So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
— Bertolt Brecht, ‘On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B’
These lines by Brecht, from his poem on the German Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, tell you a person committing suicide has one terrible advantage at his disposal: his clarity. In Benjamin’s case, it was not simply clarity about his personal situation, being unable to cross through the border check posts and fearing he would be turned over to the Nazis. It was also the darkened vision of a future Benjamin carried before his eyes, for a racist regime was ruling his country and hope had receded beyond the horizon. In Vladimir Mayakovsky’s last poem, ‘Past One O’Clock’, written two nights before he shot himself, the clarity is equally chilling, caught between a Stalinist regime discrediting his poetry and a failed love affair. Paul Celan was driven to the same fate also for more reasons than one, a mediocre poet’s wife accusing him of plagiarism, and his psychiatric treatment. But the poet might also have been referring to the larger web of desolation of being Jewish in post-War Europe, when he wrote two months before he jumped into the Seine: “They have healed me to pieces.”
A 25-year-old Dalit scholar from University of Hyderabad, > Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide on Sunday evening , left a stunning note for his friends and the world alike, whose content is full of serious lessons for India’s caste-ridden society. The sequence of events leading to the suicide was plaguing Rohith’s life, when he decided to end it in his friend Uma Maheshwar’s room. In the note, Rohith says a growing gap between his soul and body made him feel he had become a monster. He immediately goes on to say where his soul lay — in becoming a writer of science, like Carl Sagan. But his body got entangled in politics, a politics that reduced him to his body, dismissing his soul. The science of politics, a science that tears the soul apart from the body, was not for him. He laments in the note, he loved people without knowing they were long divorced from nature. That is quite a Rousseauian angst, pretty late into the heart, or heartlessness, of a post-industrial era. All Rohith saw around him was second-hand feelings, constructed love, coloured beliefs and artificial art. There was no room for artifice in his soul, the note seems to suggest. But nature, like politics and art, has both soul and room for artifice, which tore apart his soul from his body. No wonder Rohith concludes, it is difficult to love without getting hurt. Love, like nature, art and politics, is a thing of artifice, and no science can prove it otherwise. It made a huge difference to him.
Things fall apart The note then moves into the political sphere of things: what Rohith understood as valuable in a man meant nothing to the world around him, beyond the constraints of his identity and its thin possibilities. Rohith was a Dalit, and it came in the way of his quest for the stars. Sounds incredible, but the Hindu caste system still lives in the Middle Ages. Being Dalit was Rohith’s only value for caste Hindus, a value measured only through denial, insult and injury. Casteism, analogous to racism, is no less sinister and monstrous than what Celan faced under the Nazi regime. When Rohith was suspended by his university authorities, for an alleged assault on a fellow student that wasn’t proven beyond doubt, he must have felt the world closing in around him. The accusation of being “casteist, extremist and anti-national” by a Union Minister in a letter must have broken his heart. How can a Dalit, who is a victim of casteism, be casteist? The game of casteism is prone to absurd charges, and Rohith’s intelligence couldn’t make sense of it.
It all started after he was part of a small protest against the disruption of a film > screening on the Muzaffarnagar riots in Delhi University by a Hindu right-wing student organisation. Can’t a film showing atrocities on religious minorities be screened in the university of a country that boasts of being the world’s largest democracy? Rohith was well within his rights to protest against majoritarian vandalism. But the exercise of such rights comes with a price, for the rhetoric of democracy doesn’t match up to its practices. The value of man, Rohith sums up in his note with precision, has been reduced to a vote, a number, a thing. It is a prescient summing up of what the instrumentalist logic of capitalist and casteist democracies has made of people. Rohith refused to be counted as a number wearing an identity mark forced around his neck, in this absurd game where democracy and casteism play calculable crimes between each other.
In the middle of having contemplated his fate, having decided to end his life with his own hands, in a farewell act that will destroy his torturable body, Rohith leaves his own idea of man: A “glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living”. Rohith was left wondering at his immeasurability that opened up spaces between him and the stars. To be a vote counted for much less. He only saw his own immeasurability everywhere, while protesting against the disruption of a film screening, or for a suspension he and his friends didn’t deserve. Even in death he believed he can “travel to the stars”. But how did he feel on earth? The quoted phrase, “From shadows to the stars”, gives an impression. The Dalit, whose shadow pollutes the caste Hindu, one who is ascribed a body that embodies the shadow of pollution, feels like a shadow aspiring for the stars. From measure to immeasurability. From darkness to light.
Among the bigots And yet, Rohith reminds us, the moment of his birth is irreconcilable: For people like him, life is “a curse”. He finds his birth a “fatal accident”. He writes further, “I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.” Despite that accident of birth, which becomes catastrophic, being saddled with a caste, foreshadowing all his troubles, overshadowing his quest for the stars, his lonely, unappreciated childhood and adolescence, he nevertheless sees himself in the true measure of immeasurability that he knows he inhabits within. In that, Rohith betrays a clarity that Brecht saw in Benjamin, and Mayakovsky and Celan saw in themselves.
Those who have most overwhelmingly suffered the barbarism of history — Dalits, people of colour, vulnerable women, workers — alone carry a genuine value of universality in them, and in their protests against injustice we see the true unfolding of that universal spirit that impresses upon our hearts. The claims to > universality of those in power — white colonisers, caste Hindus — are essentially un-universal, bigoted and discriminatory. It is not in “universal gospels” that we find any real, universal capacity but in the spirit of those who suffer these gospels, the propaganda of spiritual and cultural supremacy, these lies. The lack of vindictiveness in Rohith’s note is a historic lesson for nationalist and casteist hate-mongers.
So Rohith, and not his detractors, alone can claim the stars, the universe, the world, the soul of man, because he knows he belongs to such immeasurable dreams and promises. In his death, we realise the lies and mockery being played out in this country and in this world by those who don’t deserve, unlike Rohith, a place among the stars after death.
(Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer, translator and political science scholar. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.)