Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old doctoral research scholar at the Central University of Hyderabad, took his life last month by hanging himself with a political banner in a friend’s hostel room. Neither mental depression nor personal failure was the cause of the suicide. The crimes that led to his premature death were his birth as a Dalit, his aspirations for higher education and dignity, and his political activism.

Since Vemula’s death on January 17 there have been unprecedented protests across India, with students raising their voice against caste and the Hindu Right. In the midst of the widespread movement, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Vemula didn’t succumb to power prejudice and caste hatred. His sacrifice was an act of courage that has shaken the conscience of caste Hindus and awakened the souls of Dalits to set a new discourse on social equality in contemporary India.

A careful reading of Vemula’s letter to the vice chancellor and his suicide note reveals the new Dalit ontology, especially the meaning of being a Dalit. They challenge the foundations of our existence as ethical beings. In decades long ago, persecuted Jewish philosophers like Hannah Arendt and Emmanuel Levinas had explored the ethical foundations of humanity and the meaning of being human. Vemula articulated, in the same way, the meaning of being a Dalit with a suffering soul and an oppressed body. This is why he didn’t blame any individuals for his suicide.

Hannah Arendt, in her Eichmann in Jerusalem, had written about the “banality of evil” after witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of main perpetrators of the Holocaust. Like her, Vemula too recognised the “banality of evil” in the vice chancellor’s actions and the Brahminical caste Hindus in general. In the letter sent to the vice chancellor after his suspension, Vemula asked that poison and ropes be provided to Dalit students upon their admission as their presence and aspirations posed a threat to the campus life. “I am tempted to give two suggestions as a token of banality,” he wrote in that letter.

Similar disappointment underlies the suicide note in which Vemula outlined his ambition of becoming a science writer but also pointed out the systemic hurdles and prejudices that tore his body and soul. “My birth is my fatal accident,” he said. “I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” He ended the letter with the plea: “Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.”

By recognising the evil of caste prejudice in his message and yet forgiving its perpetrators, Vemula threw a challenge to all of us – Dalits, caste Hindus, Muslims, conscientious young men and women of all backgrounds – to put an end to this age-old scourge.

What is the history of caste?

Historically caste evolved as a marker of identity with entitlement of wealth, status and power for a few, and deprivations for the majority. The colonial state solidified caste into a new political identity while using it as a tool to rule. But it was in post-independent India that caste took a new avatar, not just as an identity but also as a means to challenge the inherited privileges of caste Hindus and to unsettle the social, economic and cultural foundations of iniquities. For long, caste Hindu liberals who dominated educational institutions and public life in India were in denial of the existence of caste and imposed an unspoken ban on addressing it. They negated caste as a residual colonial legacy and hoped it would disappear over time. Even when they acknowledged its existence, they saw it as a rural and backward practice which needed sociological and political studies. It was their refusal to acknowledge social reality that promoted the cultural ignorance about the oppressive institutional spaces they commanded.

The unspoken subject of caste exploded in 1990 when VP Singh, then Prime Minister of India, tried to implement Mandal Commission’s recommendation to give 27% of government and allied sectors jobs to the backward castes. Across India, caste Hindu youths streamed into the streets to protest against the government’s decision in the belief that they will be deprived of public employment and will lose their inherited privilege of never being a wage labourer, a sweeper, a scavenger or a victim of discrimination. For these caste Hindu youths, it was natural to protest by sweeping with brooms, polishing boots and other “demeaning” and “humiliating” occupations. By doing so they brought to the open their hidden hatred for the people who have been performing those occupations for generations.

The anti-Mandal agitation led by privileged caste Hindu youth was a defining moment in Indian politics – it marked multiple beginnings. For one, the caste question, long denied in the public domain in urban India, emerged as an everyday reality. Aided by the mainstream media and its elitist guardians, the anti-reservation protestors not only got legitimacy but also set an agenda of contempt for social justice and equality. This historical juncture led to three interesting developments.

First of these was the consolidation of the Hindu Right, which was struggling on the margins due to the stigma of being linked to the killings of MK Gandhi. Suddenly, they found a lifeline in the agitation of the caste Hindu youth. The public self-immolation of Rajiv Goswami at Delhi University not only found support from Bharatiya Janata Party leaders like LK Advani but also galvanised caste Hindu elites across India. In this fervour, the Hindu Right added a new agenda by raking up Ram Janmaboomi, and this turned the public and political debates into Mandal versus Kamandal binary.

The second development of the agitation was the political assertions of Dalits and backward castes, with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram’s experiments in Uttar Pradesh proving that the consolidation of Dalit and backward castes could check the Hindu Right. The third outcome was the consequence of the first two processes – the de-legitimisation of public institutions started and led by caste Hindu elites.

In the 1990s, caste Hindu elites began pointing to the failing public sector units and the financial crisis and blamed electoral politics for this degeneration. PV Narasimha Rao, along with Manmohan Singh, devised this language and leadership. They both pushed the agenda of de-ligitimisation of public institutions and pursued divestment in public institutions as a state policy. It was a wily tactic to drain the system on which the asserting Dalits and other marginalised sections were trying to capitalise. That this tactic succeeded can be witnessed today in the wealth of the Ambanis, Adanis, Tata and Jindals. While their fortunes grow, millions get pushed deeper into poverty in India.

Yet another trajectory unleashed after the anti-Mandal agitation was the shifts in the educational institutions that were once the prerogative of caste Hindus. Slowly, emerging Dalit and marginalised caste youth gained entry into these places by not only using the leverage of reservation but also through their hard work in the general category. However, to counter this threat, the caste Hindu Brahmanical elites conceived a structural shift in the economy – privatisation – and employment in collusion with global capitalist elites to exclude the marginalised and keep the caste relations intact. In this way, the Hindu Right and upper caste elite, which controlled the burgeoning private sector, shut the doors on social equity and responsibility towards vulnerable people. That again left the constitutionally-mandated and government-funded institutions as the only option for unwanted marginalised like Dalits.

Even within the government and government-funded institutions, especially universities, the dominance of the Brahmanical-minded caste Hindus continued and resulted in systematic, though covert, strategies to discriminate against students from reserved categories. While the aim remained to suffocate these students – so that they withdrew voluntarily – the determined Dalits and other marginalised who crossed the thresholds refused to kowtow and stood up against caste prejudice.

Commitment to ethical humanity

Vemula’s death has ignited new debates on caste prejudice faced by Dalits and other marginalised students in India’s higher educational institutions. Moreover, it has touched the conscience of youth from across caste and religion as they stand with Dalits in the streets to demand justice for Vemula. All of them are asking for accountability from the people and the system which abetted the suicide. But there’s another question that needs to be raised.

What do we owe this young man who left us to join the stars but exposed the vulnerability of our identities as Dalits, non-Dalits, women, Muslims and the marginalised? His death was precipitated by the social and political environment and we have to locate his death not just as personal demise but as a social death. The caste-ridden Hindu society refuses to see beyond the “immediate identity and nearest possibility” and Vemula urges us to recognise the humanity of each other. We can find resonance of this in the writings of Levinas. Levinas, in his Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, talks about the essence of being human by moving beyond one’s own self and immediate identity. He analyses the inextricable relationship with the self and the other and points out that one cannot be fully human unless one recognises the humanity in “others” by looking beyond their immediate identity.

Vemula’s cheerful innocent face and his letters let us see him beyond his immediate identity as Dalit. They allow us to see him as a promising young scholar with brilliant ideas, a committed activist for social injustice and an aspiring science writer. Perhaps it is the recognition of this humanity that has galvanised the youth from across caste, class and religious lines to come out on the streets.

Vemula’s death doesn’t represent darkness. Unlike Rajiv Goswami’s self-immolation, which unleashed the worst kind of prejudice in caste Hindus, Vemula’s suicide has sparked the positive sentiments of solidarity, commitment and recognition of humanity. As Dalits, non-Dalits and human beings, we owe a great deal to this young man who had to reject society and its evil practices. The only way we can pay tribute to him is through endless efforts towards justice and recognition of humanity of others, so that we can help who are trapped in similar circumstances and prevent the loss of more Vemulas. A true commitment to Ambedkar’s ideals of ethical humanity enshrined in the Constitution of India would be the best way to remember him and help others not to lose hope.