“objects in mirror are (never) closer than they appear”: Beyond a Simplistic Reading of a Suicide and a Note – written by Hyderabad for Feminism on January 18, 2016.
The quotation reproduced above is from a Facebook photograph taken by Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad who aspired to be a science writer. On Sunday, Rohith committed suicide by hanging himself from a fan in a friend’s room in one of the university hostels. His suicide has been the latest act of protest in a long series of protests by students from disenfranchised and oppressed communities, generally from Dalit and Kashmiri Muslim backgrounds. Rohith’s caption is relevant to our statement because it encapsulates the sense of disassociation and alienation he began to feel from his body and his existence as a direct result of the sustained persecution he faced at the hands of various parties, including the university administration as well as casteist, right-wing elements in the student body.
Suicide is the ultimate act of protest, which makes the human body the active site on which protest is enacted or performed. Suicide is how the person who commits to it tells the world that it has failed to carry out justice by making a statement that is irreversible, incontestable, and permanent. It is not only the suicide note that bears witness to the dead; the violence done to the body itself is a statement, an act.
A feeling of alienation and a sort of separateness inside the body towards the body and the rest of the world are what emerge when one reads Rohith’s suicide note.
In such a situation, since they would not take him seriously as a scholar and a human being with certain rights, Rohith inflicted his body with fatal injury to demonstrate the intensity and violence done to him, his body, his soul, his being by the injustices that the university administration and casteist organizations and individuals had committed against him. It was the only medium through which he could now adequately express himself in a way that would shake the powers that be. And you can see the existential separation between Rohith on one hand and his body and the world in which he has been living again and again in the letter:
Perhaps it hurts to love, then, because you care so much about something that you know does not mean a thing to the powers that be, sitting behind their shiny, sanitized desks in their AC offices, protected by the aura of their office. What affects and governs your life is just a nuisance to them, an irritating fly to be waved away with the flourish of a hand. No, wait, no flies are allowed to fly around in AC offices. That must be why Rohith was not granted an appointment with the VC for weeks. That is what a social boycott does: it isolates, “outcasts,” dehumanizes, delegitimizes, as it did with the five Dalit scholars at whom it was aimed. The Age of Manu is truly here, and how.
Everything in Rohith’s letter suggests that he was struggling to transcend the reality of his life as a persecuted Dalit student at the University of Hyderabad. We are “glorious thing[s] made up of stardust,” he wrote, who are never treated as minds, pointing to the conflict he felt between a body, a material existence that was rooted in the receiving end of the quagmire of caste oppression. You can see his broken yearning for a better world, a just world, and his desire to rise above the filth of the world in which he currently finds himself. And a beautifully naive, innocent belief shines out of this desire:
What is deeply ironic about the letter is that it is Rohith who apologizes to everyone: to Uma Anna, “for using your room for this thing.” Remember, he no longer had a room to call his own in the university. Using borrowed space, he performed his ultimate act of protest, all the while worrying about those who would be left behind, the tailor mother who should get his fellowship, which remains unpaid by the UGC for the past seven months, and the ASA family who had enabled and supported and been supported by him. The letter also contains a sense of forgiveness extended towards the university administration. Rohith writes: “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.” In this accompanying act of forgiveness, Rohith has transcended the grim realities of his material existence for the past few months. He has truly shot from shadows to stars. But his forgiveness does not mean that we should forgive the university administration for this institutional murder. Nor should we forgive the goons who persecuted him and their goon-ish organizations, or goon-ish political leaders and their goon-ish apparatuses. Not our time yet to be touched by stardust. It is from this position that we issue this statement:
Hyderabad for Feminism deeply mourns the untimely death of Rohith Vemula as a result of severe institutionalised brahminical casteist harassment and persecution through concocted and false cases by the state and its various agencies viz. the administration of the University of Hyderabad, the offices of the VC and the Proctor, Ministry of Human Resources Development and Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government of India. We hang our heads in shame for this avoidable loss of a precious life so viciously persecuted!!