“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.”
– From Rohith Vemula’s final note
Rohith Vemula’s death would be in vain unless we radically alter our present modes of engaging with and reacting to this tragedy. Consider the questions that are being asked now. In what way are the Union Minister Bandaru Dattatreya, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, and ABVP leader Sushil Kumar criminally at fault for Rohith’s suicide? The media reports state that abetment to suicide cases have been filed against these persons. At the other end of the spectrum are questions about Rohith as a victim of caste discrimination. But even here, the questions are about fault. How exactly are the officials of the University of Hyderabad criminally culpable as caste discriminators?
Rohith’s suicide raises important questions of academic intolerance and caste discrimination. However, these questions, like many other issues in our society, are being framed in terms of blame and punishment. Framing questions in this manner pushes to the side several important issues that are equally important and in the long term, pivotal in checking academic bullying and caste discrimination. Here’s a non-exhaustive sample of such questions. How should we counsel student groups such as the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad from resorting to posturing and intimidation when faced with views that are contrary to theirs? Once again, our reaction to these groups ought not to be in terms of seeking criminal culpability. Filing assault or abetment to suicide cases against belligerent student groups has not worked in the past; if anything it makes the problem even worse.
How do we encourage university administrations to be more sensitive to caste discrimination? Filing abetment to suicide cases against the college administration will only lead to a hardening of positions on all sides: the police, the students and the faculty and staff. The academia is a community, and students and teachers are integral to it; introducing criminal law into this relationship will lead to a complete breakdown in this relationship, a relationship that cannot exist without mutual trust and transparency. If students and teachers do not feel that they belong to a single integrated community that is striving, albeit imperfectly, to remedy historical wrongs of caste discrimination, the project of doing away with caste discrimination will be a non-starter. The academic community must deal with caste-based issues at a structural level; blaming particular individuals not only involves controversial and in many cases pointless issues of causation but also take aways from the community the time and effort required to systemically approach problems in this area.
Finally, how do we empower discriminated and unjustly treated Dalit students to react to unfavourable circumstances? How do we take care of the psychological and financial needs of the parents and siblings of students who are abused, killed or driven to suicide? These are difficult questions that need to be answered and will instead be driven to the background when criminal cases are filed and politicians come to visit.
Today, in Hyderabad and elsewhere, there is a breakdown of trust between members of the academic community when it comes to handling grievances based on allegations of caste discrimination. Rancorous incidents between the authorities and students do not occur in a vacuum. Usually, the authorities allege misbehaviour and hooliganism on the part of the students while the students allege highhandedness and prejudice from the authorities. There follows an endless cycle of blame and fault finding which leads to further polarisation of positions, and once the police and the politicians step in, any reasonable chance for a sustainable relationship between the students and the teachers disappears.
A scholar in the prime of his life, sensitive, perceptive and intelligent, has died before his time. For his parents, for his friends, and for the academic community of which he was a part, this is a tragedy of vast proportions. How we react to it will determine if we make it worse than it is now. Do we gain anything from embarking on a fault finding mission to figure out who caused the boy’s death? Shouldn’t we instead honour Rohith and what he stood for by embarking on a longer, more arduous but also more beneficial task – which is to bring the various elements in this tragedy together and make them introspect on how the community of scholars must repair itself and prosper in the future? How do we ensure that the VC and the ministers and the ABVP leaders reflect on what they did, not with a view to putting these people to a forensic criminal examination but to appeal to their better nature to see that they, along with the student community, come up with measures that will, in the future, not engender bitterness and distrust in people from less privileged communities?
In the long run, restorative justice is a much better option than retributive justice in addressing the deep structural inequalities in our society. Rohith’s suicide note suggested that he did not want either his friends or his enemies to be held responsible for his death. We must honour his request.