Home » india news » We see Dalit as a problem, not a person. That's what killed Rohith Vemula

We see Dalit as a problem, not a person. That's what killed Rohith Vemula

Anant Maringanti | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:27 IST

The facts of the case leave us with only one possible reading of Vemula Rohith's suicide note: it's a forgiving indictment of the state of affairs in India's higher education.

Rohith mentions his childhood and his aspirations. He records his sense of alienation. He writes about the precise moment, in his emotional being, he took the decision to end it all. "I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That's pathetic. And that's why I am doing this."

He ends the note by indicating that he does not want anyone to suffer for his decision.

Also read: What killed Hyderabad university Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula?

His letter to the University of Hyderabad's Vice Chancellor on 18 December, however, was saturated with a sense of desperation. In it, he mockingly urged the administration to supply Dalit students with the means to kill themselves when they face problems, evidently suggesting that the university could not be counted on to find solutions to their problems.

Hollowed out

Today, Smriti Irani may piously distance her HRD ministry from the tragedy, but its intervention, through a series of letters, which gave weight to ABVP's branding of Rohith as "anti-national" is certainly questionable, and not only because it undermines the university's autonomy.

The court orders and decisions of various committees in the case of Rohith and his fellow Dalit students need to be examined as well.

While dissecting these factors, however, we must not lose sight of the ugly truth that led to Rohith's decision - that an "emptiness" has come to blight the lives of thousands of students, particularly Dalits.

Hyderabad's university campuses have been witnessing suicides by students with alarming regularity over the past several years.

Also read: Students ask Smriti Irani if she has read Rohith Vemula's letter to the VC yet

It has been a matter of public concern without actually becoming a public debate. In fact, even Rohith's death, which should have invited a full-scale public inquiry is being handled as a minor personal tragedy, with possibly some political significance.

In 2014, at 'Do Din', an annual urban convention held in Hyderabad, one of the speakers talked about the recent history of higher education in India. His key message was that institutions of higher learning have historically been places where the privileged taught the privileged how to become more privileged.

As wave upon wave of students, of varied backgrounds and experiences, arrives year after year, our universities are struggling to respond to their needs. The new forms of assertiveness that these students learn irks the authorities no end.

But despite the suspicion that it is our universities which are handicapped, not the students, we insist on providing "more meaningful remedial courses" to underprivileged students. This is a knee-jerk reaction at best; at worst, it is a deliberate misreading of the situation aimed at maintaining privilege.

Old order

The narrative of Dalits being a "problem" is so powerful that it takes extraordinary resolve to remind ourselves that the handicap in fact lies with us, the teachers and administrators.

Over the past 25 years, our institutions of higher learning gradually opened their doors to less privileged students, especially from rural areas. It is no secret, however, that they did so without any moral conviction and without the necessary intellectual and emotional preparation.

Indeed, many people in positions of power on campuses still believe that such students are there due to the "wrong reason" - politics.

They resent having to deal with them. As long as this thinking exists, universities will, without even consciously scheming to do so, come up with pedagogic and administrative solutions that are at best indifferent to the hardships of such students and at worst deliberately encourage discrimination.

Also read: Why BJP supporters are in a hurry to paint Rohith Vemula as anti-national

Students across campuses tell horror stories of everyday discrimination - in access to technology, command over the English language, timely receipt of grants and fellowships. Indeed, many are taken aback by the "rawness" of discrimination they face on campuses as opposed to in their villages, where people have largely learned to live with injury, and perhaps even avoid it. The University of Hyderabad is no exception to this.

The crux of the problem is this: the liberal university believes that its "mission" is to deliver meritorious, competent and competitive individuals. This is a cakewalk for privileged students who are trained to see themselves as stars in the making.

For a large number of students, however, this individual "success" does not come easily. They react to this alienating process of becoming "meritorious" and being born again through sanctimonious academic achievement by bonding with similarly disadvantaged people.

Also read: 'He had to die to make his point. And he did it': Rohith Vemula's best friend

They discover student organisation as a way to share, and perhaps overcome, their personal experiences of alienation. But such organising is often seen by the university as an unwarranted and undesirable distraction from its mission. In fact, it's the necessary outcome of the "mission". It cannot be wished away, only accepted and worked with. Pretending otherwise is foolish.

Defying labels

Rohith Vemula has become a national icon precisely because he does not fit any of the simple categories the university would want to force him into. He was Dalit and he was meritorious. He bonded with fellow alienated students and yet reached for the stars. He felt hurt and humiliated, yet he was anything but weak. Indeed, even Susheel Kumar, his ABVP adversary, had to say that Rohith was a courageous young man.

And yet, who was Rohith, really? He borrowed Rs 40,000 to support his family as he waited for his fellowship stipend. He got into a dispute with another student of a different political persuasion. He was restrained from moving around on the campus through an institutional mechanism in which every actor can safely refuse to be accountable.

The impossibility of his situation, the complete alienation finally got him. Rohith's suicide can be seen as a protest, a cry of help. But until we see it as the result of the institutionalisation of homicide, it will continue to haunt us each time another student gives in.

Institutionalised crime has no face and thus no culpability. It is known only through its effects. That's why when students call Rohith's death murder and not suicide, we are startled and dismiss it as hyperbole.

It's time universities and the people overseeing higher education faced up to the hard truth that they aren't taking their mandate seriously. If the protesting students across the country are saying anything it's this: the old ways won't work anymore.

'Dalit' is not a category marked by handicaps. The Dalit scholar brings in a new perspective, a new existential challenge. And in ending his "emptiness", that scholar makes us aware of the vacuity of our own intellectual enterprises. We better pay heed.

Edited by Mehraj D Lone

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

Also read: #RohithVemula: 4 things Dalit intellectuals believe should shape our debate

First published: 21 January 2016, 0:19 IST
Anant Maringanti

Anant Maringanti is director, Hyderabad Urban Lab, a multidisciplinary research centre tracking urban transformations in India and elsewhere