The pan-Indian outrage which has also reached Harvard Square in the US over scholar and Dalit activist Rohith Vemula’s suicide seems to establish our present political and social moment as an exceptional one, a moment in which the combined force of right wing Hindutva intolerance and systemic institutional inequality have brought about a great social tragedy. What makes the incident even more shocking is the fact that Vemula left behind a deeply meditative and poetic final letter. The letter outlines a history of cultural and personal alienation that has made several intellectually inclined people remember Camus or Fanon on their social media feed. To many who would not otherwise react to caste related atrocities that occur in India every single day, such as the statistics shouting rape and murder, Vemula’s suicide seems unacceptable.
It is now imperative that we highlight the extraordinary nature of Vemula’s death. What makes this a moment of exception? Is it his obvious learning and sensitivity that makes us read his letter with tears in our eyes? Is it the fact that for many of us young scholars and professionals, the university space is somehow seen as sacred ground? And that his death is seen as a violent rupture from a shared ground of intellectual and physical comradeship? Or do we think (like many do in the US) that caste, like race, is a problem of the poor?
On one hand, we have gone into shock because the problem of caste has slapped us on the face, shaking us out of a complacency born of privilege and apathy. On the other hand, we are now forced to confront the horror of our lived social worlds in an urgent, immediate, and ghastly way. Caste atrocities are not things that happen in villages in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. They happen to us. By us. Every. Single. Day. Of. Our. Lives.
It is time to ask: who is culpable of Rohith Vemula’s death?
Do you, my friend and reader, remember the debates that your Brahmin, Kayastha, Vaidya friends had about reservation in high school and university? Do you remember somebody saying something about how reservation undermines the high standards of excellence that central and state universities otherwise maintain? Did you intervene at that point? If you were silent, then you are culpable.
Did you, my fashionable Brahmin left liberal (as indeed I am one by the great accident of birth) leave out that girl who was a small town second generation college goer, wearing clothes that outraged your sensibilities? Did you inwardly cringe being seen with her at the bar? Or did you spend time with her, only because it assuaged your conscience—not because you enjoyed it, not because you believed that you were social equals? Or did you enjoy her company, but also felt that there was a universe of unbridgeable distance between you—not that you were superior, or she inferior. Nevertheless, the distance. The gap. Between Brahmin and Dalit. Hindu and Muslim. Man and woman. The accident of birth. The great misfortune…
You too are culpable.
Did you know B.R. Ambedkar as the Maker of the Constitution, a Columbia Man, a man responsible for taking away your slot because of that unfair provision made at the time of independence—this completely outdated thing that is NOT affirmative action (because race is not caste, you argue, race shows physical difference and caste…caste does not exist…not at IIT. Not at IIM. Not as Delhi University. Not at Jadavpur University. Not at Presidency College. Not at Central University of Hyderabad…)
You wondered, what is this irrational thing imposed upon us which makes our merit go unrecognised, our jobs are snatched from us—what is this absurd thing called reservation?
If you have thought silently in this vein, you are culpable.
Did you read Frantz Fanon and C.L.R. James with uncritical admiration? Did you get a degree in English Literature or History or Sociology? Did you ever bother to read Ambedkar’s The Annihilation of Caste from cover to cover knowing the historical and sociological context?
Have you ever questioned Gandhi?
No? You too are culpable.
If you have never questioned who clean the garbage vats and sewers in your metropoles, cities, small towns and villages…
If the news about the rapes and murders and deprivation and the dropping out of school of lower caste men and women and children have dulled your eyes and senses and you cannot begin to raise your voice against systemic and institutional violence and injustice, then you too are culpable.
We are all guilty of Rohith Vemula’s death. In more ways than one. The political immediacy of his death in a dispensation that is marginalizing minorities like never before is indisputable. What we do need to do right now is to recognise that Vemula’s death is both murder and suicide. And precisely because it is suicide, it is a deeply political act. His final words bear testimony to the fact that despite reservation and limited representation, the problem of caste in Indian democracy is not addressed. It is not addressed by both the right wing and the left wing. And that upward social and intellectual mobility does not guarantee the fact that a Dalit, in this mockery of a democracy, will be seen as a “mind…made up of stardust”. How can one ever say, ” Rohith Vemula, Rest in Peace”?
This blogpost was written by Ahona Panda.
Ahona is a PhD candidate in South Asian Languages and Civilization at the University of Chicago. Her academic interests include literary history and politics.