As Rohith Vemula’s friends and compatriots try to make sense of his suicide, it is impossible to separate his publicly lived life from his private despair and solitary death. His roommate said in an interview: “I think he felt that someone has to die for things to change. And this is what he did.”
But, was Rohith’s decision to take his own life a final political act willing the society to transform? Was it an act of despair at the misuse of political power? Was it an act of catharsis by a young man unable to see beyond the void?
His astonishingly poetic last testament can be read a hundred ways, each reader finding her own meaning.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has decided to read Rohith Vemula’s letter as a clean chit. Accused of putting pressure on the University of Hyderabad at the behest of the BJP’s student wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the Union Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani announced:
“This note does not mention any university official, this note does not mention any national political organisation, this note does not mention any MP.”
Susheel Kumar, the ABVP student leader whose complaint of assault in August (described as exaggerated by the police) was the starting point of the political maelstrom that Rohith Vemula was caught up in, also put the same interpretation on it:
“I read that suicide note 100 to 200 times in which he did not mention anyone’s name, that so and so person is responsible.”
The BJP wants not just a clean chit, it wants to control the narrative of Rohith Vemula’s death. It finds it irksome that people read his letter as an indictment of caste, the discrimination that those from marginalised communities face and the despair this creates in them. Rohith wrote,
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity. To a vote. To a number. To a thing…. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.”
Irani, asserted that “people” were misrepresenting the case in a “malicious attempt to ignite passions and present this as a caste battle”.
But long before Rohith wrote his letter that people now read as an indictment of caste discrimination, Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya had called the activities of student organisation to which he belonged, the Ambedkar Student Association, “casteist” and asked Irani to “change the campus for the better”.
The only provocation for Dattatreya’s letter was a dispute over the Association’s poster for a protest against the ABVP preventing the screening of a film on the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar. So where did caste come into to it for Datatreya, unless it was the “Ambedkar” in the Ambedkar Students Association name?
The BJP may want to control the narrative of Rohith Vemula’s death, but it cannot because it lacks empathy – ideology and organisation leave no room for common humanity. As soon as the news of the suicide broke, with only the barest acknowledgment of a young life taken too soon, the BJP went on the offensive to defend Dattatreya’s characterisation of the Ambedkar Student Association, and by extension Rohith Vemula, as (apart from casteist) “extremist” and “anti-national” and, therefore, undeserving of sympathy. BJP spokespersons and the ABVP cited the Association’s protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon – a protest against the state’s use of the death penalty – as proof of their "anti-national" activity.
Politicising a suicide
With no irony at all, the BJP accused its political opponents of “politicising” a suicide by linking it to Bandaru Dattatreya’s letter and the many reminders from the human resources development ministry to the University of Hyderabad administration. Certainly there was an element of opportunism in national level opposition leaders championing Rohith Vemula in death. But, they were late entrants compared with the BJP whose minister acted on an unverified allegation made by an ABVP member to declare a students’ organisation “casteist, extremist and anti-national” and repeat without proof the ABVP member’s complaint of being brutally injured and hospitalised as a consequence.
It is no surprise that students’ organisations at University of Hyderabad have welcomed the support of opposition party leaders as a counterweight against a university administration that they see as hostile, and a government in Delhi that promotes malicious complaints against them.
Rohith Vemula spent his last days in a makeshift tent instead of in a hostel room, burdened not with finishing lab work or a research paper but with waiting out police complaints and a malicious court case filed by an ABVP member that was to decide his future. Those who seek to understand what may have led Rohith Vemula down the road he took, would do well to shift the focus from the larger political drama that has unfolded since his death, to university campuses and student politics, which more and more reflect the narrow interests and corruptions of mainstream politics that reduce a man to a vote, to a number, to a thing.