Rohith Vemula's death anniversary: The Dalit scholar lives on in the eyes he helped open

In three days’ time, Donald Trump takes to the throne of the most powerful position in the world. A xenophobic, who at times over-elaborates his denunciation of minorities, be it of the racial, financial or ethnic kind. Several seas away, three days before the momentous event that probably reinstates on a universal level, the hierarchical hold of history over the grand narrative of the world, India is waking a year on from the day University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula committed suicide. A suicide that bumped the curve that traced the struggle of those marginalised for ages, into something that looks like a scar. And oh how the blood has flown since. What changed? Perhaps, the fact that rage found a glove, a shape, that left cheeks at the other end, feeling some pain, some regret, pound for pound of flesh, for the first time.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

A year on from Vemula’s suicide, a lot has changed. His death was followed by protests and rage, but it also nudged the narrative into a shape-shift. The Dalit workers of Maharashtra, the agitation in Una, the Patidar andolan, and the ones who went unnoticed or unacknowledged, pierced right through the circumference of their hopelessness. New literature, writers, artists, activists, even politicians have since surfaced, as if Vemula did not pass away but merely transposed into a different form of energy. Surely, there is an explanation to all of it.

Founder and Editor of the Delhi-based magazine Dalit Dastak Ashok Das believes it is because Vemula happened in the age of social media. "These things can no longer be hidden. I had received Vemula’s photo carrying a picture of Babasaheb days before the issue came to light. Its source was unconfirmed but it was clear something was brewing, and it went around only because of social media. The dependence on ‘a national media’ has now expired, and it shows,” Das says. He believes it is the youth that has championed Vemula’s cause, and in their hands, rests the future of struggle, be it for Dalits or any other group. “Rohith’s case was unique because it came out of the university. It wasn’t unique otherwise. This happens to millions of people. But in Rohith’s case, the hurt was felt over the country. People thought, this has happened to me as well. Soon after, Kanhaiya Kumar happened as well,” Das says.

There were, of course, doubts raised about Vemula’s Dalit status in the first place. Add to that the predestined argument surrounding ‘reservation’. An argument that Das cheerfully dismisses by saying, “You are talking to me because I’m the editor of a magazine I founded and built, not because I have reservation, right?” Vemula, perhaps, could have reserved a future for himself, on his potential alone, but strings as straight as those, only cut in a society as old and complex as ours.

On the student level, the impact has of course been the greatest. “This trend of suppression will continue. But it will only make us stronger. There was a kind of unity between universities when Rohith’s death happened. That unity has only been solidified, by what the state is trying to do to freedom in its universities,” President the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) Mohit K Pandey says. Pandey agrees that it was because of the youth that the movement gained momentum, the changes from which are now perceptible, however minute. He also agrees to the role of the virtual connect. “Five years ago, maybe it wouldn’t have been possible to be able to share your angst and your views. Social media armed us against a force much bigger and controlled by those in power. But the struggle will only harder,” he says.

Vemula certainly wasn’t the first one to surrender or choose the path of giving up his life. But he was unique. A scholar, an aspiring writer, aiming for the stars everyone as a child was told, were equally visible, and attainable. But the world doesn’t manifest in planar visions of the idealist. It manifests in the form of structures, where poems are always dead, waiting for someone to give them life, often at the cost of his or her own. Vemula was also a poet. His poetry did not have the violence of Namdeo Dhassal, and his arguments the erudition of an Ambedkar. But given the time, the opportunity and space, he might have become either, or even better. And therein lies the story of a million other Vemulas who have been denied, not only the rope of opportunity but also the decency of humanity.


Updated Date: Jan 17, 2017 08:45 AM

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