What makes a movement? Is it collective will or the will of an individual that galvanises a community? Is it the idea, or the repression it stands up to? History is evidence that, more often than not, there is a person at the heart of each shift, a little windless chalice of cupped hands that houses someone who eventually transcends the physical. He becomes, his or her idea. On January 17, 2016, scholar and student Rohith Vemula committed suicide, and in death, became more of an icon than most of us fail to in life.
That statement, is both incredible and tragic. The possibilities of a life, after all, should trump what death can do for anyone. Vemula, though, was an exception.
The Dalit community in different parts of the country has been led by different people in its charge against ages of repression by the upper castes: People who have ignited and inspired thousands. Apart from Babasaheb Ambedkar, in Maharashtra of the ’70s, there was Namdeo Dhasal, who wrote incendiary poetry and led the Dalit Panthers. Over the years, there were Dalit icons in football – former India captain IM Vijayan – in cinema, there is Tamil director Pa Ranjith. Sheetal Sathe and Sachin Mali continue to fight the good fight.
But none, in the recent past or before split the country along its lines of caste and conscience like Vemula did. What did Rohith Vemula have that so many others did not? Why did his death galvanise a movement, strengthen a Dalit voice in the way that so many others could not?
The why of it is important, because that’s what the likes of Jignesh Mevani and co will soon be evaluated by.
Vemula was a student, an ardent reader and a prolific writer, but still only warming up to academia and its endlessness, only still poking around the walls of his caste-tailored identity. In comparison, most Dalit icons in history had travelled a fair bit of distance before they were identified with resistant politics.
Rohith Vemula’s story never really began, was never told until it abruptly ended. His end is his story.
Vemula’s death happened in the age of social media. Words and images could thus be freely shared. News and opinion tapped into a latent rage from the community – and there was no stopping it. But what stood out here was that the anger took birth in defeat, in the loss of the promise that a young boy held and the path he walked away from.
We witness – and in most cases fail to – atrocities on the classes we suppress within the contours of this country. An incredible normalcy around caste suppression prevails in India making it unimaginably hard to contemplate victories, let alone the many little defeats. In Vemula’s case the fracture, the split that opened up was wide and gaping. It cried of nothing new, but it cried with a sense of utter loss, of words having failed, of dreams quashed and replaced by eternal sleep. A silencing act that was neither profound nor vague, simply hooked itself to the brain and pulled and pulled until the heart of the country popped out and finally took notice.
It is difficult to look back to that month four years back. Primarily because it reminds me how most upper-caste people that I am surrounded by reacted to Vemula’s suicide. Rejecting it either as failure or cowardice or rejecting the very idea that caste was a factor. It was horrifying to see the privileged scamper to wipe the blood and not get rid of the weapon. “Itna pressure thode na hota hai. Kuch aur hua hoga,” many said to me. Most wanted Vemula’s demise to be ascribed to something, anything else. It showed nervousness, perhaps even a little checked guilt. Because, the tragedy of Vemula’s loss wasn’t that he wasn’t, but that he could have been, anything, had we not been the way we are.
I’m reminded of African-American social critic James Baldwin’s famous lines that are just as relevant for Dalits as they were for Blacks: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Vemula was at an age, at a time in his life where he probably questioned more than he could absorb the answers to. The way we all are when we are young. Only, he was Dalit, a rung lower on the ladder and therefore undeserving in the eye of those above him, of the liberties and freedoms he aspired to. Vemula’s youth, was as much his badge as it was his undoing.
Of the rags-to-riches stories we upper-caste people like to read, the least attractive is the one of the lower-caste achiever. Through something as systematised as education and work, it feels to us like snatching, and through something as openly readable as the arts it is read as sympathy. But Vemula’s story never really began, was never told until it abruptly ended. His end is his story.
In becoming so, Vemula found a common, broken beat of the Indian heart facing the sky like an open fist. For it was about to rain, and it has rained since.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
This article was originally published in Arre
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