Rohith Vemula lived and died a Dalit

It is absurd, if not poor morality and atrocious law, to ask a dead man to prove his identity.

 |  7-minute read |   15-02-2017
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On January 17, 2016, Rohith Vemula certified his caste identity with a touch of finality only he could have afforded.

He tightened a noose around his neck. Left a note pretty much to the effect that he was only making visible the noose that had caught his neck at his birth. He called his birth “a fatal accident”. He was pronounced dead, that is to say, the moment he was born.

There could be no better expression than “a fatal accident” to describe the identity-induced plight of a Dalit in India. The space between the womb and the tomb for most people does not exist for the likes of Rohith Vemula. Rohith, in his own words, died into life.

We are in no position to settle if Rohith Vemula was born Dalit. At this point in time, such a question is nothing but a cruel joke. It is bad manners, if not poor morality and atrocious law, to ask a dead man to prove his identity. Only uncouth specimens of humanity will venture into this realm of shadows. Experts they are in the art of giving a verdict without hearing the other side.

But we know one thing: Rohith Vemula lived and died a Dalit. That hurts. Or, should hurt. We know too that had he been not a Dalit he would, very likely, have lived to earn a PhD. Purely hypothetical and speculative? Admittedly yes, yes. But there is still something called the law of averages, no?

rohith-body_021517015755.jpeg  It is bad manners, if not poor morality and atrocious law, to ask a dead man to prove his identity.

Forget not, Dear Sirs, this painful difference: between being hurt in soul and getting hurt on the skin. At the height of cynicism, we might argue through our teeth that in politics it is the skin, not the soul that matters. So save your skin, by hook or crook.

And if neither works, catch the gasping breath of a young, desperate man and do a spectrum analysis. See what rainbow colours it unfurls.

Ironically, Rohith made a reference to "soul" as well.  “I feel," his suicide note ran, “a growing gap between my soul and body. I have become a monster..."

And we are surprised that he took his life!

Those of us who can imagine, howsoever vaguely, the burden of a plight such as this, harbour another wonder: how did Rohith manage to hold out for as long as he did (may be the inquiry report will enlighten us on this count)?

We wonder what terms of reference this “inquiry” had. We wonder too: what special skills did these super-specialists on caste have to gauge the raging illness that Rohith described as the maddening "gap between one’s soul and body"?  What was it that filled this sensitive, aspiring soul who wanted to be a science fiction writer, with the sort of self-revulsion that he names here as “gap”?

When I read this section of his suicide note, I was reminded of the ingenious modes of torture that the Romans at the height of their decadence invented to turn human suffering into aristocratic entertainment.

The legs of a victim would be tied to two horses. They would then be driven apart, tearing — or, in Rohith’s haunting and harrowing words, creating “a gap”— between his two legs: a gap that could be measured by the calipers of death alone. 

Yes, I can sympathise with the logic on the other side too. Whether or not Rohith Vemula was born a Dalit, he did not have a Dalit — the word means, “broken”— soul. A Dalit is one who surrenders meekly (oh yes, almost gratefully) to his plight. The brokenness of his spirit, and not the genes of his parents, is the insignia of a Dalit.

Rohith refused to be broken. He tried to bridge the gulf between his soul and body with the vocabulary of defiance.

If his dying words mean anything at all, he did stretch his self-respect across the cosmic gap between his soul and body. The strain of that stretching broke him like a twig.

Rohith may not have died a Dalit. He died exemplifying the grandeur of a spirit that ironically vindicates the amazing wisdom of the "inquiry" under reference.

A young man who talks about the growing gulf between his body and soul! A Dalit? You could be kidding!

Hand on heart, I tell you, there is no predicament more insufferable for a human being than what Rohith’s dying words describe. What is it that makes a 26-year-old research scholar write, “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.”?

How can one who decides on what terms he will live, and what terms and conditions are simply not acceptable to him, how can a man who tells you (though "broken")“I’ll die than live trampled under foot” be labeled a Dalit? Sir, he is a hero! You and I are light years behind him.

Rohith’s death was also an appeal. An appeal flavoured with delicate desperation. “If you, who is (sic) reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji.”

We do not know what happened to that “one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees.” Mercifully the “inquiry” has administered an open- handed slap on the face of that cry. It has solved the riddle of life and death as only the lore of bureaucracy can.

It is almost good news for us too: we who have turned a deaf ear to the supplication of one who was Dalit in life and death (if not in birth), can now afford to be lighter in our conscience.

The good thing about bureaucrats is that they become wiser. So Kantilal Dande, the Guntur collector, who certified in April last year before the National Commission for Scheduled Castes that Rohith was a Dalit, has now discovered (perhaps) that he was reporting on the wrong Rohith Vemula. That Rohith? Yes, Dalit. This Rohith? No, not Dalit. What else?

Now, that borders on enlightenment. “I do not apologise,” Bertrand Russell famously said, “for being inconsistent.”  His logic was that consistency points to stagnation in understanding. No, we are all forward-bound. Newer discoveries. Newer angles of vision. Vertical illuminations. Horizontal adjustments. All in the name of truth. The truth that cracks the skull and tightens, sometimes, nooses around the necks of sensitive and sentient creatures like Rohith Vemula, who had, being the kind of soul he was, no business to be born a Dalit.

So, we now have a parody of that pretty nice proverb: a sound mind in a sound body. Now we say, a Dalit soul in a Dalit body. If you have the cheek to harbour a heroic soul in a Dalit body, you go the Rohith Vemula way.

“Forget not my banquet,” Macbeth said to Banquo.

“My Lord, I will not,” quoth Banquo.

He kept his word beyond his death. The ghost of Banquo returned to shake his "gory locks ” at the startled, discomposed king.  We never know who returns and when. Worse, in what shape. Ask Shakespeare, if you’re not convinced.

We hold no brief for Rohith’s mother. Fair enough. Why should a mother matter? Especially, if her heart is mortally wounded on the sharp edges of her son’s untimely and unnatural death?

In a world where truth is ruled by bureaucrats who are ruled by politicians, the tears of a woman, a mother, should not matter.

When the army marches, soldiers don’t carry handkerchiefs in their pockets to wipe the tears of women. Do they?

Left, right... left, right... left, right... March on. Forward. Go. Yonder... the promised land... is nearly in sight.

But Dalits? Step aside. Wait for your turn. The inquiry committee is hard at work.

Also read: Like Rohith Vemula, ex-serviceman Ram Kishan Grewal chose suicide as a form of protest


Valson Thampu Valson Thampu

The writer is former principal of St Stephen's College, Delhi and former member of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions (NCMEI).

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