The suicide note written by Rohith Vemula — the Dalit student who recently died at the University of Hyderabad — echoes the discourse Mahatma Gandhi used when he chose to fast 'unto death'. Like Gandhi, Rohith’s letter displays a passion for a better world embedded in a Bhagwad Gita-esque detachment. There are several other similarities: Introspection, taking personal responsibility, seeking forgiveness and not blaming anyone.
In both cases, their willingness to die has generally been accepted as an act of self-sacrifice — an intensely personal moral pressure on society and the structures of power.
In Gandhi’s case, it was an explicitly political tool, an act of resistance. Gandhi’s fasts helped to mobilise a colonised people into a nation. His most important fast single-handedly forced an end to Partition genocide in Bengal. And he forced the government of newly-independent India to give the nascent Pakistan its share of the country’s finances.
It was one of Gandhi’s fasts that forced Dr BR Ambedkar to agree to the Poona Pact (under which seats are reserved for scheduled category candidates in a single electorate, but Dalits do not vote separately).
In the context of Rohith’s Ambedkarite convictions, his adoption of an essentially Gandhian method of resistance (calculated or not, it was the ultimate non-cooperation!) rather than Ambedkar’s tireless faith in constitutionalism is striking. One wonders if it signals a shift across a three-generation gap — from seeking the protection of the law to an increased gumption to defy.
Rohith’s suicide note has also, willy-nilly, become an act of resistance. By giving glimpses of a bright, aspiring, caring person with great potential, it has forced his university and concerned citizens far beyond its campus to introspect about systematised caste-based discrimination.
His name is already a potent symbol; his suicide could spur further political mobilisation. Top-level politicians of various hues have gone to his home or the university following his suicide. Rahul Gandhi was among the first, and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal was there on Thursday.
The power of death by fasting
While Gandhi’s stature ensured that his fasts always succeeded in their objective before he actually died, there is no doubt that he was willing to die each time. His life was repeatedly at grave risk. Other protestors, whose fasts could not bring enough moral pressure to bear while they were alive, galvanised public opinion when they died fasting.
Some of those deaths have shaped India. The violent agitations that followed Potti Sriramulu’s death as a result of a 1952 fast demanding a separate state for Telugu-speaking people forced a very reluctant Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to agree to language-based states.
A series of suicides by burning in Tamil Nadu against the imposition of Hindi as the exclusive national language rolled back that measure in 1967. The word 'immolation', used to describe those protest suicides, invoked the ritual status of self-sacrifice.
An activist of the Bhagat (erstwhile untouchable) community died while fasting in Jammu and Kashmir. The resultant public anger forced the government to recognise scheduled castes (and later tribes too) in that state, and extend to them the constitutional privileges these categories have in the rest of the country.
In 2008, agitations in Jammu against the revocation of a government order transferring land to the Sri Amarnath Shrine Board got a fillip when a young Jammu resident committed suicide. After reportedly consuming poison, he went to Jammu’s Parade Ground and gave a fiery speech to agitators before he collapsed.
That suicide became a cause célèbre and agitations in the Jammu province took on an explosive vitality thereafter. They were mainly organised by RSS activists, including Dr Jitendra Singh, who is now the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office.
All these examples show that willingness to die is a most potent political tool. No wonder the state ensures that the Manipuri protestor Irom Sharmila is force-fed intravenously, to ensure that her 15-year fast against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act does not kill her.
Such self-sacrificing methods of political resistance have been favoured by those who faced a strong and entrenched power, particularly the apparatus of a strong state. While nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Aurobindo used 'passive resistance' to resist the colonial power, Rohith and students like him have recently resisted entrenched social oppression — on caste as well as religious and ethnic lines.
Pent-up anger is emerging
Their activism has been vigorous over the past year. Indeed, the huge posthumous sympathy for Rohith must be understood in the context of widespread anger over trends that have come to light during the past year and more.
A minister in the Union government made a remark comparing infant Dalits (who had been killed in arson by upper caste neighbours) to dogs. Similar language has been used to disparage a Dalit teacher at one of the country’s most prestigious colleges (now a university) after he was bitten by a dog on campus. There have been several incidents of stripping, beating and other acts of humiliation. School children have been severely beaten for touching plates 'reserved' for upper caste classmates. Ambedkarite students at institutions like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and some IITs have suffered casteist persecution.
Rohith’s death may not reshape the country as fundamentally as Potti’s death did, but already it has put the central government on the back foot far more than any of those other recent humiliations of Dalits did. It has sharply focused caste-based discrimination in the halls of academia, and the Manu-oriented biases of powerful sections of the current ruling establishment.
Apologists for the government have ended up pushing up the levels of anger and reaction. Trying to argue that Rohith was not Dalit in the first place was like salt on a wound — a petty, mealy-mouthed attempt to posthumously deny to a victim even the truth of his life, as he experienced and viewed it. Accusations are flying thick and fast in the political arena over who is playing caste politics: Kejriwal was reported to have accused BJP ministers of trying to turn it into a Dalit versus non-Dalit issue.
Members and leaders of the BJP and its affiliates would do much better to introspect than get drawn into such sparring. They must realize that their party has come a long way over the past three decades by redefining categories and concepts like secularism, but also by normalising the manipulation of facts. ABVP activist Susheel Kumar, whose ego apparently caused Rohith’s death, is said to have misrepresented his appendicitis as an injury suffered in an assault by Ambedkarite students such as Rohith.
This sort of cynical misrepresentation has too often been the BJP’s style; it has cynically wrapped some of its key agendas in highly emotive issues. Just like 'jihadi' terrorism has come back to bite its promoters, this sort of manipulations can prove costly. The BJP may already be riding a tiger it cannot dismount.
It was in the wake of the implementation of the Mandal Commission report that it quickly pushed the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to a much higher pitch than before. The party’s then president, LK Advani, undertook his first 'Rath Yatra' mobilisation drive across the country just a couple of months after the implementation of the Mandal report, which recommended positive discrimination for backward castes. Throughout, the Ayodhya issue has been the shorthand that Uttar Pradesh’s upper castes have used to script a pan-Hindu alliance to counter backward and scheduled caste mobilisation.
Now that the party is in power at the Centre, it is hobbled by the prejudices and animosities of a wide phalanx of its leaders. They not only support Hindutva, they have deeply imbibed the principles of Manu. Many of them, and their key supporters, despise some of the lower castes. Whether they realized what they were doing or not, the ABVP activists at the University of Hyderabad and their supporters, in the faculty there and in the corridors of power in New Delhi, have countered social mobility, citizens’ empowerment and equality.
These attitudes are divisive. They go against the grain of the Constitution. They undermine economic growth, political stability and national security. The ruling party must purge itself of such prejudices if the country is to move ahead cohesively towards a shared future of social justice and dignity.