A posthumous interview with Rohith Vemula

CP Surendran
CP SurendranJan 20, 2016 | 14:13

A posthumous interview with Rohith Vemula

CP SURENDRAN (CPS): Why did you take this extreme measure? And you have used for your hanging the blue banner of the Ambedkar Students’ Association? Are you making a statement?

Rohith: What am I supposed to do? I have been out there with my friends, living in the open, for close to 15 days for a fight with an ABVP leader that never quite happened. Nandanam Susheel Kumar says we beat him up, but his doctor now says he was in the hospital for an appendicitis operation. It’s all like a movie just now, and it’s taking place in a lot of heads. I used the ASA banner to hang myself because I couldn’t find anything handy. Also, it gave me a sense of camaraderie in my last moments.


CPS: Your first letter to the Hyderabad University vice-chancellor makes fun of him for not taking active steps to stop what you think is the persecution of Dalit students.

Rohith: That man’s problem is his career. I wrote that hurried sarcastic letter to Professor Appa Rao (and it was not good English, I admit) fully knowing nothing would come of it. The tone of the letter comparing him to Donald Trump was not likely to persuade him on a course of positive action. In any case, he would have done nothing, because in the final count, all of us want to have an office and an income. God knows what he must have gone through to reach the position of a vice-chancellor. Can’t have been easy, Brahmin or not. Why would he risk it especially since the union minister of education, Smriti Irani, and let's not get into her qualifications because there are none, had asked in writing four to five times as to why no action has been taken against us. Which vice-chancellor will not have a heart attack when he sees the three lions of the government of India lying on his table, and one of them staring right into his eyes? 


CPS: You were a talented child…

Rohith: Perhaps, academically. But when you see the little stills of my home, my mother’s sewing machine, the tacky red fridge and plastic chairs now, what you are seeing is progress, by a 100 times. So imagine what it was like when I was a child. When you are an untouchable and smart, you have no idea where you are going no matter how well you perform in class. You become a little mad. Dr Ambedkar was a little mad at his country. It’s that madness which he used to go to Columbia and become a great man. You are not likely to understand this. This is a country with several time zones at the same time. People like us are living in the middle of the 19th century. There are manual scavengers, also untouchable, who live in the eighth century. And then there are well-to-do urban elite who live in the future.

CPS: There is a lot of difference between your first letter, which talks about the cruel treatment of Dalit students in the university, and then the more philosophical suicidal note, which says:


"I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write...Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust…”

Here too your language seems under pressure. The sentences are disjointed. You begin by saying you wanted to be another Carl Sagan and in the third sentence you have moved to "it has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt". Are you generally saying we don’t get to live our dreams? But isn’t that the real Indian problem? Ambedkar’s Constitution assures us equality of opportunity on paper. But as a people we are denied the pursuit of happiness, because even Ambedkar thought it was a bit much? It's like some sort of chimera meant only for a few?

Rohith: When you are about to end your life, the language is not what you think of. It’s the enormity of what you are about to do. There’s a point you reach in your mind. And you help yourself with rationalisations. I thought of my terrible childhood, the poverty, the desertion by my father, the insecurity and fears, the accident of my Dalit birth and so on. I am sure a million others have had similar experiences, yet we go on, don’t we, as if nothing has happened? Because we don’t think happiness is our goal.

We see the naked kids begging in the street; I can’t remember a single instance of a minister or a vice-chancellor or anyone powerful stopping his car, and calling up a concerned department or have the children adopted by an agency. We see suffering. We see a Rohith Vemula right there, or an Ambedkar, and we have sped by to our jobs and to our lives, which are tough enough without getting involved in some other drama. I think I have come to the end of my rope or my politics because I find all of it a bit too much. It makes no sense: Die now, die later. It’s all the same, isn’t it? A good suicide is one where time is laughed at. At this point I don’t feel much. It’s as if I am acting out a scene in a movie.

CPS: You say in your letter, please don’t bother, that there should be no violence after your death.

Rohith: What else can I say? I wish the world went up in flames. But somehow that doesn’t seem the right thing to say when one is ending one’s insignificant life. I just wish the government gave money they owe me in scholarship to my family. Some Rs 1,75,000. It all comes down to that. I have often wondered why my scholarship never comes on time.

CPS: Are you saying Smriti Irani has time to shoot off letters to the V-C demanding action against you, but no time to discipline the workings of her department?

Rohith: You are saying it, aren’t you? All this love and awe of the IITs and IIMs. If only they got some primary schools going with good teachers who don’t beat the shit out of kids!

All of it comes from a lack of respect for individual life. We are just too many. The more you think of this awfully stupid country, the more awfully stupid your life situation comes across as. Albert Camus was right when he said the biggest philosophical question of the 20th century was to end one’s life or not. He concluded life was the real option.  I think it’s the other way. I spent some 15 days out in the open after the university expelled me. I can’t recall one fellow student, boy or girl, inviting me over to their place for a wash and a good night's sleep. There is nothing in this, I am afraid. We are mostly spectators.

I am not blaming anyone. I am not bitter. I am just saying, I am done. Really, truly done.

Last updated: February 26, 2016 | 16:26
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