“No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this,” were Rohith Vemula’s final words in his suicide letter. But who do you blame when one is driven to end their lives? Is it a suicide or is it a murder?
17 January 2016, Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula was found hanging in a hostel room in Hyderabad University. He, along with five other Dalit students, was suspended from the hostel facility on disciplinary grounds after a series of events that took place in August 2015.
What instigated the action against Rohith and the four other Dalit students was an argument between the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), of which Rohith was a member.
An ABVP leader had raised objections to a prayer meeting organised for terrorist Yakub Memon who had been sentenced to death in connection with the 1993 Mumbai blasts. The ASA students stood firm in their defense and demanded an apology from the ABVP leader. The latter alleged manhandling. The issue blew up to such an extent that Union minister of state Bandaru Dattatreya had to intervene. HRD minister Smriti Irani was also roped in. Rohith and five others were held guilty and it was pronounced that the ASA is reducing the university to a “den of casteist, extremist, and anti-national politics”.
The suspended students sat on protests in the varsity campus for days. But on January 16, 2016, a dejected Rohith wanted some peace, some alone time. He went to his hostel room in search of the peace that had evaded him for several days during his fight for justice. A day later, he found some solace. Though not in life, but in death.
Slogans were raised, protests were organised. Rohith’s mother along with several other Dalit groups led the crusade against casteism in the society. Instead of justice, several attempts were made to undermine what Rohith did in his life. The young man who dreamed of being a scientist, who was studying on scholarships, and who had to untimely end his life, was caught in the fight for his identity. Allegations were levelled that the Dalit certificate he produced was fake and that he belonged to the Vaddera community – a caste which falls under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.
But Rohith’s death did what he in his life could not. Conversations about caste divide which were left on the backburner were brought to the forefront. Caste divide is being discussed, books being read, Dalit politics is being talked about. Several cases highlighting atrocities against Dalits were brought to light.
A year on, Rohith’s supporters are organising a ‘Rohith Shahadat Diwas’ on Tuesday. His mother Radhika Vemula will be back at the Hyderabad University campus, the place that has become synonymous to her fight in the past year. The ones who will join her there include victims from Una in Gujarat, Mohammed Akhlaq’s brother from Dadri, and the family of the missing JNU student Najeeb Ahmed.
A caste divide in the society is still alive. Not over the surface but underneath. The discussions over the mishandling of Rohith’s case made it a part of our everyday conversations. What is lost cannot be brought back, but let’s hope the conversations which began on caste equations after Rohith’s untimely demise do not die a slow death.