During the last few days, there was a buzz in the North Campus of Delhi University. Students across colleges were looking forward to two events on January 18: the celebrations to mark 100 years of Ramjas College and a talk by well-known stage and film actor Boman Irani at St Stephen’s.
Sometime after noon on January 18 came the news that a Dalit research scholar had committed suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling fan in a hostel room in Hyderabad Central University. I read online the note Rohith Vemula left for the world before taking his life. He wrote, “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.”
In the 22 years of my life I have seen two friends commit suicide, their dissatisfaction unexplained, their anger misplaced. It was terrible and extremely painful. But this was something else – all Rohith asked for was to be allowed to study, to fill his mind with the wonders of science and express himself through the word. This simple desire was denied to him. I thought of homes such as mine, where one is constantly told by parents not to worry about anything and “just study”. Sometimes as children we were goaded into studying. Here, the entire university, at the bidding of central government ministers – one handling the Human Resource Development portfolio ironically – and the student wing of the ruling party at the Centre, seemed to have conspired to make that scholar’s simple wish impossible.
I found out that various student groups were planning a protest demonstration in the afternoon outside the Human Resource Development ministry. A friend and I went to take part in the protest. Our numbers paled in comparison to the crowds thronging Ramjas and Stephen’s. Nevertheless there was a sense of purpose with which we gathered there.
In my four-and-a-half years at Delhi University, I have seen many debates on a number of issues: the retention of AK Ramanujan’s essay on the 300 versions of the Ramayana in a university course syllabus; the semester system; the four year undergraduate programme system; the screening of the film Muzaffarnagar baaqi hai in Delhi University; and the hanging of Yakub Memon. I cannot claim to have been totally involved in all these causes. I do not belong to any particular student political group and I am not a regular at many of the protests surrounding such issues, being somewhat untouched by them and often questioning their benign dissent.
This time, though, there was a difference. In Rohith Vemula’s suicide note, there isn’t a single mention of his political rivalry with ABVP or his participation in student politics as a member of the Ambedkar Students’ Association. It mentions only his aspirations in the field of science and his failure in fulfilling them: “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.” Here was a student who had to struggle for the basic right to education that is fundamentally promised to each citizen of this country and was hounded by his own institution – denied his stipend, not allowed to enter the hostel, not allowed to attend classes and not even allotted a supervisor for his research. A man driven to suicide because he could not study.
Rohith’s suicide goes beyond the nuances and layers that accompany protests on causes such as those stated above, undoubtedly issues that responsible students should protest for. His suicide had nothing to do with being ‘responsible’, but it had everything to do with not being perceived as human enough to be allowed to expand his horizons, to study.
Rohith’s suicide isn’t an issue for sectarian politics. It is an issue that calls into question our human core.
While we were pondering this question, a small group of people at a bus stop close by, who had nothing to do with either the MHRD or us students, looked on at our protest and deplored the fact that we were all against ‘Hinduism’; that our sole purpose was to oust organisations such as RSS, ABVP and BJP and replace them with ISIS. They either didn’t know or chose not to bother about the merits of the issue. They were quick to perceive in our protest an insult or challenge to their political loyalties which meant nothing less than an assault on their core principles. Rohith’s own words explain it best: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing… ”
The single-minded purpose with which two central ministers, senior members of the BJP in Telangana and ABVP pursued their objective of keeping a scholar from his books shows a brand of politics that seeks to decimate any opinion that does not correspond to it. A politics that literally makes it impossible for someone to live.
That is something I simply cannot agree with. And that is precisely why I decided to join the protest outside the MHRD – for at this point, to not be political enough to protest would be tantamount to supporting the status quo. To support the status quo would be to endorse the denial of the basic rights of an individual. And that would be pathetic.
It was this feeling which drew so many of us away from the cosy comfort of the campus to the protest outside MHRD on January 18. We did not number many but we would like to believe that our being there made a difference. We were glad to be there in solidarity with our fellow student Rohith Vemula. We were hurt. We were angry. We were sad. We were not empty. We were not unconcerned about ourselves. Most importantly, we were not pathetic.