Prologue: I wrote this essay on the anniversary of Hyderabad University research scholar Rohith Vemula’s death for Radhika amma, his mother, on the request of the Dalit scholar and activist Chittibabu Padavala. After a year of thinking about Rohith’s suicide note and the literature on suicide from Dostoevsky to Jean Améry, Max Scheler to Mao, and other well-known cases of activist deaths, notably Palestinian dancer Rassan Habeh, I sat down to write an early draft of this essay.
Now another Dalit scholar, Rajini Krish (Muthu Krishnan) from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, has committed suicide. His final words, “When Equality is denied everything is denied.”
Published in The Wire
One year ago, a young scholar in Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, killed himself. The details of the events that led to his death were cruel and heartbreaking. A week, later I read a piece of vindictive writing, presented as a news report, that maligned Radhika Vemula, Rohith’s mother. Then one evening yet another illogical argument about him not being a “Dalit” surfaced. Even in death, Rohith and his family became “specimens” for everyone’s causal interpretation. What must it have been like to live in this unforgiving world as Rohith and his mother, Radhika? What was the nature of his everyday life, its universe, it’s crevices of hate, its values and its practices? A world devoid of humanity, so invested in its arguments that it refused to acknowledge that its incessant oppressions had taken another life.
To be born within a perpetual catastrophe defined much of Rohith’s life. Caste – a hierarchical division of man by arbitrary arguments to preserve the power of a few – was the first thing he confronted every morning. To be reduced to a number, as he called it, to be approximated every day, is to wake up and lose trust in the world. The predicament of his birth had so terribly limited the possibility of living that death seemed to him full of possibilities. Rohith’s suicide has been called a murder perpetrated by the state, an institutional killing. This narrative of Rohith’s death is problematic and plays into the state’s narrative that sees Rohith, the scholars and activists as irrational persons in need of protection. In a society where abuse, assault and even murder stalk Dalits for their slightest act of subversions, Rohit perhaps saw suicide as an act of resistance. Phenomenologist Max Scheler argued that resistance is a part of ordinary existence. To be human is to resist when it “threatens what is most at stake for individuals in their local worlds”.
Etymologically, the word ‘resist’ comes from the Old French ‘resister’, meaning to “hold out against”, and from the Latin resistere – “to make a stand against, oppose; to stand back; withstand”. Rohith’s act of hanging himself with a banner of the Ambedkar Students Association was his final stand against tyranny. He did not see it as an act of desperation, but as an assertion of power. Oppression is the invisible hand of the state. Like capitalism and its markets, the negation of the other happens in the pursuit of building and holding on to the privileges of power. Rohith’s suicide, then, became an act of resistance at the intersection between this power and human agency that resists.
In November 1919, a young peasant woman, Zhao Wuzhen of Changsha, slit her throat on the day of her wedding. In response to her suicide, Mao Zedong wrote a series of articles, published between November 16–28, 1919, in the leading Changsha daily Dagongbao. Writing about the suicide of Zhao, and other women who killed themselves in rural, pre-communist China to escape forced marriages, Mao wrote that “suicide is a most emphatic way of seeking life.” Mao saw these deaths as individual acts of resistance against a deeply patriarchal society that refused to see women as living, breathing, sexual beings, which denied them the right to both desire and love. Mao argued that Zhao “did not wish to die, but could not live in the society she inhabited.” He writes, “Within these triangular iron nets, however much Miss Zhao sought life, there was no way for her to go on living. The opposite of life is death, and so Miss Zhao was obliged to die.” Mao’s writings about suicide make the connection between human existence that is transformed into a “state of hopelessness” in an oppressive society and death as a confrontation against such existence.
Five decades later, Mao’s cultural revolution would create another kind of oppression where intellectuals committed suicide as an ultimate act of defiance against the brutality and the betrayal of the state. Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa, and other oppressive regimes all have a long list of men and women who chose death as a means of resistance. In literature, Dostoevsky’s Kirillov shoots himself to commit “logical suicide”, representing “the fullest point of his self-will”.
Jean Améry, essayist and philosopher, participated in organised resistance against the Nazi occupation of Belgium. For this, he was detained, torture and imprisonment by the Gestapo. Améry survived internments in both Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After writing On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death, a meditation on death as resistance, and suicide as an act defining humanity, he killed himself. “We only arrive at ourselves in a freely chosen death,”Améry wrote. “Twenty-two years later, I am still dangling over the ground by dislocated arms.” To seek death is an aberration. But if the world you inhabit is a giant prison, and violence is so easily, so viciously inflicted, then for him, the act of dying is integral to human freedom and an assertion of meaning against unthinking brutality.
In the vernacular, suicide is spoken of as an act of taking life. “What does it mean to take one’s life?” has been the subject of philosophers and writers like Freud, Goethe, Camus, Sebald, Améry, and Brecht. But there is a more pertinent question – Who was Rohith taking his life back from? Six months after Rohith’s death, a talented Palestinian-Syrian dancer, Hassan Rabeh, living as a refugee in Lebanon, jumped to his death after a last breathtaking performance – as those who saw it described it. His friend, Mohammad al-Nayel said, “I could tell that Beirut was chewing through his soul. Each time we spoke, he struck me as always upset, uttering things that made no sense to me but did to him. I felt that he was trying to convey what he felt in words that couldn’t quite translate the immensity of his sadness and the injustice he felt.” Rohith and Hassan are children of a predicament born from the histories of occupation and multiple exiles, both literal and metaphorical. Hassan danced, Rohith wrote to “describe things not accessible to language”.
Rohith was staking claim to his irreducible historicity and absolute self-sovereignty from a society that considered the body of the other, even in death, as its own. He belonged to the republic’s colony of the dispensable who have no autonomy over their bodies. In both life and death, they are considered the prerogative of society. It is the state, the society and the petty sovereigns of that local world that decide when to seek the physical destruction of their bodies.
Kashmiri writer Mirza Waheed, writing about the hanging of Afzal Guru says, “In Kashmir, even the dead are seditious”. Similarly, Rohith’s body both alive and dead, thinking and at peace, became a threat to the state. His body was cremated in secrecy. (A burial they assumed would have created a martyr’s shrine.) The local BJP leaders and the police misled grieving students, family members and other who wanted to pay tributes to him one last time. Rohith struggled for a braver world, a world of solidarity. He and his fellow students were branded as “anti-nationals” for protesting against the death penalty for Yakub Memon and the violent attack by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad on the screening of Nakul Singh and Neha Dixit’s documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai in Delhi University. He saw a thread that connected the hanging of Afzal Guru and the Dalit massacres in modern India.
An occupying state might use different techniques of disciplining and punishment, but its ends remain the same: the power to control freedom, to author history and sit in judgement on the humanity of others. The disparity between the world Rohith aspired to create and the world that he lived and died in presents us with a road map to the future of resistance. A million oppressions in this country require resistance connected by the spirit of solidarity, by collective consciousness and action .
Rohith’s suicide note was not his last monologue, but a dialogue that chronicled the nightmare of his present. By authoring his death, he chose to finalise his life’s meaning. His last words are not his final words. He wrote his death as a claim to freedom, his last stand. In Plato’s account of the ancient world’s most famous ‘suicide’, as Emily Wilson writes, Socrates is described “as a man who can control even the ending of his own life, who understands his death even before it happens.” Like Socrates, Rohith, in his last act of resistance, chose freedom. He chose.
Dreams should not demand death as a price. A country that you call your home should not be the nightmare you live within. While Rohith chose, this is not a choice that he or Rajini Krish or others should ever consider or be forced to make. When oppression keeps millions handcuffed, emancipation can come not from millions of individual mutinies but from resistance as a collective act.