Politics beyond Death: Rohith Vemula’s Martyrdom and Possibilities of Resistance
By Moinak Banerjee
“One day you will understand why I was aggressive.
On that day, you will understand
why I have not just served social interests.
One day you will get to know why I apologised.
On that day, you will understand
there are traps beyond the fences.
One day you will find me in the history.
In the bad light, in the yellow pages.
And you will wish I was wise.
But at the night of that day,
you will remember me, feel me
and you will breathe out a smile.
And on that day, I will resurrect.”
(Rohith Vemula, One Day, Facebook Post, 3rd September, 2015)
On 17 January, 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student activist and doctoral candidate at the University of Hyderabad, hanged himself with a banner of his student organization, Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). The particularity of this act ensued several demonstrations, debates, discussion and even disavowal of the caste problem being related to what was reported as ‘suicide’ but contested as systemic ‘murder’ of yet another Dalit in an educational institution of India. The statist narrative tries to reduce every suicide within the university space in India as examples of what Emile Durkheim categorizes as ‘egoistic suicide’ – a response of human beings who feel completely detached from the society to which they belonged originally (Suicide: A Study in Sociology 1897). But Rohith Vemula punctured this myth and became a martyr who refused the sovereignty of the university and the state over his own body and politics. His death with its deep tragic implications resulted in becoming a collective agency for other Dalit students and activists. It could be alternatively read as an instance of ‘altruistic suicide’ which Durkheim defines as an act of dying by individuals who feel deeply integrated in a society or identify radically with a particular cause with such intensity that they are ready to sacrifice their own lives. This article will engage with the central question of how individuals like Rohith Vemula transcend their political subalternity by merging themselves with the collective identity of Dalits through the act of suicide. It will further study altruistic suicide as a form of resistance that visibilizes the dialectical interplay between death and life, individual and collective, the politics of hope and hopelessness.
“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past…” wrote Rohith Vemula in the final note that he has left behind. While this ‘fatal accident’ directly points to his Dalit experience, the statist narratives labelled him as an anti-national who was faking his Dalit identity to gain attention. The charge of being an anti-national was premised on the fact that ASA had organized a discussion on the relevance of ‘death penalty’ in modern societies. This was after the hanging of Yakub Memon who was convicted as one of the masterminds of the 1993 Bombay attacks. It was portrayed as if the student activists, including Rohith, had come out in support of a terrorist. The second charge of fake identity was premised on the fact that his father, Manikumar, belonged to the Vaddera caste which is classified as one of the Other Backward Classes in the constitution of India. Since a child’s identity is premised solely on his father, Rohith was not technically a Dalit, even though his mother, Radhika, might have been one. In the legal proceedings that followed, even Radhika’s Dalit identity was questioned in the courtroom. Anand Teltumbe notes that Rohith’s caste should not have made a difference to the logic of the arguments that posit his death as institutional murder caused by systemic violence inside the university (“Rohith Vemula’s Dalitness”, Economic and Political Weekly, July 9, 2016). However, Rohith Vemula’s ‘fatal birth of accident’ provides an important entry point into the lived experience of being a Dalit in India.
The struggle of being a Dalit is not only that of being exploited because of a caste status at birth but also that of firm resistance from below through constant attempts at social mobility. Sudipto Mondal traces Radhika’s Dalit identity in an incisive article based on interviews with Anjana Devi, Radhika’s foster mother, as well as Sheikh Riyaz, Rohith’s childhood friend (“Rohith Vemula: An Unfinished Portrait”, Hindustan Times). Radhika’s parents were labourers of the Mala caste, classified as a Scheduled Tribe and identified as Dalits in India. She had been adopted by Anjana Devi, a learned woman belonging to the Vaddera caste. She claimed to have brought Radhika up as her own daughter. But unlike her own daughters, Radhika was not allowed to complete her education and was married off at an early age. Her real identity was hidden from her husband who became more abusive on discovering the truth. Rohith and his brother, Raja, had witnessed the layered domestic violence against their mother in both the households. They had also learnt from the immense grit and determination which led their mother to complete her graduation about the same time as her two sons. Radhika’s life is an example of the caste and gender subaltern trying to carve out a respectable position in the social system through education. She has constantly attempted to subvert her oppressed condition and make an attempt towards social mobility. It is little coincidence then that her eldest son stood up for his individual as well as collective identity of being a Dalit.
The figure of Rohith Vemula as a bright young independent scholar in a premier academic institution did not quite sit well with the statist narratives of the oppressed Dalit requiring emancipation. His ability to read and write in English, give stirring speeches as well as his vital organisational skills and growing popularity had almost invisibilized his Dalit identity. But Rohith himself was not ashamed of his identity and attempted to reassert it in life and death. The primary contradiction here lies in the two very divergent interpretations of the term ‘Dalit’ in modern India. Gopal Guru posits that adoption of the term ‘Dalit’ as self-designation is deeply rooted in the awareness and perception of the long history of humiliation and oppression (“Archaeology of Untouchability”, Economic and Political Weekly. 12 September 2009). Although the practice of untouchability has been legally abolished in India, it continues to be ramified in very concrete terms in Dalit reality. The civil society, in confluence with the state reproduces the condition of the caste system. Dalit subalternity exists as a spatial, social, cultural, ontological and political segregation. In contrast to the derogatory connotation of the word ‘Dalit’ when used by non-Dalits, a complete reversal occurs when it is used by Dalits themselves. For the Dalits themselves, the term is intersectionally located at the conjuncture of struggle and resistance. The meaning of the word ‘Dalit’ in both Hindi and Marathi is ‘ground down’ or ‘broken to pieces’ but the idea of being Dalit, notes Anupama Rao, is a conscious political movement into a field of contestation and significance (“Representing Dalit Selfhood”, Dalit Perspective Seminar, February 2006).
Dalits in India have been silenced, exploited and dehumanized to such an extent whereby it has become almost impossible for them to assert their own idea of justice. They are made to exist as the remains of a humanity that has apparently become moral, just and political. It is instrumentalized by the disciplinarian strategies of normalization and subjectification in the specific mode of governmentality. Michel Foucault uses the term ‘biopolitics’ for referring to this particular process (“Society Must Be Defended”, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76). Biopolitics in modern nation-states is based on the differentiation between ‘bare life’ and ‘good life’. ‘Good life’ is the socio-political matrix within which human beings exist and when they are stripped of these relations what remains is ‘bare life’ – just the condition of being alive. However, as Giorgio Agamben notes, it is not a dialectical relationship that ‘good life’ and ‘bare life’ share because political life is lived in language by people who can truly speak (Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 1998). The Dalit voice in India is muted and stripped off any generality or specificity that language offers. Dalits are reduced to the condition of ‘Dalitness’ – in the form of bare life that is prevented from having any political agency.
Dalit identity in the society is always enquired, related, compared and evaluated in terms of what it is not but aspires to become – a political life. Since they are muted, the only form of resistance available to Dalits in such a situation is their movement through negation and it can very well take the form of death. Death and language in human life exist in parallel forms because each acts as a threshold that does not lie within or without the system that it defines. Just as language is used to discuss non-linguistic reality which provides words with meaning, death in this sense provides meaning to the reality of life. Dying reveals ‘Dalitness’, its relation to the sovereign and points to the need for collective agency. The traces of this collective agency in literature exist in the Dalit autobiographies and memoirs while those in culture can be traced to the various performances and rituals that are integral to a lived Dalit reality. In the political sphere, this agency can be located in the attempts to educate, agitate and organize Dalits by Dalits. Rohith Vemula’s suicide is a complete subversion of the socio-cultural standards associated with ‘death’ and firmly located in this continuum of resistance to provide collective agency to the Dalit movements in India.
Rohith Vemula’s act of dying becomes a political act of negation directed at the sovereign. It reveals the meaning of ‘Dalitness’ and also lays a claim for its own politics. Carl Schmitt notes that the sovereign is one who decides on the ‘state of exception’ (Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, 2005). Giorgio Agamben furthers this idea by stating that the etymology of the word ‘exception’ also refers to what is ‘taken outside’ and not simply what is ‘excluded’ (State of Exception, 2005). In other words, the sovereign also decides what is legal and what is not, who resides within the purview of legality and who does not, who needs the protection of law and who does not. As a logical extension, the sovereign allows its own condition of being able to kill human beings without the commission of homicide. The sovereign power that kills Rohith Vemula without the commission of homicide is the university administration that is working under the auspices of the state. His ‘suicide’ on the other hand becomes a complete reversal of sovereignty through the process of negation. In the act of dying, the Dalit reclaims sovereign power over his own body and challenges the state.
The importance of Rohith Vemula’s death, however, is not only negation but also visibilization. It reasserts the fact that the simple deployment of liberal ideas, like that of human rights, might be enough to address the Dalit question in India but it is grossly insufficient in providing any political agency to the Dalits. In sharp contrast, when the body of the Dalit is used by oneself for generating collective political agency like that of Rohith Vemula, it directly questions the dominant ideas of morality and humanity. It further manages to open up a field of contestation to the socio-political structure of the Indian nation-state. Rohith Vemula’s writings in the form of his Facebook posts, letters and notes bear testimony to his dissent against these problematic structures. His writings have been compiled into a book titled #CasteIsNotARumour: The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula, edited by Nikhila Henry. It has been published by Juggernaut books. This text clearly charts his experience as a Dalit within and outside the university campus, a cogent analysis of the political situation in India, thoughts and ideas about Marxism and the possibilities of a Dalit-Marxist revolution in India. In one of his Facebook posts on 8th July 2014, Rohith writes:
In an article Baba Saheb wrote with sensible dismay that if Lenin was born in India, he would have not have left caste unquestioned. Indian Left will regret bypassing social questions one day. And on that day communism of a different kind will revive itself in our nation. Until then the Left which does not contribute towards bettering the lives of poor sections in the society will continue to be a factory that has as its fuel the same poor sections whom they claim to represent.
A Dalit-Marxist organisation led by Dalits and working actively for the interest of gendered, religious and racial minorities was a dream nurtured by Rohith Vemula. His life, death and politics underline the need of imagining an Ambedkarite-Marxist revolution in India. A Dalit-Marxist revolution during the times of Hindutva is characterised by what Ernst Bloch identifies as ‘utopia’ or a form of ‘anticipatory consciousness’ (Geist der Utopie, 1918). For Bloch, ‘utopia’ functions on the duality of the principle of ‘not yet’ – something that is ‘not-yet-conscious’ and has ‘not-yet-become’ but has the potential of imagining an alternative future. Similarly, the Dalit-Marxist utopia can open up the possibility of active resistance of the marginalized and minoritized within and beyond constitutional politics. The most telling impetus that Rohith Vemula’s death has provided in politics is to organizations like ASA, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) and the Bhim Army. These organizations are yet to make their presence felt in electoral politics but they are making constant attempts to pushback against the fundamentalist forces in power. Their active participation in the tripartite programme of educate, agitate and organize is directed towards the realization of such a utopia. The seed of this utopic vision had been planted long ago by Rohith Vemula in his writings. He had dared to work actively towards the realization of this vision and had written the following lines just a few months before his martyrdom in another Facebook post on 11th September, 2015:
“Today saffron blankets are spread out on our conscience and we are doomed to believe that light is impossible. But truth will come out like a shining red sun in the blue sky and on that day, at that moment the saffron darkness will have to die.”
Moinak Banerjee is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at McGill University. He is broadly interested in studying the role of violence in the politics and the aesthetics of different cultures in the Global South. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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