Saturday, January 30, 2016

May we never forget

[My English rendering of ‘Jeano bhule naa jaai’, an article of mine that appeared in the 26.1.2016 issue of Anandabazar Patrika]

To mention the Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide involves calling him a Dalit. But he was dreaming a human dream. His final letter tells us that he was gazing into an abyss after realizing that his dream had been murdered; this is what we tend to lose sight of at a moment when the agitation appears to be succeeding. The authorities of Rohith’s University of Hyderabad have terminated the suspension orders against the four other students and are hoping to stop the wheels of the event. If some solution to the troubles moves our attention away from the real crisis, then indeed darkness will descend on the Rohith who stood fifth in the M Sc (Animal Science), on the Rohith who was awarded a JRF and joined the Centre of Science, Technology and Society Studies as a doctoral student, on the Rohith who was a budding creative writer – if we set aside his personal illumination and notice only the way he died as a category-laden victim.
My Dalit student Praveen Gonipati was on that campus, submitting his PhD thesis somewhat late; his research focused on some aspects of the way Dalit students at higher educational institutions have to struggle with the elite’s hegemonic ownership of English in India. Praveen had gone there to submit his final text; he found the Dalit student community in the middle of an agitation. It was in this context that he met the young leader Rohith Vemula. Rohith asked him, “Praveen anna, you once provided leadership to Dalit students, how do you think we should handle this crisis?” Praveen brought with him the experience of the agitation of 2002; he came forward with whatever support he could provide; a prominent Dalit faculty member like P. Thirumal even spent a night in the tents with the agitating students; despite all this, they were unable to prevent the disaster. Praveen told me how the tragedy unfolded.
        It all happened in broad daylight. “I got no sleep at all last night,” Rohith told his friends. He turned to his friend Uma: “Could you please give me the key to your room in the hostel? I’d like to take a nap.” This is how he sent them away; unsuspecting, they returned to the routines of the unusual daily life that the agitation had imposed on them. After ensuring full privacy, Rohith wrote that final letter of his, made that ultimate decision. How long had his soul been premeditating that decision? There will never be an answer.
        Is the short distance from the impersonal discourse of “there will never be an answer” to the personal acknowledgement that “I will never know the answer” impossible to traverse for those us who are survivors of this tragedy? Is it beyond our powers to move towards the personal? Then we must conclude that Rohith’s journey from a categorial identity tainted by ascribed pollutedness towards individual selfhood was a journey beyond our powers, a journey we still don’t know how to take part in. In that case we will have failed to read Rohith’s letter. All we will have done is pore over its text looking for weapons to attack our enemies with.
        And yet it would be a horrible mistake to imagine that the way to find redemption and expiate our collective sins is to vow to stop mentioning ethnicity/ religion/ gender/ caste altogether, and to welcome all human beings on a category-free neutral basis. For a savarna Hindu like myself to declare that I don’t recognize castes carries one meaning; for a Dalit to utter that sentence carries a different meaning altogether. My student Praveen was city-bred; he imagined that a casteless upbringing had given him the resources to live a life in which caste would not matter. He realized his error when he visited a village and was instantly asked by a local eminence, Okay, so what is your caste? Praveen sensed that full disclosure would immediately cost him his access to the village; he was forced to conceal the truth so that his social scientific inquiry was not brought to an abrupt halt by irrelevant factors.

        The right to declare that we don’t recognize caste is a right that we must concretely earn by looking caste in the eye as we dismantle it. If we blink, if we perform a couple of embraces laden with sugary words like We Are All Human and imagine that we have thereby rejected our long legacy of rejection, the result will be keeping what Kazi Nazrul Islam once called “our lethal game of caste” alive and well in the core of our culture, protected by the armour of our glib denials.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home