To get a measure of untouchability in our country, one needs only to look at the two-glass system. It is a practice whereby Dalits are not allowed to use the same glass as elite castes to drink water from. It was a version of this that Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula faced when he, along with four other PhD scholars and Ambedkar Students’ Association members, was suspended from one of the top varsities in India. Starting January 3, 2016, the foursome faced a social boycott, forbidden from entering the hostel, the mess, the administrative building and interacting freely with faculty.
Rohith could have been forgiven for the brief delusion that he might have harboured about having left caste prejudice behind at Savitribai Nagar in Guntur where his home was when he earned a PhD seat (Science, Technology and Society Studies) in the University of Hyderabad. Hadn’t Ekalavya? Dronacharya’s proxy protege had to lose a thumb, Rohith gave up his life. Science on your mind and poetry in your heart was never going to be enough. He wouldn’t be a Carl Sagan. A knowledge he was left with, before he left—“The value of a man...reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never...as a mind.” That the paper he said it on had to be his suicide note is our collective shame. On January 17, his deathday, Rohith was just 13 days shy of his 27th birthday. He took leave of the world, but not of his convictions. He hanged himself with it. He couldn’t have made a braver statement for the cause.