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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?

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