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Editor’s Note: Institutional Murder of Rohith Vemula

By Drishadwati Bargi

What to the Dalit is Fifteenth of August?

“To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.” – Frederick Douglas, “What to the Slave is Fourth of July?”

As I pen down this short editorial for the collection of extremely thoughtful essays on the protests that followed and preceded the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula on 17 January, 2016 in the hostel of the Central University of Hyderabad, India, the national capital is witnessing a strange irony: the protesting family of the raped and murdered nine-year Dalit girl has been issued a notice by the Indian army to vacate the site because their presence is allegedly threatening the security of the state, all set to celebrate the ensuing Independence Day! In fact, from our perspective Frederick Douglas seemed to be in a better position in the United States of 1852. He was at least invited to a public platform to deliver a speech in front of a primarily white audience. The Dalit family in New Delhi is deprived of this bare minimum. They were literally being removed so that the nation may celebrate its Independence Day. In recent years, the sight of bereaved Dalit families, mourning the brutal murders and rapes of their children has surfaced again and again in the independent media that have cared to report these incidents. While the same story has been repeated in different states of India: Telangana, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi, just to name the most prominent ones, the pattern has been the same: on the one hand, hostile social forces (comprising caste Hindu administrators, students, professors, land-owners, neighbors, priests in temples) outnumber and overpower the already isolated Dalits, on the other hand, state machineries actively collude with the former and make any experience of justice impossible.

Surely, there are already umpteen number of studies that have tried to explore this predicament, of which the writings of the currently incarcerated Anand Teltumbde clearly reveal the role of the state in denying justice to the Dalit families. In his The Republic of Caste he enlists the numerous ways Dalit families are literally trapped between the apathetic and biased police and hostile members of the dominant castes and how the actions of the two powers often mirror each other in depriving the victim of any resource to fight back. Even when major Dalit protests have led to the deliverance of justice, the courts have made sure that there is a denial of recognition of the role of caste in the violence. Is there anything between and beyond these two poles of abjection? What precedes the brutal deaths of the Dalit children and youth? What happens to the kith, kin and friends who live with the memory of the deceased? How do they see the incident? What are the conditions that lead to these deaths? What leads to the repeated denial of justice?

I decided to edit a volume on the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula because the latter’s suicide and the following protests, exemplified, i.e., rendered transparent and explained the deaths of Manisha Valmiki, Rajni Krish, … Like Rohith Vemula, each one of them, were confined, almost claustrophobically, between the two forces I described above. Their failure to get justice revealed the fatal schema within which the Dalit families get trapped, every time they seek redressal from the state, with the latter’s demand for evidence and proof. Yet, when it came to representation and mobilization, Rohith Vemula’s death somehow disturbed the expected pattern. His suicide letter circulated wildly via internet. Letters of Solidarity and Petitions were re-written and sent from scholars in India and abroad. A huge student-led agitation followed, engulfing not just the city of Hyderabad but other cities, including the National Capital Region. This intermittent period between Rohith’s suicide and the Committee of the Ministry of Human Resource’s non-recognition of Rohith Vemula’s status as a Dalit, was teeming with emotions, anxieties and creative outpourings of solidarity, love, and rage. As an editor, one of my aims was to capture, via retrospective writings and analysis, this intermittent zone of possibilities. Through the analysis of the ephemerals that the moment generated, be it the photographs of Rohith, his writings, slogans, amateur theaters, and the everyday performativity of the protesting students, I wanted to capture the energies and the labor of this moment, so as not to reduce Rohith Vemula’s life to a case of juridical non-recognition and failure. The essays by Aatika Singh, Ankita Banerjee, and Saumya Mani Tripathi brilliantly capture these moments and describe their universal significance viz a viz the university culture, Indian art history and the community that witnessed the suicide and the protests. Through art and performance, the students can hold the powers accountable for Rohith’s murder when the same is denied by the juridical apparatus.

In her essay, “The Universal Visuality of Rohith Vemula and the Aesthetics of Emancipation”, Aatika Singh discusses the artistic tributes to Rohith Vemula, in the aftermath of his suicide, and not forget his dishonorable cremation by the police. Singh avers, given the “boundlessness” of artistic imagination, the portrayals of Rohith in pen and paper, by the student activists of the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University enabled a “collective sense of solidarity and resistance.” Through these works, “A serene Blue Rohith with closed eyes, morose expression and a raised fist, came to symbolize resistance to caste.” This altered visuality of Rohith helped the students; his friends reclaim him after his tragic death. Singh poignantly observes that this artistic re-generation of Rohith, as a figure exuding “Buddhalike” “compassion” enables the journey towards healing. She concludes by affirming the role of the art of the oppressed in creating conditions for the realization of freedom and belonging, beyond the logics of purity and pollution. In her “Resistance in Vulnerability”, Ankita Banerjee notes that the wide circulation of Rohith’s “happy” and “smiling” photograph soon after his death enabled a re-humanization of Rohith “so that people remember his face and the injustice he suffered.” More importantly, Banerjee stresses on the photographs of Radhika Vemula and the way her image as a bereaved Dalit mother in the street challenges the dominant image of Bharat-Mata that we have inherited from the nationalist movement of Indian Independence. Against power, her image connoted vulnerability and this challenged the statist narratives of the legitimate claimant of justice. In her essay “Performing Resistance in Art: The Ghosts of Velivada”, Saumya Mani Tripathi writes about the creation of Velivavda or Dalit Ghetto in the University of Hyderabad, in the aftermath of the suicide of Rohith Vemula. Reminding the readers that the protests have continued even after the courts have exonerated the university administrators, Tripathi describes a few episodes that constituted the life of the Velivada. One such episode consisted of installation of a bust of Rohith Vemula, soon to be desecrated and vandalized. Notwithstanding its vulnerability, Tripathi notes that the “Greek style bust sculpture” was “designed to claim a heroic image of Rohith Vemula, in the same place where he was murdered.” The Velivada enabled a “a theatre of memory of Rohith Vemula’s suicide…” It generated “Slogans, speeches, rhetoric all [constituting] the oral history that helps in mobilizing and evoking a memory of a moment of history.” Tripathi narrates that the students of Fine Arts Department of HCU, in a collaborative Art performance, covered the paintings of the Gallery with cloth and laid down on the floor covering their head inside a bag, pressing their ears with hands, and closing their eyes at the arrival of Appa Rao, the VC of the university, whom they accused of being the culprit behind Rohith’s Death.

As Rohith Vemula was an active member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, the Dalit student’s organization that carried on the struggle after his suicide, I have included two articles – by Munna Sannaki, erstwhile president of ASA, and Mohammed Salih Amminikad – to situate this organization with respect to other student organizations in Indian campuses. Both the essays reveal the existing fissures among the student’s organizations and point at the limitations of the so-called “progressive politics” in addressing the needs of Dalit students. Sannaki argues that ASA has never had any organizational links with any existing political parties, thereby possessing an autonomy that distinguishes them from other existing student’s organizations. Founded in 1993, it has played a significant role in ensuring the implementation of reservation policies, articulating the stigmatization that Dalit students face in the universities, as beneficiaries of affirmative actions and witnessing the everyday casteism that Dalit students face in the universities. Notwithstanding its non-allegiance to any political party, ASA is hardly a neutral organization. On the contrary, its presence is marked by the militant ideologies of Ambedkar, Periyar and Phule(s). Mohammed Salih brings up the afterlife of the protests by exploring the figure of Rohith Vemula, in the student politics of Kerala, a state noted for progressive governance and Left-wing political rule. He informs us that the Malayalam books on Rohith Vemula has made it possible to rethink and reorder the contemporary political public of Kerala to some extent, around the issues of caste in the university spaces. In the two documentaries, Rohit Vemula-Ekalavya of the new Era, as part of the episode titled ‘Choonduviral’ (Pointing finger), produced by Manorama (published, Jan 24, 2016), Rohit Vemulaye enth Kond Vyavasthapitha idathupaksham Marakkunnu (Why the systemic Left forgets about Rohit Vemula), produced by Manorama TV (Published on April 29, 2018), different testimonies and narratives of Keralite students have been incorporated as the symbol of ‘performative politics’ in the universities. His analysis passionately underscores the “exclusions within inclusions” of the campus politics, viz the viz the experiences of caste-based exclusions and the journey of the Dalit Students Movement in 2002. In the state of Kerala, via these translations, Rohith’s figure thus perform the two functions of simultaneously enabling other Dalit voices to emerge and thereby broadening the scope of democracy as well as revealing the existing fissures and weakness of progressive political discourse. Quite clearly, this piece is addressed to the progressive activists to do some soul-searching and acknowledge their hypocrisies.

Prajwal Gaikwad flags similar questions about the inability of the campus left to unlearn their caste determined habits and practices in his article, “The University Life of the Dalit Student and the ASA.” More significantly he paints an extremely worrying picture of the Indian university system: according to the MHRD, in the years 2017-2019, there were 2461 (nearly 47.5 per cent) dropouts from the Indian Institute of Technologies of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Caste students. This obviously implies that these institutions do not even bother to offer the required care and counselling that the students, many of them being first generation learners, need. Instead, what they receive is pure hostility, as the recent news about the professor at IIT Kharagpur revealed, thanks to pandemic and online classes! ASA’s role here stands out. As I noted earlier, it is not just any other political party. Instead, for a young Dalit queer person like Gaikwad, ASA fulfilled the role that should have been ideally performed by the classroom. ASA’s Study Circle made it possible for him to read Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule, thinkers that are yet to be included in the classrooms of Indian universities.

In his reflective piece, “Para-religious Narratives: Antidotes to Caste Narrative”, Sacaria Joseph remembers the ways literary narratives like that of Tagore’s Chandalika, or Avadana Literature offer instances of redemption via religion. As the monster of caste is primarily supported by religion, Joseph foregrounds the importance of religious narratives that represent experiences of “self-discovery” as that of Prakriti in Tagore’s Chandalika. The same narrative is re-told in Malayalam poem “Chandalabhikshuti” (1923) wherein the outcaste woman Matangi is shown to find self-realization after her encounter with Ananda, the disciple of Buddha. Perhaps religion here plays the same role as art. It becomes a means of self-realization and self-transformation after the dominant community fails to offer the same. Lest our secular common sense decry the religious nature of self-realization here, we cannot ignore the fact that Radhika Vemula embraced Buddhism soon after her son’s suicide. In recent years, the family of Manisha Valmiki, have embraced Buddhism along with 200 other villagers in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in 2020.

Moinak Banerjee’s “Politics Beyond Death: Rohith Vemula’s Martyrdom and Possibilities of Resistance” performs the much-needed job of foregrounding the fact the “altruism” underpinning Vemula’s suicide, that his suicide was not just a tragic withdrawal from the world of suffering, but an act of sacrifice performed for the sake of the truth he believed in, for his political commitment. According to Banerjee, this element of altruism initiated the dialectical interplay between life and death, and the self and other (if I may add), and the politics of hope and hopelessness. Perhaps, it was this element of political commitment, exemplified in his suicide that made his death slightly different from the other deaths, so that those who witnessed it were forced to respond in some way or the other. The logical consequence of this observation is as follows, “Dying reveals ‘Dalitness’, its relation to the sovereign and points to the need for collective agency.” Grandiloquent as this reading of death is, it misses the crucial fact that I have tried to foreground, that Rohith’s death is part of a continuum of deaths and exclusion of Dalit students and youth in India. Perhaps the exceptionality came not from the so-called sacrifice (can we even call it a sacrifice when his friends and family are repeatedly calling his death an “institutional murder”?) but from the collective labor of his friends, his family, the activists of ASA, the journalists, the teachers of HCU and other Indian universities who made sure that we do not forget him and occupied the streets of the Indian cities, wrote petitions, translated his poetry into different Indian languages, organized marches, erected statues, sang songs, braved the water-canons of the police and risked imprisonment for the sake of Rohith, thereby immortalizing him, after his death. Afterall, if we disassociate death from all the other exclusions that Dalit youth experience every day in India (enforced dropping out, unemployment, alcoholism, imprisonment and rape and sexual harassment), are we not conflating “life” with “bare life” already? Isn’t dropping out of school or the university or losing one’s job a kind of death as well? Must we reduce death to biological death alone, and then create a historically dubious hierarchy of the so-called altruistic death and egotistic death?

Today, many of Rohith Vemula’s friends do not have job security, or a guarantee of secure livelihood. In fact, most of them do not even have the leisure and the resources to write an informal account of their lives, thanks to pandemic and the overall failure of the public institutions in India. As I write this article, an assistant professor in IIT-Madras has resigned  citing multiple cases of “caste-based discrimination” in his work-place. To make things worse, as Deepti Sreeram’s article points out, we are fast moving towards a university system that will not even open its doors for Dalit students, forget making room for Ambedkar or Phule’s ideologies!

NB: Our issue was scheduled to be published on 15th August 2021. However, due to the pandemic, a lot of Dalit activists and scholars could not avail of internet services. This slowed down the process as I had to wait for a long time to get some articles from activists and participants of the Rohith Vemula movement. I am sure there are more writings to be done and more questions to be explored. I hope this issue reaches the hands and no doubt the eyes of scholars, activists, teachers and students across caste, and provoke them to think and reflect on the contemporary Indian university and its curriculum, personal conducts of its members, and the scope of change in future.

Photo: The News Minute

Issue Editor:
Drishadwati Bargi is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Minnesota. She is writing a dissertation on Dalit Religiosity in Literature and Cinema. Email: bargi003@umn.edu

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For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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