In search of answers: Rohith Vemula’s suicide


Yesterday my daughter walked out of her room and remarked, “Your University is trending on both Twitter and Facebook”. We turned on the television to find, on all news channels, local and national, tickers and loud anchors screaming one recycled opinion or speculation after another, in the new manner of news presentation where the loudest supposition parades as established fact.

The news of a research scholar’s suicide triggered a huge outcry and massive mobilization of students across a part of the political spectrum, the likes of which I have not seen on campus in recent times. As might be expected, social media amplified and extended the protests, with academics and students at all levels sharing the handful of news stories that reported the incident as well as the poignant suicide note left by the scholar. If virality is marked by an exponentially increasing, widely tangled network of shares and forwards and likes and comments, then this issue has exposed the nature of the disease that seems to be endemic to our institutions. A toxic mix of socio-economic disadvantage, party politics, caste dynamics, and administrative sloth, too often disguised as neutrality. All this makes for a perfect contribution to the corpus fund of media and party politics. I rarely watch what passes for prime time television news but last night I decided that I needed to see what was being said “nationally” about the incident on my University campus. I could not stomach it for more than ten minutes. The stridency of the anchors, the rhetoric of the political spokespersons, the lip-service of the academics, and the anger of the student representatives, framed by a rapidly changing ticker and promos for upcoming debates, all ensured that the unfamiliar viewer would not understand or appreciate the nuances of the issue–if at all they could identify the core of the issue itself. But it also ensured that the arguments would continue in a deeply polarized manner, with no breathing space between “for” and “against”.

But this post is not about the details of that tragedy, or about assigning blame.

It’s to write through the intensely personal dilemma that I go through each time I encounter situations like this, which expose the fragility of our “modern” state, the imperfection/inadequacy of institutions  set up with the express purpose of building a just, enlightened and equitable society, and the insularity that characterizes most forms of socialization (family, school, peer group).

If you, like me, are part of that “upper class, upper caste, privileged, middle class stratum” that is usually charged with complicity for the way things are, you end up feeling confused and guilty, but with little sense of how to deal with either the confusion or guilt. My own response has been multi pronged, yet I cannot get away from the constant feeling that it has not been–that it is never–enough.

My response has been, to begin with, read as much as I can to understand the sources and the manifestations of discrimination, particularly the kind that may be present in the contexts I inhabit, both personal and professional. My response has also been to try to develop a keen sense of where and how I might counter those forces of discrimination on a personal level–admittedly, this is only an attempt, and one that might not always be successful. And my response has been to talk to people to gain a sense of difference in perspective. What are the habits of thought that structure my responses in relation to issues of identity? What are the habits of doing that structure my affect or my behaviours in this regard? And in my limited way, my response has also been to speak to that discrimination where I see it and where my speaking can have any impact at all.

And then when the very structures that sustain my own work and life show themselves to be unfriendly (a mild word) to others “not like me”, I feel betrayed, not only by those structures (to which clearly I also contribute to sustaining) but also by my own lack of vision, by my inability to discern the fissures that maybe I could have helped heal.

So what can the individual do toward systemic change?

Is it by joining disruptive protests–because disruption is the first step towards transformation?

Is it by adding one’s voice in support of disruption even if one does not agree completely with the process by which this disruption is achieved–violence, material destruction?

Is it by non-cooperation with the extant system (in my case, higher education), and a refusal to engage with the very process that in theory should lead to a better society?

Or–as has been my way, for the most part–is it to find spaces of subversion, spaces of influence, in small and personal ways, to express one’s dissent both in speech and action?

Take, for instance, the protests set in motion by the horrible tragedy–a suicide as statement–in which a life was given up and a family was plunged into mourning, and a system was thrown into disarray. Apart from the climate of vitriolic point-counterpoint suffusing social media and other spaces, it also involved boycotting of classes and disruption of administration at the University. This no doubt is a way to bring attention to the issue, and there is no doubt that attention needs to be brought. But the fallout is that the program of study is thrown off schedule, and if this happens, examinations may be delayed, and if that happens, graduation dates will be pushed, and if that happens, entry into the job market will be delayed, and opportunities will be lost. Over time, the reputation of an institution of higher learning will suffer. The ultimate losers in this trajectory are students. Faculty will retain their jobs and their salaries. So will administrative personnel. People who have been forced to resign will quietly find other spaces to occupy or will be just as quietly reinstated in positions that favour their politics.

But is there any other way?

Can we find–or create–ways of resistance and change that can work upwards and into systems, generating the desired change without the destruction and negativity that mark the violent forms of protest that we have become so familiar with–indeed, so familiar that it invariably descends into a theatre of the absurd which limps to a tired, foregone conclusion that strengthens the status quo?

Every time there is a debate of this kind, I feel forced to agree with one point, or disagree with another. One wondering mis-step, one ambivalent phrase, and I am branded either a voice of the majority or an enemy of the minority. Can we, the supposedly enlightened, the humane, the compassionate, the seekers of justice (for all), acknowledge identity without making it a shield or a cross or a target for everything, and move beyond it to really talk to each other?

(Usha Raman is Associate Professor at University of Hyderabad)