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To Rohith Vemula, on his birthday: We know who killed you and Gandhi

Dear Rohith,

On your 27th birthday, I am reminded of the beautiful, poignant and poetic lines that you left behind as a farewell note. While reading them, I remembered the words our great shair Sahir Ludhianvi wrote in Pyaasa to denounce this world.

Rohith Vemula. Twitter @akslal_380

Rohith Vemula. Twitter @akslal_380

Though the enemies you made in death used your final words to argue that your suicide was an act of desperation and the result of clinical depression, many of us read them as reflections of a clear, enlightened mind and a sensitive person. As the Hindu pointed out, all you saw around yourself was second-hand feelings, constructed love, coloured beliefs and artificial art. So, like Sahir and Guru Dutt in Pyaasa, you had the courage and clarity of thought to denounce the world and mock at its hypocrisy, cruelty and absurdity.

Of course you did not blame anybody for your death. But neither did Mahatma Gandhi, when he was assassinated, ironically, on this very day. But deep inside, just as we all know who killed Gandhi, we also know the people and the ideology behind your death.

My attention was drawn to the lines you struck off from that note: "ASA, SFI, anything and everything exist for their own sake. Seldom the interest of a person and this organisation match. To get power, to become famous or to be important in between boundaries and to think we are up to changing the system. Very often we overestimate the acts and find solace in traits."

Obviously, you did not wish to become famous or powerful. You never wanted to become so important that India's National Security Adviser gets interested in your caste or seeks intelligence reports on your family, the Prime Minister becomes publicly emotional about your mother's loss and other parties see in your suicide the opportunity for political reincarnation.

Watching politicians carry on with their vile antics, shed their crocodilian tears and the system find pathetic excuses to absolve itself of the guilt of your death, you would have perhaps said: Jahan ek khilona hai insaan ki hasti, ye basti hai murda paraston ki basti.Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai?

Perhaps you would have been right.

But, let me tell you this, because you decided to sacrifice your life, much more than ever before, today there is a real possibility that the world you denounced might become better, that the system might change.

Your death, like that of Jyoti Singh Pandey before you, has become a defining moment in the struggle for equality, ending caste-based discrimination. Just like Jyoti's rape and death forced the government to make changes in our laws and justice system, your harassment and death will soon force the government to make laws to ensure caste-based discrimination doesn't thrive in the system.

Till a few days ago, the NDA government had completely ignored recommendations of the Sukhadeo Thorat Committee for checking caste-based discrimination in educational institutions. Now, we hear, the HRD minister, whom your Dalit friends call (Manu) Smriti Irani because of her alleged upper-caste, wants to implement the Thorat Committee report. Perhaps, if they are wise enough, they will issue strict guidelines to check such discrimination and name them after you.

You would have also noticed that the very system that was out to crush is now on the run. The VC of your university has gone on leave, his ad-hoc replacement has also been changed. And the politicians who used their might to crush you have become subjects of widespread ridicule and scorn, so much so that the PM was forced to share your mother's grief, not of his colleagues and followers. Next time somebody questions a hanging, takes on the ABVP or fights against discrimination, it is unlikely that a Union minister will summon the courage to write a flurry of letter to a university or the HRD minister would rush in to make insensitive, provocative and tasteless comments in a press conference.

So, the tide of the battle you had begun has started changing. You died a hero, those who killed you are living in shame.

These are, of course, pyrrhic victories in a long war. The reactions to your death, the attempts to question your identity, malign your family and sully your mother's image, shows the poison of casteism still runs deep into India's veins. Unfortunately, most of us still do not know what it means to be a Dalit in India.

We know just a small percentage of Dalits get the opportunity to pursue a doctoral thesis in India. As journalist P Sainath points out, rural India has just three percent graduate and a miniscule portion of them is Dalits. So, the entire system is terribly flawed, loaded against people like you.

But, your death has brought all these issues out in the open. Debate about India's casteist mindset, cruel, discriminating institutions and insensitive, Manuwadi politicians has begun in drawing rooms, TV studios and government meetings.

You may have died. But the idea of Rohith Vemula—a sensitive, hardworking, intelligent young man who was fighting for an India where everyone has equal opportunities and rights—lives on.

Updated Date: Jan 31, 2016 08:25 AM

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