Opinion

Rohith Vemula wanted to reach for the stars, but his bid to break barriers killed him

Why we all bear responsibility for the young Dalit scholar's death.

“I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.”

This is the conclusion of the letter that Rohith Vemula composed before ending his life on Sunday. As anyone who has followed the case has now gathered, Vemula was one of five Dalit students suspended by the University of Hyderabad in August after an alleged altercation with a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad. Matters escalated after the BJP’s Union minister of labour and employment Bandaru Dattatreya sent a letter to the ministry of human resources, indicating his personal interest in the case.

In the cold hands of lawyers, Vemula’s suicide note could be used to shield the officials of the University of Hyderabad, the ABVP and Dattatreya against charges of aiding and abetting the scholar’s suicide. It could be used with pride by nationalist leaders as evidence of the tolerance of India’s Dalits, who do not blame others for their suffering even if it results in their deaths.

But the young man’s magnanimity in his hour of his death should not shield us from the bitter truth: Rohith Vemula died because of our cowardice. The cowardice of our fellow academics, the administrators at the university, who bowed down to the powers-that-be and ordered Vemula and his companions to be expelled from the hostel and barred from entering the library and common areas of the campus. Though a committee established by the university found no substance in the charge that Vemula and his friends had attacked and injured a member of the ABVP, the authorities decided to overturn the report and expel these five members of the the Ambedkar Students’ Association.

What he doesn't say

In his note, Vemula chose not to chronicle the events that led him to make his decision to kill himself. He does not say that his group had protested against the hanging of Mumbai blast convict Yakub Memon last year and organised the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baki Hai, a documentary film on the communal violence of Uttar Pradesh. He didn’t mention that these acts had invited the wrath of the ABVP and prompted Dattatreya to write a personal letter to the Union Minister of Human Resource Development Smriti Irani, asking for action against these “anti-national elements”. He does not say that he had been sleeping in the open for the last two weeks.

Instead, he writes: “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.” He fails to mention that he felt miserable in a world he wanted to understand but where he found no urgency for things he was desperate to make sense of: love, pain, life and death. He despairs of a world where “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.”

Vemula wanted human beings to be treated as minds, “as glorious things made up of star dust, in every field, in studies, in streets, in life and in death”.

Forging new ties

Vemula aspired to be a science writer and to be a person of the universe of words. He refused to be pinned down to this immediate identity. He did not want to die a Dalit. He wanted to break free of it, to transcend to limitlessness, to travel to stars. Yet, it’s clear that he died precisely because of this striving to cross these limits. As a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association he had challenged the nationalist consensus and stood by India’s marginal Muslims. This was the final act of his short life: to forge solidarities of new kinds. But the world failed to keep pace with him and he paid for it with his life.

The drama that has played out these past few weeks at the University of Hyderabad is a familiar one. Elements of it are playing out at other campuses across the country. India’s universities no longer offer nesting places for young dreamers like Vemula. They are now populated be self-serving people more interested perpetuating their privileges, who have completely forgotten their duty, which is to give courage to the young to break free of all the confines, to act wild, to stand by them even when society finds them dangerous.

There has been lot of noise about a new aspirational class which is impatient with the politics of the day. Was Vemula not an aspiring young mind? Why then did he have to feel lonely and empty?

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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Eleven ways Indian college life teaches you not to waste anything

College, they say, prepares you for life. Sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

Our quintessentially Indian ability to make the most of every resource has weathered us through many a storm in life. But this talent, as it were, is developed and honed to a fine art only in college. Frugality is a prominent feature of college life—more by circumstances than by choice and perhaps the most important skill we learn is nearly 100% efficiency when it comes to making the most of resources or opportunities. This “no wastage” policy is learned through many ways in college.

Academics
When it comes to studying, the art of “no wastage” is refined in college.

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2. Photocopier bulk deals. In college, after you convince a kind-hearted classmate to let you copy their notes, you negotiate a bulk rate discount with the photocopier uncle and share the wealth with your classmates. It saves you time, money and the collective shame of failing together.

3. Stationery. Pencils are worn till they reach a stub. Broken rulers are used as long as you can still draw a straight line on them. Pens are borrowed and reused until their ink is sucked dry. Stationary is rarely wasted in the life of a college goer.

Food
Food occupies a special part of a college goer’s life and there is only one rule when it comes to food: don’t waste any.

4. Thalis. College kids are always hungry, and there are few options that provide better value for money than thalis. Thalis come in all sorts—the Gujarati kind on copper plates, the south Indian variety on palm leaves, or even the Punjabi “mini thali” found in restaurants all over the country. No matter what form they take, no food goes waste.

5. Shaadis. Speaking of food, you never say no to a wedding invitation when you’re in college. An invitation missed is a buffet meal wasted. The only price is to put on a half-decent looking dress or a pant and shirt that have been pressed. Then enter the hall, say your hi-hellos, and onto the food. No opportunity to attend shaadis is wasted during college, and rightly so.

6. 50p toffees. Those were heady times when things had the decency to cost nine rupees fifty paise instead of a full ten. The remaining 50 paise left over as change would not go waste either, and would return more often than not in the form of a chewy toffee or mint.

7. One-by-two coffee. Because coffee shared is friendship enhanced. In college, a full cup of canteen coffee was always cheaper than two half cups, and nearly impossible to finish owing to its milky sweetness. Converting it into a one-by-two courtesy an extra white styrofoam cup ensured that neither the extra coffee went to waste, nor a chance to make a friend happy.

Travel
Space is to be shared, not hogged. Every seat in college be it on the bench or a bike or a rickshaw would be occupied till its last inch.

8. Triple seat scooter rides. College-goers of a certain vintage remember that scooters were made to accommodate more people than cars. One person riding, another in the back, and at least one if not two people sandwiched between them. While this ensures no wastage of space, it’s not to be tried by the faint-hearted.

9. Share autos. The cheapest way to travel, of course. Share autos are a lifeline for college goers. Load up your friends in an auto, share the fare, and end up with more money in your wallet.

10. RAC tickets. Among the great innovations of the Indian Railways is the RAC or Reservation Against Cancellation ticket, which ensures that travelers can travel on the train even if they do not get a full berth to themselves. More often than not, two travelers split a seat. A boon to college students who don’t mind roughing it a little to get to their destination on time.

Freebies
College teaches you many things. The ability to not waste freebies is prominent on the list.

11. Buy one, get one free. The five little words that every college student wants to hear. Be it movie tickets, rock concert tickets, clothes, books or meals, a “one-on-one free” offer would always be utilized even if you didn’t need what the offer was selling. An unwritten if long-standing rule in college.

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This article was produced on behalf of Airtel by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.

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