Rohith Vemula was about 27 years old and a student working for his Ph.D. in the University of Hyderabad. His name appeared over all news media recently when he hanged himself in the hostel room of a friend, leaving a suicide note. A sad event, no doubt.
Television and newspapers covered leaders of many political parties who flocked to Hyderabad, met Rohith’s grieving mother and his friends at the university premises and issued statements demanding sacking of some ministers and the university’s vice chancellor. Raising issues and grabbing media’s attention is what all political leaders would do, but there is something the Hyderabad-bound leaders did not do, which is worrying.
Rohith excelled in studies and had scored high marks in the Ph.D. admission interview, according to his guide in research. He and four other Dalit students, all members of Ambekar Students Association, had been expelled from the university hostel for some misdemeanor, after holding enquiries. That action did not curtail their access to university library or labs or suspend their study programme. In this scenario Rohith took his own life. However his suicide note does not name or blame anyone as driving him to die.
Reports differ on whether Rohith was a Dalit or not. Whatever the truth, we see politicians clamour and protest more over events and issues that concern Dalit citizens than if they relate to other citizens. Here politicians play clever over hapless people. Indian politicians know that among the country’s population women count about 48.5%, religious minorities roughly 20% and Dalits close to 17%. So they jump to project any issue touching a single individual of any group as one affecting his or her whole group. With that stance the politician could portray himself as espousing a cause of millions of people and hope to reap their votes in big numbers in one harvest. A controversy of this nature may attract arguments of many shades, some genuine and some pretentious. Here it is not easy to decide if a politician really takes up a public cause which benefits huge numbers of people or he is blowing up an individual issue pretending it as a group cause. Mostly irresponsible politicians occupy the filed, make unfair choices and have a merry game for votes. They cannot be checked until our democracy matures and our electorate becomes truly discerning to show their judgement at election time.
Leave alone the question if the university had a good cause for expelling Rohith Vemula from its hostel. Any answer to that question should not cloud an important issue about which most of our political class remains silent. That issue is: Should Rohith not have decided to live, stand up and strive to succeed in the wide world rather than take his life following an expulsion from a university hostel? The battles to be won for anyone in India are harder to go through than an expulsion from a university hostel, and Rohith would have certainly spared his separated mother deep agony by continuing to live. And, staying alive, if he completes his Ph.D. and does other acts of good value he will lastingly inspire many in his community, which his rash act cannot do. An example of braving odds and achieving heights of success more than seventy years ago in unmodern India was B. R. Ambedkar, in whose name Ambedkar Students Association is named – which had Rohith as member.
Stories of women traumatized by rapes but pulling themselves up over time abound in every region in India. And there are girls whose faces were disfigured badly by acid attacks, mostly from males they had spurned, but they survived the violence and live on – some even modelling garments or otherwise succeeding to their best. We also read about youngsters who fall in love and marry out of their caste or religion but are harassed by families of their birth, sometimes leading to injury and bloodshed for the newly-weds, and yet the couples stay together, get police or court’s protection and live their lives. Some young men serving our army or doing other security duty lose a limb or suffer other deformity while coming under enemy fire or bomb blasts, but still they keep themselves alive and get on. Each one of them deserves our claps for getting over great personal calamities and raising themselves, and they all make our miseries look smaller and our lives brighter by comparison. If any of them had willfully ended their lives following their misfortune, have no doubt that our many politicians would have crowded the victim’s home and released statements blaming the police or the government for the suicide. Because there lies a chance to bag some votes of innocents. But those politicians would not applaud the fortitude and courage of those troubled individuals for facing up to life. Because that does not get votes. Perhaps this happened with Rohith too after he killed himself.
If Rohith lived on he could have also spoken about the expulsion event – in any court also if it comes to that. So, to that measure, his passing away is a loss in public sphere. But the saddest part of the event is that such a young man, whatever his religion or community, took his own life in this background. Equally sad is the spectacle of our politicians who seemed to speak for Rohith but never said they would have loved to see Rohith live on. One of them, Rahul Gandhi, while addressing about 200 students in the campus of the university is quoted as saying that Rohith “had no option but to kill himself” (The Hindu, Jan. 20, 2016). Another of them, Arvind Kejriwal, said the same thing in different words as he spoke in the university premises – that Rohith was “forced to commit suicide” (New Indian Express, Jan. 22, 2016). If not anyone, at least the other four Dalit students who were expelled from the university hostel along with Rohith and who live on, and their mothers too, would know for sure these statements are absolutely wrong. That matters, and we should wish that the other four students grow further, shake off a bad dream and succeed in their lives – though neither the news media nor our politicians may remember their names.
* * * * *