It's been more than a year that the University of Hyderabad student, Rohith Vemula, killed himself out of depression. In his suicide note, he said he wanted to be a writer like Carl Sagan, but instead the letter was all he'd write in his lifetime.
But his "Online Diary" published posthumously kept a scrupulous record of his struggles, his Ambedkarite activism in the university, his wonderfully sensitive mind responding to the manner in which manacles of caste kept him and others like him tethered to the bottom. It was a journal which responded to daily persecution with intellect and argument, and preferred engagement over isolation.
|Roihith Vemula. (1989-2016)|
After his death - he was rusticated from the university and wasn't receiving his stipend for over six months - Rohith Vemula's caste became more significant than the fact that he had to kill himself to escape the caste-induced suffering. His mother, Radhika Vemula, and brother, Raja Vemula, have been asked, given ultimatum now to "prove" that Rohith was indeed a Dalit, as if a mere certificate can undo a lived life cut short by daily humiliation tied to one's birth.
The obsession to determine Rohith's caste and to verify if he indeed was a Dalit has eerie parallels with the manner in which the meat in Mohammad Akhlaq's refrigerator was sent for forensic test to figure out if it was "beef". That the 50-year-old resident of Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, was lynched to death by a mob who had been herded by a series of WhatsApp forwards, and an alarmist priest of a nearby temple uttering the C-word, became irrelevant as the events took a Kafkaesque turn.
|If the meat in Akhlaq's refrigerator were beef, would that mean he deserved his ignominious death?|
As a stunned nation watched the events unfold, as his bereaved family could not even mourn Akhlaq's death, the debates became increasingly mired in whether or not the government was right to send the meat for forensic testing. "What if it were beef?" some asked, as we shuddered in horror at the collective baying for a Muslim man's blood, who had to die for what he ate, or what others thought he would have eaten.
Rohith lived and died a Dalit. His life and death are testimonies to the centuries of oppression that are still going strong, that exist just beneath the civilised veneer of the universities, colleges, schools, hospitals, offices, government centres, and other outposts of modernity. Caste oppression, too, has modernised, as evidenced in the hundreds of caste-insistent matrimonial sites, or the not-so-subtle way in which one doesn't get a job, accomodation, an admission into a higher education institution, or faces romantic, emotional rejection at various points in life.
If the meat in Akhlaq's refrigerator were beef and if Rohith weren't Dalit, would that mean they deserved the ignominious deaths that ended their lives? The Indian state, in its various manifestations, whether as a university administration or a government in the state and the Centre, seems to think so.
That's a shame made cent per cent in India.