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Mourning Rohith Vemula, Who Could Not Rescue Himself From the ‘Fatal Accident’ of His Birth

This extract from Fatal Accidents of Birth delves into Rohit Vemula’s story, tracing the chain of events that led to his death, and shines a light on casteism in India’s educational institutions.

Activist of a Dalit organisation participate in a candle light vigil holding photographs of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, January 20, 2016. Credit: Associated Press

Activist of a Dalit organisation participate in a candle light vigil holding photographs of Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad, India, Wednesday, January 20, 2016. Credit: Associated Press

In the summer of 2016, many students sat on a hunger strike in the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. They were protesting the punishment meted out to them by the university authorities for having demonstrated against the hanging of Afzal Guru. On the wall behind their protest site, they had painted a larger than life portrait of a beaming Rohith Vemula. Below it was the inscription: 1989-Forever.

Earlier that year, in January 2016, I, like many across the nation, inconsolably mourned the passing of the young man who dreamed of the stars, yet despaired of our world; a despair that was so absolute, it made him take his own life. A young man who loved people, and who, he believed, are created out of stardust. But, in the end, a young man who could not rescue himself from what he described as ‘the fatal accident’ of his birth.

Rohith Vemula, doctoral scholar at the University of Hyderabad, observed in his farewell letter to the world that he could never overcome the loneliness of his childhood, and the pain of being unappreciated. With these few words, he spoke for the millions of Dalit children and young people of India and evoked the daily humiliation they continue to endure.

Rohith did not share all the harsh truths about his ‘unappreciated childhood’ even with his closest friends. The only glimpses he offered of his life were occasional posts on his Facebook account. Pictures of his father working as a security guard in a hospital, his mother who tirelessly sewed and embroidered to earn a living and the small crimson refrigerator in their home which cooled not only the household’s drinking water but also that of their neighbours’.

It was after his suicide, and amidst the outpouring of grief over it, that fragments of his story emerged.

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Rohith’s mother Radhika was born in the Dalit Mala community, the daughter of migrant workers. In 1971, when her parents arrived in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, to find work, Radhika was not yet a toddler. There, on a hot summer afternoon, she was spotted by Anjani Devi, whose home was close to the railway tracks where Radhika’s parents were working.

Anjani had lost her own little girl a few months earlier, and the beautiful little girl reminded her of her own lost child. She located the parents of the young child and asked them to ‘give’ their daughter to her. Her parents agreed. There was no paperwork, and the biological parents of the child never came back to look for her. These early biographical details about Radhika were revealed to the media by Anjani Devi after Rohith’s death.

In public, Anjani Devi claimed that she had adopted Radhika as her daughter. However, in reality, Radhika remained little more than a poorly educated, unpaid domestic help, even as a small child. Anjani’s biological children – two sons and two daughters – received the best education and all of them graduated with degrees in education and engineering.

Harsh Mander Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance Speaking Tree, 2016

Harsh Mander
Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance
Speaking Tree, 2016

Radhika learnt for the first time about her birth in the Dalit Mala caste when she was about 12. Her ‘grandmother’, provoked by the fact that she had not satisfactorily performed some domestic chore, had angrily cursed and derided her caste. When Radhika was 14, Anjani married her off to Mani Kumar, a man several years older than her. Mani Kumar was from a higher – Vaddera –caste, the same caste to which Anjani belonged. Anjani chose to hide the truth of the young girl’s caste from her future husband so that he would accept her in marriage. The man drank and often beat his teenaged wife. In the first five years of their marriage, Radhika gave birth to a daughter, Neelima, son Rohith and their younger brother Raja.

It was around the time when Raja was born that a neighbour revealed to Mani the truth about Radhika’s birth. Furious at being tricked into marrying a Dalit girl, his violence against his young wife only increased. According to Radhika, after learning of her caste, he would thrash her almost every day, cursing his luck. Radhika ultimately left Mani and returned with her three young children to Anjani’s house, the only other ‘home’ she knew. There life continued as it had earlier; her status as unpaid domestic help remained unchanged.

Later, when Radhika began living alone with her children, her husband used to visit them occasionally, but was mostly an absent father. Rohith’s memories of his childhood were bitter, and he shared them only with Sheikh Riyaz.

Rohith and Riyaz became friends during their undergraduate days and Rohith was closest to him. Riyaz understood why Rohith was lonely in his childhood, and why he wrote in his farewell letter, “Maybe I was wrong, all the while, in understanding the world. In understanding love, pain, life, death.”

Riyaz said in an interview with the Hindustan Times, “Radhika aunty and her children lived in her mother’s house like servants. They were expected to do all the work in the house while the others sat around. Radhika aunty has been doing household work ever since she was a little girl.”

As the children grew older, Radhika moved her family out of Anjani Devi’s home into a small, one-room apartment. Even then, according to Riyaz, “Rohith would hate to go to his ‘grandmother’s’ house because every time they went there, his mother would start working like a maid.” If Radhika was unable to do all the housework, it was expected that her children would complete the chores.

After Rohith enrolled for a BSc degree in Guntur, he moved out of his mother’s home into a small room he shared with Riyaz and two other friends. Anjani Devi did not contribute to his education, and the expenses were well beyond Radhika’s means. To support himself, he worked after hours as a labourer on construction sites and in a catering business.

In college, Rohith was brilliant at studies and would remain ahead of his class. He would often take issue with his teachers, much to their discomfiture. “This one time,” recalled Riyaz, “he was thrown out of a class because he was asking too many questions of a teacher who couldn’t answer them. The principal, who knew about Rohith’s brilliance, intervened on his side and asked the teacher to prepare better for the class.”

Radhika, too, though deprived of schooling as a child, returned to studies later in life. She would learn her children’s lessons before teaching it to them. In this manner, she went on to study further and graduated along with her sons.

Yet, despite these collective accomplishments, “his family story haunted Rohith all his life,’ said Riyaz. “He faced caste discrimination in the house where he grew up. But instead of succumbing, Rohith fought it out. He broke many barriers before he got to the final stretch, his PhD. He gave up when he realised he could go no further.”

Brilliant results in his bachelor’s exams opened up many avenues in higher education for Rohith. He chose to pursue a master’s degree and then a PhD at the prestigious University of Hyderabad. It was a choice that not only broadened his academic horizons but also stirred a political awakening within him.

Harsh Mander. Credit: Twitter/@beenasarwar

Harsh Mander. Credit: Twitter/@beenasarwar

At the university, after a brief initial period of being apolitical, he was first drawn to Marxist ideas and joined the Students’ Federation of India (SFI). He was disillusioned with the SFI when it refused to join protests after Madari Venkatesh, a Dalit PhD scholar, committed suicide in his hostel room after the university administration failed to allot him a guide for three years. Rohith wrote on his Facebook page that his shift from “Marxism to Ambedkarism” was “a conscious move into building a new future on the basis of more humane, more inclusive society”. Left movements, in his assessment, claimed to be progressive but maintained “the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender.”

After CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury lectured at the university, Rohith even asked Yechury in a Facebook post why the CPI(M) had not had a single Dalit politburo member in 51 years. Rohith then moved to the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). The ASA was formed in 1994 to assist Dalit students. This students’ organisation only gained in strength over the years and, in 2007, it entered student politics by forging fraternal links with communist organisations, tribal and Muslim youth.

The atmosphere in the university was extremely hostile towards Dalits, with many upper caste teachers openly displaying prejudice against the students. Unable to live with this discrimination, many Dalit students would drop out in a matter of months. Several Dalit students were economically weak and dependent on scholarships to pay their college fees and mess bills. This had become an easy way to harass these students and exploit them; the teachers knew that even just the threat or the actual suspension of these students from classes or the mess would effectively render them destitute.

The spiral of events which ultimately led to Rohith’s suicide – or, as many rightly described, his ‘institutional murder’ – began when Rohith and other ASA members ran into trouble with the college authorities in the summer of 2015. They had organised protests against the hanging of Yakub Memon, convicted for his involvement in the Mumbai bomb blasts of 1993. Their opposition was one based on principle, against capital punishment.

Rohith uploaded this Facebook post after Memon’s hanging, “The blood thirsty nationalism collected another head. Honourable president scored a double with this. If death penalty is the only punishment we can offer to the convicted people, we must stop calling our nation democratic. #India, you have blood on your hands.”

Tensions between ASA and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the BJP, had already been brewing for a few days after ASA had condemned the actions of ABVP in a college in Delhi, where it had forcefully stopped the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a film about the killing and displacement of Muslims in a district of Uttar Pradesh in 2013.

The ASA charged that the ABVP was “trying to deliberately suppress all news about the wrong doings and violence of their caste Hindu politics. We know that they have systematically constructed the Muslim community as a target of attack.”

Nandanam Susheel Kumar, the then president of the university’s ABVP unit, posted a response to ASA’s condemnation on Facebook, ridiculing what he described as ASA’s ‘hooliganism’. A group of Dalit students, including Rohith, went to Susheel’s room demanding an apology. What ensued remains contested.

The ASA students maintained that theirs was a peaceful protest. Susheel, on the other hand, claimed that he was beaten up and had to be hospitalised. It was later revealed that Susheel had been hospitalised and operated upon for an ongoing appendicitis condition.

Susheel’s family has many close links with the BJP in the district and the state. He mobilised local political support to paint Vemula and his party members as ‘anti-national’. Further, the local district and state-level leaders of the BJP drew the central government into the fracas.

Ministers from the central government prevailed upon the university to suspend five students, including Rohith. He then wrote on his Facebook wall, “I am happy to say that I got suspended for a semester by UoH, because I am vocal against ABVP and RSS backed systems. And I am happier to say that I am not terrified or paralysed.” And, in another post, he wrote, “Malcolm X said that, Ambedkar cried it…and Dalit Panther (Black Panther) movement established it. Only when you risk your lives, your next generations live in freedom.”

The suspension of Rohith and his ASA colleagues was withdrawn after protests. But the matter refused to die down. The then vice chancellor, R.P. Sharma constituted a committee to examine the matter but before the committee could go to work, R.P. Sharma was replaced by Appa Rao Podile, a man with a history of bias against Dalit students.

The new vice chancellor set up a committee which refused to hear the students’ side of the matter and imposed an unusual and humiliating punishment upon them. For the rest of their time at the university, the five students of the ASA were barred from the hostels and the administration building, as well as from ‘other common places in groups’ and from contesting elections.

They would be permitted entry only to classes and to the library. The members of ASA wrote on Facebook, “Isn’t this similar to a dominant-caste ostracising a Dalit-household from the village; here, five senior research scholars who happen to be from Dalit background are outcast from the day-to-day activities of the university space.”

It was of no concern to the committee that all the students they had banished came from very poor families and did not have the resources to rent a place outside the university and arrange for their own food.

The suspended students took their belongings and created a makeshift tent with old posters in the open courtyard of the university shopping centre. They poignantly called the tent velivada, the Telugu word for Dalit ghettos outside villages.

On the night of January 16, 2016, Rohith sang songs with his friends at the velivada and, later, sat around a bonfire, talking. The following morning, he was nowhere to be seen. His mother called his friends, worried because he was not answering his phone. That afternoon one of his friends made his way to the room in the hostel occupied by a Dalit PhD scholar, Uma Maheshwari. Rohith had been temporarily using Maheshwari’s room to work in. When they knocked, there was no answer and they had to break open the door. They found Rohith hanging from a fan. He had used an ASA banner as a noose.

On the table, he left a hand-written letter, his first and last to the world, one that deeply moved many across India and the world. He wrote:

Good morning,

I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.

I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense.

My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.

Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.

“From shadows to the stars.”

Uma anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.

To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future.

For one last time,

Jai Bheem

I forgot to write the formalities. No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself.

No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act.

This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this.

Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.

§

In March 2016, I wrote an article for the Indian Express. In it I drew parallels between the student movements in the University of Hyderabad and in JNU which were happening almost simultaneously. I observed that at a time when a deeply divisive, manufactured binary sought to pit youthful idealism and dissent against love for the country, Rohith Vemula, as also Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar – two of the dissenting students of JNU who were arrested along with their colleague Anirban Bhattacharya on charges of sedition in February 2016 – offered important lessons about the paramount value of solidarity.

The immediate battles which all three young students had been engaged in, and which had led to their being labelled ‘anti-national’, were battles not connected with their immediate identity, but rather those which reflected their broader solidarity with people living with injustice. Rohith agitated against the ABVP, particularly its violent blocking of a film that documented the suffering and injustice endured by Muslim survivours of targeted hate violence in Muzaffarnagar since 2013.

Both he and Kanhaiya had organised student meetings in their respective universities to debate the justice of the death penalty given to two men convicted for alleged terror crimes, Yakub Memon and Afzal Guru. And Umar Khalid’s passion is to study and fight injustice not against Muslims – which some may presume natural because he was born into a Muslim family – but against adivasis, historically the most deprived people of India.

In doing so, they lived the words of Nelson Mandela, “Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.”

In April, three months after Rohith’s passing, I visited the University of Hyderabad. The unrest continued. Like some other university campuses in India, it had come to resemble a battle zone. A flurry of uniformed policepersons stood at the main gate and blocked entry to any ‘outsider’ into the campus. However, I was able to briefly meet the protesting students and some faculty. Invited for a regular lecture, I had been let in by a side gate. After my talk, I went to the protest site.

The velivada had become the epicentre of the struggle that continued after Rohith’s passing. The students demanded the removal of Appa Rao Podile. On a screen behind the tent, a photograph of a smiling Rohith Vemula found place among Dalit icons: Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule and Savitribai Phule. A few steps away was a white plaster of Paris bust of Vemula.

The student protests in the University of Hyderabad only partly resembled those in JNU. Both sought to defend the rights of students to dissent, mainly against what they saw as anti-poor, majoritarian and communal politics and policies. But, unlike in JNU, the central issue in Hyderabad was the caste and religious bias against students and faculty from socially disadvantaged backgrounds embedded within the institution itself. In an open letter to Smriti Irani, the then minister for human resource development, a group of teachers from the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes wrote, “For a despondent, beleaguered Rohith, hounded and ignored by the powers that be, death was probably the only way to freedom and the limitless wonder and beauty of the universe that so moved him!… This was Rohith’s assertion of dignity, a dignity that was not allowed to him or his friends in their lives. Their lives, in the words of Gopal Guru, mirrored social death, smeared with indignities of caste.”

The splendid, possibly paramount, contribution of public-funded universities like JNU and the University of Hyderabad is that among the students admitted to these universities are growing numbers of young women and men whose childhoods have been marked by want and social discrimination. Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad and Kanhaiya Kumar, Chintu Kumari, Rama Naga and others in JNU come from deprived backgrounds. There are growing numbers of young people like them who battle and overcome extremely deprived backgrounds – socially, economically and educationally –to qualify for the country’s best public universities.

However, the critical difference between JNU and the University of Hyderabad is that the large majority of the faculty in JNU welcomes and nurtures these young disadvantaged students. The students of JNU may feel drawn into battles against injustice outside the university, in the larger world, but not within their campuses. The Dalit and Muslim students in the University of Hyderabad were not so fortunate. Senior professors from Hyderabad told me that large sections of the university faculty were openly anti-Dalit and communal. Rohith was not the first Dalit student in the University of Hyderabad to have taken his life.

Nine students had committed suicide on the campus in the previous decade, yet no corrective steps were taken to understand and change the university’s threatening and unwelcoming attitude towards Dalit students. Nearly 130 scholars from around the world wrote an open letter to the vice chancellor of “the hostile, casteist environment of higher education in India. A university where students turn away from life with the regularity they have at the University of Hyderabad requires urgent and massive rehauling… This suicide is not an individual act. It is the failure of premier higher educational institutions in democratic India to meet their most basic obligation: to foster the intellectual and personal growth of India’s most vulnerable young people. Instead, Rohith now joins a long list of victims of prejudice at premier institutions in the country, where pervasive discrimination drives so many Dalit students to depression and suicide, when not simply forcing them to quietly drop out.”

The last of these suicides happened in the last week of November 2013, when PhD scholar Madari Venkatesh killed himself. Rohith’s close friend Ch. Ramji recalled to Deccan Herald that Rohith had been enormously disturbed by his passing. He had said, “These protests and media coverage will die out in a few days. Dalit students will continue to be harassed here.” Months later, when he was suspended for ‘anti-national’ activities, Rohith wrote to the vice chancellor to supply Dalit students ‘sodium azide and a nice rope’ at the time of admission itself.

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A week after Rohith’s death, Appa Rao Podile went on an indefinite leave, citing personal reasons. He appointed Vipin Srivastava, professor of physics, as the in charge. Srivastava himself had a chequered history of discrimination against Dalit students. He too went on leave after students protested against his appointment. He was replaced by professor of chemistry, M. Periasamy, who had a more thoughtful approach. In April, Appa Rao rejoined duties as vice chancellor, unmindful of the anguish and anger of the students of the university.

Violent protests followed. The campus was locked down by the police and 24 students and two faculty members were arrested. It is hardly a coincidence that of those arrested, 14 students and both staff were Dalit, and most of the rest were Muslim. It was in that vitiated, tense atmosphere that I met the students and faculty of the university.

Faculty members spoke to me of their concerns about the targeting of these students by other faculty and by the police. The students agonised about their future, convinced that they would continue to be victimised by a university administration led by a vice chancellor who they believed was anti-Dalit. Their teachers worried even more about the students’ mental health. Their depression, their loneliness, their despondency. They said all that these students were demanding was a fair, accepting, egalitarian space for them to study, to understand the world and to dream.

I met the students and the faculty of the university on a blisteringly hot summer day. The few trees in the courtyard where the protests were being held had shed their leaves. The mood of the students was one of anger. Of determination and resistance. But also of isolation. And, most of all, mounting despair and a deep sadness.

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Rohith’s suicide resonated in the collective public conscience of the country and echoed resoundingly in national politics, becoming a rallying point for both student and Dalit movements. It even reached the parliament where angry debates raged. The focus then shifted to proving that Rohith was, in fact, not Dalit.

The government of India appointed a one-man commission with A.K. Roopanwal, a retired judge of the Allahabad high court, to enquire into the circumstances of Rohith’s Vemula’s death. The judge concluded, as was widely reported in the media, that Rohith Vemula’s mother had fraudulently “branded” herself Dalit so that she could avail the benefits of reservation for her son.

Roopanwal stated that Radhika’s claim that her foster parents had told her that her biological parents were Dalit was “improbable and unbelievable”. If Radhika’s foster family did not disclose the names of her biological parents, the judge reasoned, how could they have revealed their caste to her?

Instead, the report alleged, Radhika had “branded” herself Mala only because she managed to get the caste certificate from a corporator in whose house she lived for one-and-a-half years. Since his mother is not a ‘Mala’, the judge concluded, Rohith’s certificate as a Dalit was not genuine either.

The report disagreed that the university’s decision to expel Rohith and his batch mates from the hostel was taken under political pressure. He argued, “How nine persons [of the proctorial board that punished Vemula] could be influenced by anybody, political or non-political when none of them was directly under the control of anybody?”

The retired judge described the university’s decision to expel Vemula and his batch mates from the hostel as “most reasonable” and lenient in comparison to the proctorial board’s recommendation for a complete suspension from the university.

The report also concluded that Rohith faced no discrimination in the university and that he took his life due to personal frustration. It stated that since the suicide happened one month after Rohith wrote to vice-chancellor Appa Rao Podile on December 18, 2015, when he had alleged discrimination and sought cyanide and rope for Dalit students, this delay was evidence that the anger “did not continue”.

“His suicide note is on the record which shows that Rohith Vemula had his own problems and not happy with the worldly affairs… He was feeling frustrated for reasons best known to him. He wrote that there was no urgency for understanding love, pain, life and death but he was rushing after them. It indicates that he was not happy with the activities going around him. He also wrote that he was all alone from childhood and was an unappreciated man…”

“He did not blame anybody for his suicide. If he would have been angry with the decision of the university, certainly either he would have written in the specific words or would have indicated in this regard. But he did not do the same. It shows that the circumstances prevailing in the university at that time were not the reasons for committing suicide. The whole reading of the letter shows that he was not feeling well in this world and under frustration ended his life.”

However, speaking to the Indian Express in February 2016, Anjani Devi had herself stated clearly that Radhika’s parents did indeed belong to the Mala caste. Further, Rohith did not avail of the reservation quota to gain admission to the University of Hyderabad and had remained at head of his class.

Even as this judgement represented a cynical attempt to shift the very bedrock of the case, there was pushback from elsewhere. In October 2016, The Hindu reported that Sunkanna Velpula, one of the four students who had been expelled from the university along with Rohith, refused to receive his doctorate from vice chancellor Appa Rao. To do so, he said, would be an injustice to Rohith Vemula’s family. The vice chancellor was still charged with the abetment of Vemula’s suicide, Velpula said, and therefore did “not have the moral right to grant degrees to students.”

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For Dalit children who have endured the humiliation of being treated as lesser than others in primary education, university is as discriminatory as school.

Dalit students have committed suicide not only in the University of Hyderabad but also in medical and engineering colleges and other institutions of higher learning across India. These suicides have persisted year after year, but few ask why these students feel compelled to take their lives. And even fewer have paid heed to a damning report by Sukhadeo Thorat, the former chairperson of the University Grants Commission, of the segregation and public disgrace that medical students from disadvantaged Dalit backgrounds face at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the premier medical school of the country.

Similarly, in the Indian Institutes of Technology, the IITs, ‘quota students’ admitted on seats reserved for scheduled caste and scheduled tribe children are continuously reminded by their teachers that the qualifying marks they needed to attain in order to be admitted were lower than those required for ‘general’ candidates. They can thus never attain the same levels of achievement, they are told. Despite being crushed and demoralised, many become achievers. Some drop out. A few kill themselves.

On many occasions I have stood as a teacher before young recruits to India’s higher civil services in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, or in classes in the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and debated the justice of India’s policy of reserving seats in higher and technical education centres and civil services for children from historically disadvantaged communities.

In Mussoorie, in particular, I have often wondered what must transpire in the hearts and minds of nearly half the young people in the classroom, recruits to the IAS and other civil services from SC, ST and OBC (Other Backward Class) communities, who largely remain silent during these discussions, when their own batch mates debate their perceived lack of merit in their presence.

Young people who have been raised with the enormous advantages of their birth and background never stop to recognise that ‘merit’ is a myth. What they describe as their own merit is really mostly their privilege; and young people who study and compete battling far greater odds than them may actually have far greater merit, although the marks that they score in examinations may be less. Yet, young people of privilege continue to mistake privilege for merit and entitlement.

In his first and last letter to the world, Rohith spoke of his hope to travel to the stars after his death. At moments like this, I wish I was not an agnostic but a person of faith. If I had been a person of faith, I could have taken solace in the belief that there is indeed a life after death, a life in which Rohith would certainly travel to the stars, and find a world unlike this one – a world in which birth is not a fatal accident for some people, where life is not a curse, where childhoods are not lonely and unappreciated, where human beings are not reduced to their immediate identity, to a vote, to a number, where love is not constructed, beliefs are not coloured, where there are no gaping gaps between body and soul.

But while I cannot believe in that other world, can we instead learn from the tragic passing of this precious young man, who dreamed so achingly of love, and justice and star dust? Changing our world may take a long time. But in this generation, now, can we at least ensure that classrooms, schools and universities become places where children and young people are valued for what they are, for the qualities of their hearts and heads, for their efforts as much as their failures, and not for the accident – fatal or otherwise – of their birth?

This excerpt from Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance has been lightly edited for clarity.

Harsh Mander is a social worker and writer.

For biographical details, Mander has relied substantially on ‘Rohith Vemula: An Unfinished Portrait’, an article by Sudipto Mondal published in the Hindustan Times. For details of Vemula’s politicisation and the events that led to his death, Mander draws details from Praveen Donthi’s article ‘From Shadows to the Stars: The Defiant Politics of Rohith Vemula and the Ambedkar Students Association’ published in The Caravan.