On the 17th of January, 2016, a most tragic event unfolded in the hostel run by the University of Hyderabad, one of India’s premiere institutes of higher education. A student from a lower caste community (the Malas of Telangana-Andhra Pradesh), by the name of Rohith Vemula, hanged himself out of sheer frustration at the treatment being dished out to him and four other students.
The University had expelled him, and withheld his stipend. Vemula belonged to a group known as the Ambedkar Students Association or ASA which had taken on the powerful Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad or ABVP (youth wing of the far right Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, whose government was sworn in at the Centre in 2014). His questioning of a culture which defended and replicated caste-based social relations from the medieval era in 21st century Indian campuses rubbed many the wrong way.
He was accused of assaulting a youth leader of the ABVP and supporting terrorists. Egged on by a minister of the BJP from the state of Telangana (who wrote letters alleging the conversion of the University into a den of anti-nationals), authorities expelled five ASA students. Rohith was one among them. His suicide unleashed a nation-wide debate on the role of caste in Indian society. It also exposed the divisions that had been papered over by Indian nationalists over the decades.
Supporters of ABVP and BJP have been denying caste-based discrimination against members of marginalized communities and tribes. Some even go to the extent of calling caste a British invention to divide Hinduism. This is a stand that does not pass muster given the innumerable references to jati and varna (as the founding principles of social relations) in books written by Brahmins and endorsed by Hindu upper caste communities hundreds of years before the arrival of European colonizers.
I saw all of this unfold in a city which considers itself the Silicon Valley of India. Caste is a fact of life in South Asia. Here, marriages are arranged on the basis of caste. Houses are rented out after ensuring that the person requesting accommodation belongs to an acceptable caste. Judges and policemen go soft on upper caste assailants. Temples allow entry to some and deny it to others on the same basis.
One of the most distressing aspects of the entire episode was Rohith Vemula’s suicide note. He expressed his desire to emulate the great American astronomer, Carl Sagan. To be a writer. He also expressed his anguish at being denied the chance to pursue his dreams by a society obsessed with hierarchy. The contents of the note were conveyed to Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s wife and co-author) who wrote a touching letter in response. I have appended both of them below.
Rohith Vemula’s Suicide Note
“I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. 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. I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs colored. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. 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.”
Ann Druyan’s Letter (to Rajeev Ramachandran, the Indian journalist who conveyed the note to her)
“To read his suicide note and to learn the details of his predicament is to get a vivid inkling of the actual cost of bias to our civilization. If we could somehow quantify the totality of lost contributions and innovations as a result of prejudice, I believe we would find it staggering. You tell me, Rajeev: Is it possible that the attention paid to Rohit’s story will lessen its chronic repetition? I am trying to find something hopeful in an otherwise heartbreaking example of needless suffering and squandered potential.”
Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and is based on a photo released by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA (2003).