Like millions across the land, I mourn inconsolably the passing of a young man who dreamed of the stars, yet despaired of our world enough to take his young life. After writing a few words of fire, of yearning and pain, in the hostel room of a friend, he quietly hanged himself to death. A young man who loved people, who wanted “a man treated as a mind, as a glorious thing made up of star dust”, yet could not in the end rescue himself from what he described as “the fatal accident” of his birth.
Rohith Vemula, doctoral scholar in the Central University of Hyderabad, observed in his farewell letter to the world, with dignity and profound sadness, that he could never overcome the loneliness of his childhood, the unappreciated childhood from his past. In these few words he spoke for and evoked the unspeakable daily humiliation that millions of Dalit children and young people continue to endure in the new India of our times.
A harsh reminder
Some years back, I participated in a study on untouchability in rural India in 11 states, along with social scientists Ghanshyam Shah, Sukhdeo Thorat, Satish Deshpande and Amita Baviskar. We found that in most states, in anything between a third and half the schools surveyed, Dalit children were forced to sit separately from other students, usually at the back of the class. What Rohith’s words should teach and remind us is what these children must feel when they are forced to sit away from their other classmates, and the teacher typically conducts the class as though they are just not there in the room, or that they don’t deserve to be there.
Many studies confirm that Dalit children are also frequently seated separately from their fellow-students when statutory school meals are served at lunchtime. In many schools, Dalit children have especially ear-marked plates only for their use, whereas in others, upper-caste children bring their plates from home, for fear of being “polluted” by eating from plates used by Dalit children. How would Dalit children make sense of a world in which they are treated this way by their classmates?
In a public hearing organised last summer in Delhi by the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion, children from 13 states described the many ways that they are humiliated in classrooms. A Dalit boy was forced by his headmistress in a government school in Pratapgarh district of Uttar Pradesh in March 2015 to pick up and dispose of the stinking carcass of a dead dog that was rotting on the school grounds, as his fellow pupils watched. Two children from Bikaner were beaten up because they had the temerity to drink water from an earthen pot used by their upper-caste teacher. Children from the de-notified community, the Chharas, reported from Ahmedabad city repeated taunts from their teachers about the futility of their efforts to study and improve their lives. One teacher is reported to have declared in class, “You Chharas should not try to study, you should only sweep the floors. You will be not able to do anything with your life.”
The otherwise-salutary campaign to build toilets in all schools fills me with dread, because in most schools, teachers are left to their own devices to find ways to regularly clean these toilets. In a large number of rural, and even some urban schools, teachers think nothing of assigning this task to girls and boys from Dalit communities although cleaning toilets is still considered one of the most socially degrading occupations. Think of how humiliating this would be for that segment of children who are forced to undertake this chore in school. I recall visiting a colony of manual scavengers in Patna in which all the children had dropped out of the only government school in their neighbourhood because they were compelled by their teachers to clean toilets.
For Dalit children who endure the humiliation of being treated as lesser children in class – and the loneliness and lack of appreciation that Rohith wrote about so evocatively in his suicide note – and still persevere with their higher education, university often remains as demeaning and threatening a location as school was. Rohith is not alone among Dalit students who committed suicide in medical, engineering and other schools of higher learning. These suicides have persisted year and year, but few ask why these students feel compelled to take their lives. A year and a half before Rohith took his life, Madari Venkatesh in the same university killed himself when he stopped receiving his fellowship and was not allotted a supervisor even two years into his PhD.
Few paid heed to a damning report by Sukhdeo Thorat, former Chairperson of the University Grants Commission, of the segregation and public disgrace that medical students grapple within the premier medical school of the country, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. In IITs, similarly, "quota students" admitted on seats reserved for SC and ST children are continuously reminded by their teachers about how they were undeservingly admitted with lower qualifying marks than the "general" candidate, and could therefore never hope to make the grade. Despite being crushed and demoralised, many still do make the grade, some drop out, and a few kill themselves.
As a teacher, I have on many occasions stood before classes of young recruits to India’s higher civil services, in the LBS National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, or classes in the Indian Institute of Management, and debated the justice of India’s policy of reserving seats in higher and technical education centres and civil services for children from historically disadvantaged communities. In Mussoorie in particular during these debates, I have often wondered what must transpire in the hearts and minds of nearly half the young people in the classroom, recruits to the IAS and other higher civil services from SC, ST and OBC communities – who largely remain silent during these discussions – when their own batch-mates debate their lack of comparative merit in their presence.
Hostility and condescension
These discussions – and the frequently hostile and condescending attitudes of teachers and advantaged-caste students – hinge on spurious notions of merit. Entry into the IITs, for instance, are aided for large numbers of successful candidates by expensive coaching centres. How would you evaluate the merit of candidates whose parents cannot afford the fees of these coaching institutes, who still pass the exams sometimes on lower grades but based on their own unaided efforts? How would you assess the merit of students whose parents have not had the benefits of higher education, and sometimes any schooling at all, or the security, comfort and exposure that wealth and privilege bring?
Rohith posted on Facebook some personal details of his family – of his father working as a security guard in a hospital, his mother earning by tireless sewing and embroidery, and the small refrigerator in their home in which his neighbours also placed bottles of water to be cooled. But most of his posts were political. He described his political beliefs as those of an Ambedkarite Marxist. It is significant that the battle that led ultimately to his suicide after university authorities barred his access to fellowships, hostels and mess food – a "social boycott" in his university that broke the young man’s spirit – was to support the screening of a film about the slaughter and displacement of Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in 2013.
Karthik Bittu the first transgender teacher (or student) in the University of Hyderabad, describes herself as Rohith’s transgender friend. When she was preparing to organize the first Swabhimana Sabha in the University to assert transgender self-respect, she recalls that it was Rohith who reached out to her in support and solidarity, and took great pains to understand the humiliations and exclusions of their lives. It was he who worked hardest to prepare for the May Day rally in support of workers’ rights.
In an open letter she wrote to him after he died, she said:
"I know only a little glimmer of how painful being alive in this world was for you. And how you still loved the world, the universe. You had just lost hope in people. Because they, we, could not create a world without the twisted thorns of caste that maliciously wrought the pain you were forced to feel, the pain you fought against tirelessly, impatiently. You were pricked by every injustice, and this is what I want people to know."
Rohith wrote that after his death, he hoped that he would travel to the stars. There are rare moments like this one, when I wish that I was not an agnostic but a person of faith. If I were, I could take solace in the belief that there is indeed a life after death, a life in which Rohith would certainly travel to the stars, and find a world unlike this one – a world in which for some people, birth is not a fatal accident, life is not a curse, childhoods are not lonely and unappreciated, where human beings are not reduced to their immediate identity, to a vote, to a number, where love is not constructed, beliefs are not coloured, where no gaping gaps are left between body and soul.
But while I cannot believe in that other world, can we instead learn from the tragic passing of this precious young man, who dreamed so achingly of love, and justice, and stardust. Changing our world may take a long time. But in this generation, now, can we at least ensure that classrooms, schools, universities become places where children and young people are valued for what they are, for the qualities of their hearts and heads, for their efforts as much as their failures, and not for the accident – fatal or otherwise – of their birth.