Rohith Vemula's Death Is Caste At Its Most Lethal

28/01/2016 4:50 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A member of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the student wing of India's main opposition Congress party, shouts slogans as he got entangled in police barricade during a protest against the death of Rohith Vemula in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. The students were protesting the death of Vemula who, along with four others, was barred from using some facilities at his university in the southern tech-hub of Hyderabad. The protesters accused Hyderabad University's vice chancellor and a federal minister of unfairly demanding punishment for the five lower-caste students after they clashed last year with a group of students supporting the governing Hindu nationalist party. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

As news reports go, it’s bland and factual. The Times of India reports that a secret intelligence report forwarded to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval claims that both the mother and grandmother of Rohith Vemula declared the family’s caste as Vadera which is backward but not Dalit. And thus the suicide of Vemula, research scholar at Hyderabad Central University, takes another twist. How bizarre to think, that in 21st century India, the caste of a dead student is now of concern to the national security advisor.

Many of us, upper middle-class and upper caste, claim in entirely good faith that we grew up in a society that is increasingly caste-less. We are not sure about the caste of our classmates, we say, and we don’t care. We don’t know who is cooking our food in a restaurant and we don’t care. Caste is relegated to orthodox grandmothers and the back and beyond of rural India – both vanishing segments of an old India. If caste exists at all, it is as a number, a quota in jobs or college admissions. Class, we say with conviction is the new caste.

rohith vemula

Vemula’s death shakes that belief to the core and that is why it has caused consternation beyond those wanting to use it to political ends. This is caste at its most lethal in a university in a metropolitan city not in a remote village. And that is why we have tied ourselves in knots to make it not about caste at all. We have tried to use his suicide note to absolve ourselves even though Vemula was not holding anyone in particular, neither his vice-chancellor nor the HRD minister, to account. And because he did not name them they jumped on the note to wash their hands off it as well. The HRD minister, Smriti Irani, engaged in her own bit of what-aboutery in Bengal where she said while Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien went to Vemula’s campus, he did not go to the house of Dalits murdered in Nadia in West Bengal. She called it the “tamasha of the votebank”. If O’Brien is guilty of politicking, Irani’s frantic bid to strip the story of caste, is no less political.

What kind of society do we live in that the quantum of tragedy of Vemula’s death is being measured against his caste?

“Rohith Vemula, from all evidence in plain sight, is a depression story not a Dalit story,” writes Manu Joseph in the Hindustan Times as if the twain can never meet, as if he or anyone else can determine where one begins and one ends. A remarkably investigative piece in the same paper actually uncovers far more layers in Vemula’s story. For most of us reading it while we drink our morning cup of coffee, these are terms that were meaningless until Vemula’s death – Mala vs Vadera. Vemula’s mother was born into a Mala family but adopted into a Vadera one and initially not told about it. She was adopted but might have been little more than a glorified domestic help, married off at 14, her caste kept secret from her new husband.

Even the “adoption” itself is redolent of the power of the haves over the have-nots. The “grandmother” tells HT “The baby belonged to a migrant labourer couple that was working on the railway tracks outside our house. I had just lost a baby girl. I was reminded of my own girl.” So she asked the couple to “give” her the child and they “happily agreed”. There was no official record of the transaction. That transaction, which is what Vemula might have called “the fatal accident of my birth”, is noted with such casualness on both sides it is hard to believe it is about a human being. And yet surely, both sides saw it then as a win-win which itself is a horrifying reminder of the desperation of the caste-trap.

What is astonishing, and almost obscene in this story, is it feels like the investigation into Vemula’s death is now an investigation into his caste. As if the truth of that answer could change entirely the circumstances of his death, turning the tragedy of his truncated life into some macabre game of hoodwinking at the bottom of the caste pile. Would there really be relief in knowing if he was truly Dalit or merely OBC or whether he was Dalit raised as OBC or Dalit passing as OBC? By parsing those differences we try to take shelter in the details whereas Vemula’s death actually points fingers at a larger and more uncomfortable truth.

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“Rohith Vemula died a Dalit, abandoned by the other solidarities that ought to have rescued him: the camaraderie of studenthood, the fraternity of campus life, the shared, subversive delight of being young in a middle-aged world,” writes Mukul Kesavan in The Telegraph. “His fate reflects the rejection of fraternity in our institutions, in their hostility to reservations, their barely concealed contempt for students on a quota.”

What is astonishing, and almost obscene in this story, is it feels like the investigation into Vemula’s death is now an investigation into his caste.

None of those killed Vemula per se. He died by his own hand. And yet it’s hard not to think all of those played their part. Those who have picked up his fight have their own demands – from the removal of a vice-chancellor to the resignation of a minister. But the more troubling question goes beyond that checklist.

ON THE BLOG: How To Kill A Dalit Research Scholar

What kind of society do we live in that the caste of a dead student is now part of a secret report sent to the national security advisor? What kind of society do we live in that the quantum of tragedy of Vemula’s death is being measured against his caste? In the death of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the state spent its resources investigating whether the meat in his refrigerator was beef or mutton as if the answer to that question should in any way affect the horrific tragedy of his death by lynching.

That question itself was obscene and immoral. All that mattered was what the mob thought he was eating. Likewise the tragedy of Vemula’s suicide is in his death at 26. It does not matter if he was really Mala or Vadera anymore. The mob thought Akhlaq had beef. The world thought Vemula was Dalit. And they are both dead today. In 21st century India that should be discomfiting enough for all us.

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