What does one say about a student of one’s university who killed himself in despair?
It was one of those gorgeous bright perfect spring days in Delhi, the 13th of March, those days that are meant for sadness, in poetic justice. In retrospect, it was almost as if the day was preparing for death – not any death, and not by any natural cause – the death of a student by hanging: a teacher’s nightmare, unnatural as it was, violent and shocking as it was. In the most bizarre way it came like a low blow in the gut at twilight, and whether one knew the student or not did not matter. As the terrible tale unfolded on social media, amidst the shouts and silences of his friends and acquaintances on campus, it seemed quite surely that the young man had become a victim of an institutional slow murder, even before he died his violent death. His Facebook and blog posts bear unmute witness to his suffering and anger for well over a year. For a teacher, whether that institution is one’s own or not, the nightmare closes in, as we already had known about a year ago from Hyderabad. And when the institution happens to be the one you are to go to teach at, the very next morning, the news of a student’s suicide chokes the possibility of reading poems in class as if it is just another afternoon where nothing else matters, as if a student who dreamt so frantically of studying at this university that he took the entrance exam 4 times at different stages, studied English by himself to fare better at the benighted viva voce and re-wrote his proposal 38 times – as he recounted jovially in a post celebrating his admission last year – as if that student is not dead, his dream destroyed as surely as the rope knotted around his neck throttled his breath and life.
And so we go back to classes day after day, just as we have since a student (was) disappeared on campus, or some days after some of our students went to jail on specious charges, all kinds of surreal deadly turns among the lifeblood and force of the campus, its students, but we carry on like automatons taking classes holding seminars attending meetings drinking awful coffee because we are afraid. We are afraid perhaps that once we let go of the semblance of normalcy that we feign but do not feel, we will keel over and fail our students in what they expect of us, to take classes, grade papers, graduate them. We fear that worse is to come, and wrapped in the cries and whispers of what the state can do, we do not do enough for the young ones who are risking their lives everyday in dire battles, in hunger strikes and in deaths and in disappearances for a cause and for a dream. Only they know what it means for the universities that they love to death to be slowly changed to fit other gloves, of those that are hand-in-glove with aspirations of rulers – they who have no truck with ordinary, everyday students reaching for the stars and transforming daily into the extraordinary, by sheer grit, their goals like mirages on a receding horizon. We have no understanding of such love and such dreams perhaps, we have forgotten, or we are weary and wise and careful. We see other bogeys, we are always pulling back, we immerse ourselves in essential and important tasks like strategizing, signing petitions and consulting lawyers but then we are left numbed when the students go kill themselves or get killed or get lost for weeks and months because some of them cannot bear the weight of so much humiliation and others cannot control the hunger pangs of overweening malevolence.
We know now, we cannot but know now that there is a larger more horrific plan afoot to destroy our public universities, to push them toward their annihilation, that there are those in plush cushioned seats who are sitting back and watching us as in a deadly cat-and-mouse game, and for all our hoarse cries of azaadi and thousands of us gathering to protest and march and light candles we are but sound and fury signifying nothing in the face of their implacable intent bolstered by muscle and power, muscle-power. To them a student who hangs himself or is made to vanish is just another aberration to be brushed off, like a particularly obnoxious fly that buzzes louder than the rest before silence overtakes it. They hope that every protesting voice will come to such an end, will overreach for freedom and will fail, and fall into a glorious muteness that even the watching walls will not dare shatter.
But meanwhile we are failing so many of our students, those who come to our universities with singular dreams sparkling in their eyes, when they enter they want to believe that such a place as they have wished to break into from far-flung places and rough homes is the one that will succour them and give them light and water to grow. Rajini Krish (Muthukrishnan) was a poet in his soul, not just a scholar, he rode among the clouds on his first ever plane journey from Hyderabad to Delhi and spilled words on to his Facebook that transformed effortlessly into poetry for the sheer radiance of his experience. And so we killed not just a budding scholar but a poet too. Why and how did we kill a boy so many of us did not know? Because Krish, like Rohith before him, stands as a reminder of our collective failure to provide the institutional space that should have given them the diversity and democracy and opportunity that we all shout about.
Our universities are failing our students in deep and devious ways, and as teachers we must take responsibility for being unable to do our bit to stave off for them the combined assault of the state and the institutional administration. We are not their substitute parents at university, but we ought to be their buffers against systemic violence in the institutions we welcome them to and promise to send them on from: but we are unable to keep even this basic pledge to them now. And yet sentimental is exactly not what we should get, we cannot afford any more to mourn and weep and move on to the next crisis and the next class as we have been doing, hoping that somehow someday soon the very skies will come crashing upon those whom we believe actually have the blood of these students on their calm cold fingers, and will punish them for us, make them repent, and turn the pages of our university books to a fresh page promising that heaven of freedom where young minds can be without fear and sorrow and pain again.
It seems that there is something vital that we are doing wrong as teachers but we don’t quite know what. We are in support of what students are fighting for but we are unable to go the last mile to be with them at the finishing line – and that is why the rope that marks the end of the race is turning into a noose for so many of them, tightened by themselves or by others around their necks. Our support goes so far, but cannot go farther where they each stand alone, and so it is never enough. Students feel abandoned, and hopeless, not because they are lonely without friends – each of these fierce young men had an overwhelming number of friends who fought the same battles alongside them and looked out for them – but because they are left feeling, that they can never break through to the other side enough to make a difference, that no one in the other, upper echelons really care for their lives and dreams. We may endeavor to pursue social justice till the cows come home – and they have, they have – but yet we carry on, helplessly, when we know it is not being served in the everyday, hoping blindly that disaster will not strike, that yet a dawn will come when all manner of things shall be well.
I think they sense our helplessness in the here and now – they are so sharp, these students of ours across the universities of the land – and they inherit it as hopelessness, and feel a sense of abandonment that drives them perhaps to take their own lives as Rohith did, or fall prey to hate-crimes or descend into despair and bitterness when the best still lies ahead of them. It is this that we must address urgently. It is already too late to make some amends, and yet to think about the situation we find ourselves in clearly, critically, politically and passionately is crucial if we are to survive at all as two communities that fit one to another, of teachers and students, far more naturally than either does with the university administration or the state in the climate that we are in today. As teachers who are first and forever learners too, we must train ourselves to trust our young students to lead us where we fear to tread, even when it appears to us to be intrepid, even when it seems foolish. There are risks to be taken because there is the future to be wrested from the ignominy of the present. What is at stake is life itself – for what is university life without the modicum of dignity that gives students the power to step out and meet the hostile world around them with conviction and passion? And there is no longer time and space for ever-sensible talk and rational action, all our energies must be launched at once on the shoulders of those who are at the centre of the battlefields that are turning into carnage even as we look on in disbelief and horror. As a friend wrote, teaching should cease to exist if it cannot ensure the lives of those we teach – or it should exit from the teacherly mode in order to exist at all. We must find ways of connecting with our students such that we can sense their despair before it hits the fan and coils into a noose, and it is imperative that we do this by having, and showing, faith in the wars they are waging for themselves and for us.
If we mourn students dying and killing in despair and indignity, we cannot also wish them to slow down their revolution to a pace that becomes staid and wise as we deem fit. We can profess to care for them but it will not bring them their delayed fellowships, which then forces them to eat samosas for all meals and sleep on benches when they are not allotted hostel rooms for months on end. We cannot allay their anxieties about seats and supervisors because we ourselves are in the dark as we await court orders to save our universities’ academic futures, how ironic is that. There are other things we can do, however, which are endemic to our disciplines and our departments, and we must move on them now. We have to think and act together to make university campuses, made hostile by its administrations, more livable for its students, for whom the universities exist. But we have not yet been able to find the way out of the kind of stranglehold the authorities have us in today, festering and fomenting on so many fronts – how then can we hope that we will show students the way? We can only ask them to lead, and follow their instincts to battles that they are fighting on behalf of all of us.
When Rohith died, we said that that his death would not be in vain. And yet here we are mute in the face of another grave loss – and we know that this is only the visible face of masses of agitated students, in the glare of the spotlight at universities like ours that make good media copy; we must shudder to remember the hundreds we never know of, where daily discriminations gag the breaths of so many other Vemulas and Muthukrishnans, sometimes to death and oftener to death-in-life. We must know that our students are far more visionary than we are, they can see vaster seas of faces well beyond their ken and they are fighting for them and us all with their dreams still intact. Perhaps there is not even time for our students to mourn Rajini Krish well and long, for the tide is in and they must go out with it again for fresh combats: that may well turn out to be their true and fitting homage to the friends they have lost and a memorial to a desperate year of deaths from Rohith to Krish and the nameless many in between: in action, in reaction, in rage and in power against a light that seems to be flickering toward extinction. We must trust in them to keep raising the bar and the flame for us, for we can see everywhere that they are teaching us well. It is from them that we are imbibing the fresh vocabulary of unrest and protest, and of poetry in Muthukrishnan’s impassioned plea: ‘please give chance to the first generation Marginal’s , otherwise, he/she will misunderstand Maths means enemy ! Education means depression! He/she will misunderstand university means discrimination! Please change, please give a chance! Then all calculation of the life will be all right, and the totalities of all the calculation is our history, please calculate the future of the intellectual’s in this country, now you understand …’ Change and chance, chance and change, they have to, they must, soar on the wings of this poet who died so young, to that place where the university no longer means discrimination, where education is not depression. Now we (must) understand…