India is a country with a diverse population living together in harmony. But with the diversity that this country houses, there are a lot of questions to be answered which will make us doubt the same. In India the existence of the caste system can be traced back to history, where this division was made for the society to function smoothly. But there is a difference in the narrative of these religious texts. In the Vedic times it is said to have three varnas, but in the post-Vedic times, there is the existence of four varnas, namely, The Brahmins (castes of the highest stature who were usually the priests), the Kshatriyas (castes in the second order of hierarchy who generally belonged to the ruling class and fighters), the Vaishyas (castes in the third order of hierarchy who were generally the merchants and the craftsmen) and lastly the Shudras (castes of the lowest stature who stayed in the outskirts of the village and their work was to serve the other castes). Although there are a lot of debates on how much this entire division is authentic but this version is still well accepted.
In this wide spectrum of castes and divisions, we have an oppressed section of our society known as the Dalits. They have been considered as untouchables or Achyut by society. They have been leading a life of misery and oppression for years and unfortunately even today. The origins of untouchability can be traced back to the time when the Aryans invaded the subcontinent around 1500 B.C. They looked down upon the indigenous people for being racially inferior to them. Some of them escaped to the jungles while some of them stayed back and served the Aryans. The ones moved to the jungles were known as the Chandalas and the concept of untouchability started from them. The Aryans considered them barbaric and not fit for civilized living. People from these oppressed sections of the society face discriminations everywhere because it is so rampant. These forms of extreme discrimination based on caste are very much present in educational spaces across India. In a report by The Hindu, it stated: "There have been up to 11 cases of suicide by students, mostly Dalits, in various institutions in Hyderabad between 2007 and 2013. In north India, besides two cases of suicide by Dalit/Adivasi students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, an additional 14 cases of suicide by Dalit students were reported between January 2007 and April 2011" (Bhattacharjee).
(In photo: wall painting of Rohith Vemula. Picture Courtesy: Andhra and Telangana Wishes)
Dalit Students experience humiliation, exclusion from their friends and teachers. These elite institutions have somehow normalized the culture of discrimination existing in these institutions. In 2013, Samson Ovichegan, in a study on the experience of Dalits in an elite university in India, observed that the university space is one such case where practice of caste discrimination continues to exist as the university insists upon maintaining a divide between Dalit and non-Dalit. Dalit students explicitly and implicitly experience and face discrimination on a daily basis at elite institutions.
Suicide of Rohith - Factual Background
Rohith Vemula was born on 30th January 1989 in Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh. His parents were namely Manikumar Vemula and Radhika Vemula. His father was from the Vaddera caste and it was said that his mother was born in the Mala Community but raised by a family of the upper caste. Rohith was a very bright student and he completed his education from the University of Hyderabad where he was a Ph.D. Student. Ever since Rohith was a student at the University of Hyderabad, he was very much vocal about the caste-based discriminations on the campus. He was also very politically vocal and was involved with the campus politics from the beginning of his study there. He began his political career on the campus by being a part of the SFI (Students’ Federation of India). But he was not very happy with the working of the party and felt that they did very little for the well-being of the Dalits on the campus who were discriminated against and oppressed openly. He later became a part of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), which also won the college union elections in the consecutive years. The Wire put out the following report carefully examining the series of events that finally led to Rohith’s suicide on 17th January 2016. On the 30th of July, there was a funeral meet that was held following the death of Yakub Menon. Students who were a part of the Ambedkar Students Association took part in the same meet. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) claimed that the meet was not organized to protest against the death penalty, but was to insinuate communal hatred. Later there was a Facebook post stating that the ASA had goons. The Wire put out the following report:
"Under pressure from the High Court and MHRD, the new Vice-Chancellor decided to scrap the existing committee and constitute a new high-level Sub-committee of the Executive Council (EC), which is the highest decision-making body of the university. In the last week of December 2015, the Sub-committee decided to reduce the quantum of punishment. It revoked the suspension of the five students, instead of suspending them from the hostel and barring “the entry of students in groups to certain public spaces.” The students were also disqualified from participating in the annual student union elections. . . Dalit organizations are claiming that the punishment amounts to a social boycott of students. The suspended students approached the High Court against the EC decision. . . Sources in the office of the Dean, Students’ Welfare, said that they had offered to accommodate the students in the university guest house until the court hears the case, but their offer had been rejected by the Joint Action Committee. On 17 January 2016, Rohith was found dead, hanging from a ceiling fan in the New Research Scholars’ hostel on the university campus" (The Chain OELTRVS).
Rohith’s demise was a shock to everyone. He was not just a prolific student but he was an artist at heart. He always stressed the fact that the human being should be treated as a mind.
An Analysis of the Suicide Note
Rohit Vemula’s suicide note is more like an alarming letter to the nation about the oppression that people from the lower castes face daily. His letter starts with a very simple “Good Morning (Full text: DSRVSN).” No one could have ever imagined the same person to have hung himself minutes later. He blames no one other than himself in his last letter. He says that the problem was with him and not anybody else. It seems from his letter that he had a passion for writing, writing for science. He cites the example of Carl Sagan as who was a celebrated writer of science. But unfortunately, what he states is the harsh reality, which is this is the only letter he is going to write. In his suicide note, he gives strong messages about the existence of various forms of discrimination prevalent in society. He says that “people have divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs are coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt” (Full text: DSRVSN). Through these lines, we can very well understand that Rohith talks from his personal experience where he has seen how humans have their views biased. He has been hurt by all the events that have taken place in his life. He mentions very clearly that, “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 (Full text: DSRVSN).” This hints at the political system that exists in our country. Rohith very explicitly mentions that humans are not treated humanely. Humans are treated as mere votes in this democracy is what he tries to tell us. He also says that “My birth is a fatal accident (Full text: DSRVSN)” which puts forward the amount of trauma he had to go through from his childhood. He said that he felt a gap increasing between his body and soul which is the trauma that he faced. So, he stopped feeling good about life. The kind of mental state that he was in was really sad. He stopped feeling anything. He was in such a state that he didn’t care as to what people would call him after they found out what he had done to himself. But because of all the oppression that he had faced he had become and numb and didn’t feel anything. He concluded his letter by making sure he fulfilled all his responsibilities and also mentioned that no one was responsible for this act, because in the end he probably felt there wasn’t any use of this. In an article by The Hindu regarding his death:
"In the note, Rohith says a growing gap between his soul and body made him feel he had become a monster. He immediately goes on to say where his soul lays — in becoming a writer of science, like Carl Sagan. But his body got entangled in politics, a politics that reduced him to his body, dismissing his soul. The science of politics, a science that tears the soul apart from the body, was not for him. He laments in the note, he loved people without knowing they were long divorced from nature. That is quite a Rousseauian angst, pretty late into the heart, or heartlessness, of a post-industrial era. All Rohith saw around him was second-hand feelings, constructed love, coloured beliefs, and artificial art. There was no room for artifice in his soul, the note seems to suggest. But nature, like politics and art, has both soul and room for artifice, which tore apart his soul from his body. No wonder Rohith concludes, it is difficult to love without getting hurt. Love, like nature, art, and politics, is a thing of artifice, and no science can prove it otherwise. It made a huge difference to him" (Bhattacharjee).
Rohith’s death created a stir in the nation. All the cases of discrimination, which was not brought to the forefront, came forward. The Government faced serious protests, and the entire country mourned the death of Rohith. Learning from this the University of Hyderabad and all universities across India made sure they had a committee that would look after the fact that students wouldn’t be discriminated against based on their castes. There were several movements across India, there were films and documentary made on the life of Rohith.
“Dalits and the Origin of Untouchability in India: Origin of Untouchability.” Your Article Library, 5 Apr. 2014, www.yourarticlelibrary.com/sociology/dalits-and-the-origin-of-untouchability-in-india-origin-of-untouchability/32966. Accessed 17 Oct. 2020.
“Full text: Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula's suicide note.” Times of India, 19 Jan. 2016, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/hyderabad/Full-text-Dalit-scholar-Rohith-Vemulas-suicide-note/articleshow/50634646.cms. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.
“The Chain of Events Leading to Rohith Vemula's Suicide.” The Wire, 19 Jan. 2016, thewire.in/education/the-chain-of-events-leading-to-rohith-vemulas-suicide. Accessed 17 Oct. 2020.
Bhattacharjee, Manash. “The Clarity of a Suicide Note.” The Hindu, 17 Jan. 2018, www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/dalit-scholar-rohith-vemulas-suicide-letter-clarity-of-a-suicide-note/article14017737.ece. Accessed 07 Oct. 2020.
Arnab Chatterjee studies English Literature at Presidency University, Kolkata. His research interests include Women Studies and Ambedkar studies. His articles have been published in prominent newspapers like The Statesman.