this brilliant person Rohith, with such a scientific temperament, which is reflected in his last letter too. What must have driven him to commit suicide?

In his Blue Octavo Notebooks, Kafka writes, “One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die.”

Have you ever felt inconsequential? We are all inconsequential. Just like Rohith was. Hopefully, we’ll die differently but perhaps not. Who knows? At least this is one common relationship between Rohith and us, that we are as inconsequential as he was. Did he deserve the death he got? Would you dismiss his suicide as an ordinary suicide and an individual choice or did our educational institutes and our caste-based society push him towards that death? One year to Rohith Vemula’s death and we are still asking these questions of nothingness.

(This is not an article that summarises the past year for India. This is a deeply opinionated piece and nothing else should be expected out of it.)

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Image source: Rohith Vemula/ Facebook
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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