Resistance in Vulnerability: Meaning making of Visuals of Rohith Vemula
By Ankita Chatterjee
The suicide of Rohith Vemula happened when I was a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University. I got to know more about the incident on the campus than what was reported outside. The university students came together to protest people in positions of authority who were called out about the untimely demise of a Dalit student. One aspect is the use of digital technologies with networking and circulation of visuals and writings about the incident. In this article, I am concentrating on the visuals of protests after the demise of Rohith Vemula, a few of which stood out and were able to generate identification and rage among concerned students and civil society activists.
Face of Rohith: The Image Speaks
The visual is the image of Rohit Vemula and his smiling face. This image has been used in many protest sites and circulated online. In some images, the snippet from his letter is written and the date of birth till forever is given. Roland Barthes wrote about punctum that has the ability to prick and invoke us on an affectual plane. Later Jacques Rancière stated about Barthes’ reference to the presence of the person before he was dead. The spectral presence of the person seems to haunt people but in the case of Rohith Vemula, his face shows happiness that can be juxtaposed with the struggles that he went through after his altercation with students of another organization and his suspension along with his organization members from the hostels by the administration of the University of Hyderabad followed by his staying on the campus in a makeshift tent. The image reflects happiness that is frozen in time after his death which is in contrast to the struggles he had to undergo while alive.
The structural constraints and daily discrimination for certain groups of people upholding a particular ideology and worldview can make lives unlivable. This produces moral shock as people start asking what it is that makes some lives unlivable when a life of the student could have been saved. Rohith had the eagerness to expand his ideas through higher studies and was a visionary to fight against age old customs and make the world a better place. It is not the spectral presence but the hopelessness in the real world that makes one ask the existential question of what makes lives meaningful and how precariousness is unequally distributed that make some identities and bodies disposable while some identities receive dignity when alive and even after death. Hence, the universality of rights is denied to him. It is noted that Rohith’s Dalit identity becomes a significant category of social life and an intimate and embodied form of sociality. Questioning and being in an Ambedkarite organization was a way to fight against the constraints and discrimination mounted by a society following the caste system. Caste becomes a form of exploitation and disenfranchisement. Caste marked body becomes particularistic and inferior and it is the very particularism and disenfranchisement that Rohith was fighting against to reclaim the universality of rights and to be seen as an equal. The frontal image denotes not only the face but face of someone who wanted to be recognized as an equal.
The image is a way to rehumanize him after his death so that people remember his face and injustice. Sadly, for Rohith Vemula, his death was marred with controversy of his caste identity. He was continuously dehumanized and the happiness shown on his face is like an aberration where his universal aspiration is dismissed when his caste identity becomes a subject of contention for the people in authority.
Trope of Mother and Mourning
The protest showcased mourning by the people especially by the mother of Rohith Vemula. Mourning is a way to pay respect to the dead and acknowledge the loss experienced by the family, community and the society at large. The figure of the mother is universal and is identified with many people. Hence, on the day of inauguration of Rohith Vemula’s bust statue, his mother embraced the statue and began crying. Mourning and coming out on the street is a form of resistance especially for a mother who continues to fight for the injustice caused to her son. The caste factor was brought as the figure of the mother is looked through the patriarchal framework of sacrifice. During Independence, the cause of sacrifice to the nation was often represented visually as a mother and it was the responsibility of the Indian freedom fighters to sacrifice for their mother (Bharat Mata). The apparels and the ornaments gave the impression of a mother belonging to the upper caste, but Rohith was raised by his mother after his father left. And questioning his caste identity as his father was from another caste was a way to dismiss his mother’s identity and sacrifices in raising her son alone in a caste ridden society where she inhabits the most marginalised position as a Dalit woman. Rohith’s mother came out on the street turning the power relations where she mourned in the public as a sign of protest for the injustice caused to her son by majoritarian nationalism. The loss of liberation is brought to the forefront to make the society think of the unequal distribution of rights and liberty. The picture was also compared to the twin figure of Savitribhai Phule and Fathima Begam who fought for education of girl children across all castes and hence by Ambedkarite and other democratic organizations which fight against patriarchy and casteism. The contended images have various schemata as an inspiration and, therefore, the trope of mothers who fought for the marginalized communities against injustice is recalled. The official narrative discredited the participation of women in various protests: for example the Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim women present in Independence movement. Since most of the injustices happen on the immediate identities of the people that define the oppressed sections, there is a need to show daily resistance by these marginalized groups. Vulnerability is distributed unequally and therefore official claim to vulnerability and the identification of the state with the dominant population rob the vulnerability of the minorities and see them as a potential threat to nationalism. This nationalism is based on ethnic majoritarian ideals which are exclusive to the culturally dominant people but is universalized. Therefore, the representation of Rohith Vemula’s mother causes universal identification with the figure andt at the same time challenges the official and dominant narrative of who could be represented and who could fight for justice. The intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw by drawing attention to the multiple and complex layers of discourses of marginalization where the categories of gender, sexuality, race, religion, ethnicity intersect to produce its own matrix of oppression, women as mothers who come out representing the oppressed groups give a newer sensibility toward perceiving these visuals.
Vulnerability and Resistance
Another visual that went viral was the protest by various civil society activists and student activists in front of the parliament of India. Barricade separated the power of those in the authority and the people who were on the other side. The image captures the protestors trying to break the barricade, while Ambedkar’s photo was held up by someone braving the water cannons. The rage and the picture of Ambedkar show affiliation to the ideas of Rohith who belonged to an Ambedkarite group. In a neoliberal state where identity and ideologies get intermeshed to produce a matrix of oppression, these are called out by the protesting people. The trauma of discrimination based on caste identity is historical and is experienced daily. The memories are intergenerational where stories of struggle are passed down from one generation to another, necessitating a call to resistance to end the historical oppression. The protests aim to capture the imagination of people by waging a struggle against a majoritarian view curbing democracy.
The university represents ‘real utopia’ where alternative and multiple narrations of nationalism converge and these ideas are taken out to the street to fight against the authorities in the name of Rohith. Similarly, the protest of Najeeb, who went missing from Jawaharlal Nehru University, shows the vulnerability in resistance where not only the students and the civil society activists but also the mothers of Junaid and Najeeb came together in their fights for justice.
Ambedkar realised that political inclusion rather than religious inclusion was a more forceful challenge to caste Hindu society and therefore the rights are demanded whenever there is injustice against marginalized identities. The placards and the visuals are vernacular narratives that break away from the dominant narrative and showcase vulnerabilities and precariousness of the disadvantaged groups and call into question the working of democracy. They seem to ask: Democracy for whom? The protests have more to do with the present regime that targets particular groups who are considered to be the culturally other. The coming together of people show the failure of a system that treats education as a commodity and infuse higher institutions with discriminations based on caste, gender, sexuality, religion and ethnicity. The visuals give an affective dimension when viewed by the people and more than the writing, it makes one identify without the particularities that create separateness. Hence, politics of solidarity is forged when Rohith’s mother is shown in a state of mourning forming solidarity with other mothers who have lost their children to injustices. Similarly, the face of Rohith with its simplicity and peacefulness attract people to the protests and encourage them to storm the barricades with the picture of Ambedkar that showcase their larger ideological demand of radical equality. Therefore, the images are a way to show a shared vulnerability and resistance that a society would function not through graded inequality but commitment to radical equality.
New Socialist Alternative. (2016, January 30). Justice for Rohit Vemula Solidarity Message from the Commitee for a Worker’s International. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from Socialism.in: http://www.socialism.in/?p=10154
The Wire Staff. (2019, January 17). My Birth is My Fatal Accident: Rohith Vemula’s Searing Letter is an Indictment of Social Prejudices. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices
The Wire Stuff. (2018, January 18). Students, Activists Gather to Remember Rohith Vemula, Vow to Carry Forward His Struggle. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from The Wire: https://thewire.in/caste/students-activists-gather-remember-rohith-vemula-vow-carry-forward-struggle
Ankita Chatterjee is a Ph.D. researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. Her research areas include digital sociology, visual anthropology, new media studies, and cultural studies.
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