August 15, 2020
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How I killed Rohith Vemula

Would any of the self-righteous, concerned voices have bothered about Rohith Vemula’s life and travails if he had not died so eloquently?

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How I killed Rohith Vemula
How I killed Rohith Vemula

We would have felt proud if the Vice Chancellor has (sic) told that we were suspended because we organized Ambedkar Vardhanthi, Babri Masjid demolition day and Beef festival in the last week. Anyways, this is not the first. Assertion of Dalits has been met with these kind of cunning suppression all over India—It’s Christmas month, resurrection is more than likely in this season.

Rohith Vemula
18 December 2015, Facebook post

Dear Rohith,

I have no shame. I am a vulture. I am not outraged (in some of the circles I move in I pretend I am, though after reading news of your death I forgot to even skip lunch). I feed off death. I am a brahmin.

Let me begin by telling you how this came about: your being dead and my being asked to write this commentary. Your death gave Krishna Prasad, Outlook’s editor, reason to call me after many months. I mumbled something about feeling gutted, about walking around in a fog—I did briefly think that all analysis, all poetry, all music, all existence, all writing had lost further meaning. All lies. Looks like I am reconciled to making a living off people like you, feeding off caste. I go about making it my business to sniff at unt­ouchable carcasses from unb­ridgeable distances and establish, like a detective who has never been to a crime scene—looking at a picture in a newspaper and spinning a yarn about how and why exactly the victim died.

I am also a clairvoyant. I am called to speak on what your death may mean to us. It dawns on me that with this kind of death, every survivor is a bloody suspect. We, the people (in the name of the Constitution we more often swear at than swear by) have lynched you. There is no cop who can investigate, no justice you can have from any magistrate. Everyone is a murderer.

And the travesty is this. I—someone who is at the other end of the pyramid of privilege, who has no exp­erience of what it means to be Dalit—am the person they ask to write when you die. After protesting feebly, I succumb, like I always have. That is how I write myself into the status quo.

I asked Prasad, would Outlook ever have covered the ‘story’ of five Dalit students in UoH being suspended if you had not died. Would Hindustan Times, that praised your posthumous prose, have ever given you space on their op-ed page if you had made a submission? Did you know people who know the people who know the people who can get a piece published in the big media—who would even respond to your e-mail? Did Outlook (or anyone else) take up the 2002 rustication of ten UoH Dalit students? What are they doing now? Or when Senthil Kumar, another PhD scholar, killed himself in 2008? What makes your murder special? When you composed that note, did you say to yourself: if my death begins another debate, a real debate, it can only be a good thing. Maybe I should publish an annotated version of the two letters you wrote so that I can tell people how to read your letters? Like we have those Sparknotes  summaries for literary texts that seem simple but are actually difficult to comprehend.

When I walked into the UoH campus on January 20, my alma mater, I ran into Mohan Dharavath from the English and Foreign Languages Univ­ersity, also in Hyderabad. A PhD student belonging to an adivasi community, he was rusticated in May 2014 for two years along with two other students when they protested the university’s decision to close down the 24-hour reading room in the campus library. An online petition that sought 1,000 signatures fell short by 301. Their case never caught the “national imagination”— and forget the phalanx of international scholars who issued a statement for you. Six to ten stamp-sized faces did not then holler out of our TV screens at everyone and, categorically, no one in particular.

It is not that we always respond when we see blood. On August 23 2012, Vadithya Nehru, a 20-year-old second year B. Tech student of IIT Kanpur, killed himself in Hyderabad because he faced termination. He just could not face the prospect of returning to his tanda of fifteen Lambada households—as an adivasi colony is called—in Marlingathanda in Telangana’s Nalgonda district, and telling his people that he had been tagged with the label of failure. After all, having bagged the 17th rank in the ST category in IIT-JEE he was already a star to them. A Times of India report in the local edition ended: “The father complained that the college did not even send condolences to them. IIT-K officials refused to comment.” His father Ramana had named his son after his hero, Jawaharlal Nehru, the visionary who founded the IITs.

Let me further illustrate why Outlook, myself and our ilk—however well-meaning and well-intentioned we may appear—are culpable. I worked for this magazine for seven years as their Chennai correspondent—a job I secured fairly easily, like much else in life, because unlike you I know people who know people who know people. On May 22 2002, in Thinniyam village in Tiruchi district, Murugesan and Ramasami, two Dalits, were forced to feed each other human excreta and branded with hot iron rods for publicly declaring that they had been cheated by the village chief, someone like your V-C. I begged to file a report. But Vinod Mehta shot down the idea saying it was not ne­w­sworthy. Not that it was a small matter, nor that people had not mobilised—over two lakh people had gathered in Tiruchi to protest this.

In The Wake Students hold a candlelight vigil for Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad

On Diwali day in Delhi, after telling his wife of 11 months that he would be back home for lunch, 22-year-old Vinay Sirohi went to clear a blockage in the Keshopur sewage treatment plant. He never returned. Officials blamed Vinay for his death, saying he should have worn safety equipment. The news appeared in the city pages of newspapers for a few days and then Vinay Sirohi disappeared. Unlike you, he did not become a star. The Indian Express carried a picture of his body after it had been prised out of the crypt-like pipe, using gas cutters. A little bit of my shit and my indifference must have choked him. But I have moved on.

What makes your murder special? When you wrote that note, did you tell ­yourself: if my death begins a debate, a real debate, it can only be a good thing?

Ever so often Safai Karmachari Andolan’s Bezwada Wilson calls me to say, “Why don’t you help us get some coverage in the media, Anand.” I plead helplessness. He is a known rent-a-quote figure. He has even appeared on Satyameva Jayate. Over twenty years, having secured every kind of legislation and even a Supreme Court ruling against manual scavenging and sewer work, the SKA is currently undertaking a 125-day Bhim Yatra across India, covering 500 districts in 25 states, to ensure that these laws work. The Bhim Yatra will culminate on April 14  in Delhi, the 125th anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar's birth. Their slogan is simple: Stop Killing Us. The yatra began with a whimper on December 10 and will end with one. No one from the media is on this bus, issuing daily reports though what we do with our shit, which millions of Dalits are forced to clean, must be our business. We blame policy and structural issues and exonerate ourselves. Do we now have to shit on odd/even days?

A friend in Delhi once told me how it was impossible to get people in her apartment to stop using their toilets for an hour when a clogged sewer was being unclogged by Dalit men. That’s the closest liberals—who do not mostly let their servants even use the toilets or lifts—can come to being nice and asking others to be nice. And they mostly fail. After all, we are a nation of people who like to take a shit when a train halts at a station. Who cleans up after us has never been our problem. In the two days after you died, Wilson said he had gathered rep­orts of the death of four sewer and septic tank workers. Oddly, Wilson has not become cynical. While writing this, I asked him for a high-resolution photograph of the bus yatra, saying, “This is a chance for us get in some news about this, Wilson. Next week Outlook won’t be interested. They may not use the picture saying it has not been professionally shot but send it nevertheless.”

It is indeed difficult to accept something as exemplary in a society where we have made such a habit of looking the other way. I know the tired figures by rote now: every day more than four Dalit women are raped, every week thirteen Dalits are murdered by non-Dalits and so on and so forth. In such a climate, you have managed to stop the press with your death, Rohith. You have achieved in death what you could never have in life. One of my batchmates in UoH who now teaches there said, “I have seen five such Dalit suicides on campus. But with Rohith it somehow hurts more.” What if you had written the note in Telugu? What if you had not written anything?

Perched among the stars, you are mocking the darkness that pervades earth. You pulled a full stop on yourself mid-sentence. You had not even begun, while we have been blabbing forever, and will continue to go on. You gave up on us. You asked us to fuck off, politely. Your “eloquence” has been praised by people who see writing as their calling, their profession. They praise your short sentences, your use of active voice. Never mind, some of them sound casually and habitually incredulous and patronising. After all, they are dealing with a Dalit, the son of single mother, who, after a Mas­ters in Life Sciences, discovered Ambedkar and enrolled for a PhD in Science, Technology and Society Studies on ‘merit’, without availing quota. Ah, is this not a good reason to scrap reservation altogether? While some want to see your caste certificate, many say this is not even a Dalit issue.

You may have wanted to write like Carl Sagan, but I reckon you are Jonathan Swift’s love child with Namdeo Dhasal (“Man, you should explode/Yourself to bits to start with”). I’m referring to your handwritten letter of December 18, 2015, addressed to the V-C, which you titled Solution for Dalit Problem. It rem­inded me of Jonathan Swift’s 1729 document, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.

You are far more brief, precise and clear than Swift:

“1) Please serve 10 mg of Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission. With direction to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar.

2) Supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit st­u­dents from your companion, the great Chief Warden.”

Like many, I had to look up Sodium Azide, and what the compound NaN3 does to a person. A month before your death, you had told the V-C that the expelled students had “already passed that stage and [are] already members of Dalit Self-Respect movement” and that “unfortunately, we here are left with no easy exit”. Undeterred, when the university administration threw you and four of your friends out, you moved out on January 4. I saw a picture posted by the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice, where besides some beddings what loomed was a large portrait of Ambedkar that one of you clutched. Suddenly, Ambedkar, on whom you had pinned hope, had been rendered as homeless and branded as anti-national as you. Calling it Veli Wada—Dalit Ghetto—you made a tent at the university’s shopping complex with life-size vinyl-printed posters of Buddha, Kabir, Gurram Jashuva, Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram, Savitribai Phule, Jyotiba Phule, Ayyankali and Periyar. Below each image, the words were printed. This was your real shelter, but you were also in a hurry to join the stars.

In 1917, when Ambedkar returned ‘home’ after collecting two doctorates from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, he was to serve the Maharaja of Baroda who had given him the scholarship. Landing in Baroda, Ambedkar asked himself, “Where to go? Who will take me?” He could not find anyone who would rent him a place and was thrown out of a Parsi inn where, after being forced to lie about his identity, he stayed for eleven days. When they found out he was Mahar, he was thrown out. Ambedkar spent some five hours in Kamathi Bagh, a public park, before he caught the 9 pm train back to Bombay. Ambedkar was to later write: “I sat there partly with a vacant mind, partly with sorrow at the thought of what had happened to me, and thought of my father and mother, as children do when they are in a forlorn condition.”

A hundred years later, when you are punished likewise, nothing made sense and death seemed like a decent option. Let us accept your Solution for Dalit Problem without further ado. Resurrections, we know, are unlikely. Census data says only 2.24 per cent of the 200 million Dalits become graduates. Let us give them the solution you suggest. The rest are anyway as good as dead and pose no threat.

Seems you were fond of poetry. So here’s Ghalib:

I was not meant for love, love was not meant for me
If I had lived longer, to wait would have been ­­my ­destiny.

(S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana)

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