Rohith Vemula’s death at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), one of the most prominent institutions of higher education in India, has given rise to substantial mobilisation of protest in university campuses across the country. Since his death, student politics has only increased in its significance as a site of resistance, with the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi being the most recent instance of a turbulent protest movement at a university gripping the rest of the country.[i] At the time of writing this note, the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice constituted at UoH is in the process of organising and carrying forward the collective outcry that erupted in the aftermath of Rohith’s death.
Rohith had committed suicide in a friend’s hostel room at the university on 17th January. The circumstances preceding his death have been well chronicled in the many newspaper and magazine articles published on the topic.[ii] A doctoral candidate at UoH, Rohith was an active member of the radical Dalit organisation ASA (Ambedkar Students’ Association) that has over the years firmly established its presence in the university. ASA’s politics has largely been centred on the assertion of Dalit identity as well as formulating crosscutting alliances with other movements and causes that do not form part of the mainstream discourse of ‘the nation.’ Rohith, along with others, was brought into confrontation with the Hindu Right student faction at the university in the course of his activism. The screening of a documentary film on the Muzaffarnagar riots and the protest against the hanging of the Mumbai bomb blast convict Yakub Memon were the immediate incidents that irked the Hindu Right elements in the campus, and led to conflict with the ASA activists including Rohith, eventually resulting in the suspension of five students among the latter.[iii]
The roles of the MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development) of the Hindu Right led central government along with that of a union minister of the ruling party from the region in affecting the suspension have by now been well established.[iv] The disciplinary action by the university administration against the students consisted in a ban from most public spaces in the university including the hostel. Already a ‘public figure’ by virtue of his activism, Rohith had been protesting against the administration’s action dubbed ‘social boycotting’ by the students, by sleeping out in the open at the campus. It was in the midst of this protest that Rohith took his life, leaving behind a suicide note that was as complex as it was poignant. [v]
I lived in the sprawling UoH campus for two years as a master’s student. In writing this piece, there is no denying that the sense of having been an insider to this putative community – comprising students, teachers, bureaucrats, and workers – is overwhelmingly present. Although, it must be admitted, Rohith’s death has brought to focus the dark crevices that fracture this community with the peculiar clarity that moments of violence, in particular death, seems to be capable of bringing forth, while simultaneously demonstrating the tremendous potential for solidarity that lie within. One is also besieged by a certain unease about acting upon the somewhat automatic impulse to ponder over ‘larger questions’ in the wake of an incident such as this. The terrifying sense of acceptance and frankness with which Rohith wrote his last words in his suicide note remains a powerful reminder of how deeply ‘individual’ the experience of death can be. And yet, the critical task of ‘situating’ the immediate event in larger structures must be performed despite apprehensions – something that the protest movement at UoH has done better than any piece of writing could ever do with exemplary focus and clarity of purpose.
Therefore, the banality of the phrase notwithstanding, think about ‘larger questions’ we must. In the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s death, these are, I would suggest below, the questions of bureaucracy, caste, education, and certainly also politics. I shall explore them through and with the one phrase originating from within the protest movement that has served as a powerful galvaniser in the aftermath of Rohith’s death– ‘institutional murder.’
The overwhelming response to the death of Rohith Vemula has been that of mobilisation and solidarity, and the discursive exercise of framing it as ‘institutional murder’ by the protest movement has been central in bringing this about. By adhering to the phrase, the movement has resolutely put the focus squarely on questions of institutional discrimination, caste, and justice, and thereby refused to allow purely psychological interpretations of Rohith’s death to attain any sort of credibility. In particular, the university administration has been at the receiving end of most of the righteous anger of the protesting students at UoH. The administration has been rightly seen as influenced by external forces as well as motivated by its own inherent biases, resulting in disciplinary action that left the students literally without shelter, and in the case of Rohith, led to suicide. The one request Rohith makes to the world in his suicide note is regarding his scholarship that has been held up by the university administration, which if released, he pleads, must be used to pay off his personal debts and the rest to be given to his family. The protestors have asserted that the withholding of the scholarship is yet another instance of the ‘institution’ exacting vengeance upon a student activist whose politics have been unpalatable, especially in the atmosphere of right wing ascendancy in the country in which any kind of critical stance towards the discourse of nationalism is met with vehement forms of state and non-state repression.
The term ‘institutional’ remains critical in understanding the reality of Rohith’s death. In the following pages, I trace the multiple ways in which this is the case, and look at the implications that such an understanding entails.
I wish to suggest, firstly, that institutional complicity in Rohith’s death could be seen in a way that is slightly different from the current understanding, and this second way of conceiving it could perhaps better serve us in making a more effective critique of bureaucracy – one of the primary structures of power that must be put under scrutiny for the death of Rohith at the end of the day.
When contacted by journalists on the issue of the non-release of scholarship, the administration sought to defend itself by denying that the withholding of the scholarship had anything to do with Rohith’s politics, but was merely a delay in ‘paper work. ‘[vi] What is astounding is how the phrase ‘paper work’ could act as a sufficient defence – even in an atmosphere of anger and frustration – of what could arguably be one of the most important factors that drove the activist to his terrible end, namely, the lack of means to lead a life of dignity as a young person. What is at play here is the role of bureaucracy in perpetuating and sometimes sharpening the existing structural inequalities by its mere nature – apathy, and in the Indian case a somewhat un-Weberian ‘arbitrariness.’ In India, all sorts of ‘charismatic’ and ‘traditional’ influences routinely modify the allegedly formal-rational edifice of bureaucracy, a fact that is crucial to the ‘production of arbitrariness’ that Akhil Gupta investigates in his Red Tape.[vii] However, in this case, the truly destructive role of the bureaucratic apparatus might lie, paradoxically, not in an exceptional step that it took in vengeance against Rohith as has been suggested, but rather, in what is integral to it – its routine, its ability to evade responsibility, and the mystifying power of its ‘paper work’ discourse. Although somewhat contrary to the way the protest movement has used the term so far, this is yet another reason why Rohith Vemula’s death must be understood as ‘institutional murder,’ as the collective effort to comprehend its full significance continues.
Secondly, the ever-resilient institution of caste in India remains crucial in understanding life, and tragically death, inside the university as well. As Sukhadeo Thorat notes in his article in The Hindu, Dalit students committing suicide in institutions of higher education in India has become endemic. In Hyderabad itself, between 2007 and 2013 there have been eleven cases of student suicides, and most of them have been Dalits.[viii] And yet, it took the death of someone as outspoken and ‘public’ as Rohith Vemula for the issue to be brought to public attention with any sense of urgency.
The institutions of higher education in India, especially large public universities that come under the category of ‘central universities’, seem to have become what might be called ‘dense social spaces.’ They have brought together young people from radically different backgrounds – social, economic, linguistic, and cultural – from different parts of the country into contact and made them inhabit a limited physical space. Ideally, this should be a thoroughly rewarding and incomparable first hand experience of the immense diversity of the country for a young person, and an opportunity for the project of nationalism to solidify the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. And it is all that, but only to a certain extent.
After more than half a century of democratic rule, ‘difference’ remains deeply problematic in India, because it is enforced by structures that are central to the (re)production of inequality – caste, class, and gender. Individuals who find themselves at both ends of these hierarchical structures encounter each other at the university. Admittedly, they also encounter something else, namely, the allegedly ‘equal’ and ‘liberal’ space of the university itself, with all its attendant promises of emancipation. However, the identities they have spent all their lives internalising, deriving their potency from the enduring structures mentioned above, are far too powerful to be shed outside the gates of the university before stepping into the putative zone of emancipation. This is one of the central paradoxes of Indian public universities that turn them into particularly dense social spaces. The lingering force of caste as an oppressive hierarchical structure remains central in constituting this paradoxical space.
Add to this the fact that the university is also the space where organised politics finds some of its most creative and radical expressions in contemporary India in the form of student organisations. With the rise of the Hindu Right, the role of universities as sites of resistance to arbitrary use of state power has become crucial, particularly with liberal sections of the Indian society becoming hopeless and despondent in the face of overwhelming electoral setbacks. The university remains one of those rare sites in the Indian society where at least some of the promises of liberalism – freedom of expression, for instance – are being taken seriously while the state does not waste any opportunity to advance in the opposite direction. This could be in the form of screening a documentary that debunks the official narrative regarding communal violence, or raising your voice against death penalty at the risk of being labelled anti-national and attacked, or even engaging with issues that lie at the hinterlands of the ‘nation’ such as human rights for the Kashmiris. Moreover, there is the assertion of subaltern self-respect and pride that takes place at the university in ways that might not be allowed to unfold elsewhere – the mainstay of student organisations like the ASA, of which Rohith was an activist. All this has the effect of challenging certain assumptions and hierarchies that continue to be integral to the conservative life of the Indian society that do permeate the classroom and the campus.
This brings us to the next point, or to the question: what about the institution of the university itself?
Not unrelated to the fact that the university offers a space for such challenges to be mounted, the definition of the university itself is being opened up for contestation, not just at UoH and not solely in relation to the death of Rohith Vemula. Across the country, the status of the university as a progressive and liberal social institution has been coming under heavy attack. Even in iconic universities like JNU in Delhi, as recent events have revealed, students are being hounded by the state for being ‘anti-national’ in their politics. Draconian laws inherited from the colonial era have been used to put students behind bars on charges of sedition. The institution of university, thus, has come to be at the receiving end of a hyper-masculine state that draws its nourishment from the well of nationalism. This is yet another reason for us to think ‘institutionally’ in understanding the meanings of Rohith Vemula’s death.
One of the things that lie at the heart of these contestations is the question of what one understands to be the content and role of education. During the days in which the protest movement at UoH was finding wider resonance across the country, there were also other kinds of voices and counter-discourses emerging from Hyderabad and elsewhere. These voices sought to disrupt, intentionally or otherwise, the mobilisational momentum in the aftermath of Rohith’s death. Even within the university community, particularly in the virtual spaces of social media, a group of the students have been arguing against the disruptive effects of the on-going protest on their studies and their future prospects. There have been lamentations about how the sacred space of education was being corrupted by politics. But by no means was this limited to a few disgruntled students within the university, for a number of articles published on the topic could also be seen echoing the same position on education and the role of the university.[ix]
It is easy to brush aside such arguments as naive, or second-guess their ‘real’ intentions to be motivated by partisan considerations. But one shouldn’t do either, because this is a well-rehearsed position that derives its legitimacy from a certain conception of education that could be legitimately described as dominant – an odd mixture of traditional paternalism that infantilises the student and a vulgarised version of rational choice theory that portrays ‘individual’s interest’ to be nearly sacred. According to this view, the student mobilisation at UoH and elsewhere will have to be seen as indeed disruptive and defeating the real reason for the existence of these centres of higher education, which one suspects amounts to a kind of ‘pure learning.’
One could counter this view by invoking the inherent value of and right to democratic mobilisation and protest, and one would be right. However, that might have the effect of leaving the wrong-headed conception of education advanced in the said view unchallenged. Comprehensive educational reforms have been due in India for quite some time now, but not the kind that relegates critical thinking to be optional or even unnecessary – so that politics doesn’t corrupt the clean slate of the student mind. Rote learning is what needs to be eliminated, along with the other elements that the Indian education system has retained from the colonial era during which education was concerned with the production of clerks so that the Raj would ran smoothly.
Central universities such as the UoH, with all their serious shortcomings, offer an opportunity for the student to obtain what could be called a ‘critical education’ in India. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and thinker has been, among others, one of the most persuasive proponents of ‘critical education.’ Freire speaks of education as something that needs to be “constantly remade in the praxis.”[x] His thoughts, despite being derived from his experience of working with illiterate adults in Latin America, has come to be accepted as relevant for re-thinking education in a larger sense. Central to his thesis is the idea that we must abandon the ‘banking model’ of education – one that emphasises the accumulation of information – for what he calls ‘problem posing education,’ so that “men and women [could] develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality but as a reality in the process of transformation.”[xi]
For anyone who shares Freire’s concern for social transformation and his belief in the role of education in affecting it, decrying politics becomes impossible, even if it is politics within the university. To think of education as a unidirectional process with the student at the receiving end and uncontaminated by externalities – be it politics, ethics, or any other sphere of human interaction – is an epistemologically flawed project, but more importantly it entirely forecloses an important avenue for social change.
In fact, one could go further and argue that the universities need to be further politicised, for the eruption of protests following Rohith’s death has come too late in a sense. Even in the case of Rohith, had he not himself been living the unavoidably ‘public’ life of an activist, and had the university not been as politicised as it was, there is every chance that it would have merely been another ‘tragic incident’ that would eventually become merely statistical in its significance.
Writing of Walter Benjamin’s suicide at the Franco-Spanish border after his failed attempt at fleeing the Nazis, Hannah Arendt submits that it is hard not to wonder “how different everything would have been if they had been victorious in life who have won victory in death.”[xii] It is unclear what it would mean for the dead to be victorious in death, but for the living, death remains unsurpassable in terms of sheer symbolic potential. This is precisely why, despite the exceptional ‘individuality’ of Rohith’s death by suicide, it could become an eminently social event with tremendous mobilisational and communicative force.
Rohith’s ‘victory in death,’ to paraphrase Arendt, at least in the immediate aftermath, has been the following. The wave of solidarity that engulfed UoH following the incident soon spread to the rest of the country, particularly to university campuses, from Delhi in the North to Thiruvananthapuram in the South, and then to universities in other parts of the world as well. Put in the spotlight by national media, the university administration revoked the suspension of students in an attempt to assuage passions and disrupt the on-going agitation that has involved hunger strikes, demonstrations, and picketing.
The fact remains that this has come at the cost of a certain complexity of understanding – of the subjectivity of Rohith as someone who idolised Carl Sagan and aspired to be a writer while living simultaneously the confrontational everyday life of an activist, of his disenchantment with the de-individualising effects of organisational politics while being at the forefront of it himself as a willing participant – that one must strive towards, particularly in the face of the disconcerting candidness of Rohith’s suicide note that refuses to lend itself easily to pre-existing narratives of victimhood.[xiii] However, politics, much like theory, demands a process of simplification, and there is no a priori knowledge of what this process entails or of its end results, but only the possibility of remaining reflective and open to the lessons that might be drawn along the way.
To return to Arendt, Rohith’s ‘victory in death’ has so far been generating a collective demand for accountability as well as constituting a space of resistance, both critical developments in a society that is confronted with the real possibility of being taken over by the right wing, which in India at the moment happens to be a coalition of communalism and corporate interests. Whether it will re-introduce a sense of urgency to the task of dismantling structures of inequality in the country, both within and outside the university, is something that we will have to wait to see.
Lipin Ram is a PhD candidate at the Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology of Development of The Graduate Institute, Geneva and a former junior visiting fellow at the IWM.
© Author / Transit Online
[i] For a rough picture of the incidents at JNU, see the following articles:
[ii] For instance, see the following articles:
[iii] The documentary ‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai’ deals with the communal riots that broke out in the Muzaffarnagar district of Western U.P in India in 2013. Yakub Memon was a convict in the 1993 Mumbai terror attack, whose recent execution sparked a lot of debate on issues of culpability, the death penalty, and the judiciary.
[vii] Gupta, Akhil. 2012. Red Tape : Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Duke University Press:Durham.
[ix] For a more recent and egregious version of this, see this article by Mohandas Pai”: http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/dear-jnu-students-we-fund-your-studies-not-your-politics-1277417
[x] Freire, Paulo, 1970, p. 84. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum:New York/London.
[xi] Ibid, 12.
[xii] Arendt, Hannah. ed. 1968. Walter Benjamin.Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Harcourt, Brace & World
[xiii] See Punnya Rajendran’s piece for a deeply sensitive exposition of the complexity of the suicide note: https://www.facebook.com/notes/punnya-rajendran/the-suicide-note-a-discomforting-genre/1256393454376135