4 years after his death, Rohith Vemula lives on as the face of dissent in universities

“His words transformed the way students saw themselves. You realise that if you don't stand up now, you will forever be silenced,” one student leader says.
4 years after his death, Rohith Vemula lives on as the face of dissent in universities
4 years after his death, Rohith Vemula lives on as the face of dissent in universities

Shortly after the death of Rohith Vemula, a mural was painted near the ‘Velivada’ in University of Hyderabad, by a student, Sreelakshmi. The stunning mural was used by many as their display picture in memory of Rohith – and as a mark of protest. One striking feature about the mural was the inscription – “1989 - forever…” A prophecy almost, that Rohith would live on, forever… Four years after his death by suicide at the university where he faced severe discrimination, this prophecy remains true. Rohith is not only alive – he’s the driving force behind the student politics of our times.

Rohith Vemula has become the face of dissent across the universities in the country. From protests against fee hike in educational institutions, protests against institutional murders, protests against caste atrocities, even pride marches, Rohith’s portraits are omnipresent. He is a symbol of resistance.

On January 17, 2016, Rohith killed himself in the university after facing ostracisation. His death was termed “institutional murder” by activists and students. In his suicide note, which is etched in many of our memories for its powerful words and its significance in our public and personal lives every day, Rohith wrote, “My birth is my fatal accident.” He spoke of star dust and Carl Sagan, and wrote, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility.”

Rohith was practically a man of endless possibilities. He possessed great intellectuality. His compassion for humans, yearning for science writing, curiosity in the cosmos – all evident in his great piece of writing, which was unfortunately his last. He could have been anything had he been alive, possibly a great scientist-activist, one the world is in dire need of presently.

It is unfortunate however that it is his death that sparked nationwide protests, and fiery debates on caste – and established that academic spaces are not immune to caste-based discrimination. Although there were several such ‘institutional murders’ earlier, Rohith’s death forced everyone to acknowledge that caste-discrimination continues to exist. Rohith’s pain regarding his experience as a Dalit resonated across the country.

When Rohith along with his friends were evicted from hostels, Rohith was seen carrying a huge portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar along with his other belongings. That portrait bore witness to the ordeal Rohith and his friends faced, denying them accommodation, preventing entry to the library and curtailing them from participating in the students' union elections.

Rohith was a member of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), which followed the ideals of Ambedkar and practised identity politics. Rohith principally followed Ambedkar, he opposed capital punishment, and rejected Hinduism in its entirety.

Following Rohith’s death, many Dalits came out and embraced their identity. One such person who asserted her Dalit identity following Rohith’s suicide was Yashica Dutt, a former journalist and student from Columbia University. Dutt wrote her autobiography “Coming Out as Dalit.” In her own admission, she revealed her identity and wrote the book, inspired by Rohith Vemula’s letter. “It was a moment of epiphany,” she remarked.   

“Rohith is more than a victim,” says Iniyavan, the president of Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), at the University of Hyderabad. “The symbol of Rohith Vemula rejects the acknowledgement and sympathy manufactured by Savarna anxiety. His valour, intellect and charisma are something to be carried as we take forward Ambedkar's caravan. On the other hand, it's quite pathetic that it takes Rohith’s death to strike our conscience that caste exists, despite so many people facing constant institutional discrimination.”

Rohith’s demise marked a fresh beginning in students’ politics, which is presently challenging the establishment replacing the Opposition parties.

"I would have never have become JNUSU president if not for the movement that followed Rohith's death,” says All India Students Association president and former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union president Sai Balaji, “I was also born out of an inter caste marriage – and while the stigma he faced would have been far more than what I do, I resonate with the pain that he went through. The crisis regarding his identity is relatable. He was killed just because he was trying to transform his own life and was even targeted by the then HRD Minister. Rohith's story is the tale of every marginalised person who comes to university seeking liberation from oppression only to suffer through more of it.”

“I was a Councillor with the AISA when I heard of Rohith's death. I remember reading his final letter where along with a sense of helplessness, he also touched upon his aspiration and his passion to study the stars. His words and his death transformed the way that students saw themselves. You realise that even you could be in his exact same position and that if you don't stand up now, you will forever be silenced. I for one, was fueled to contest and become the Student Union President. After Rohith's death, you realise you can no longer be a mere bystander as injustice plays out. They are going to kill you anyway, so you might as well die fighting,” Sai Balaji says.

For nearly a month now, country-wide protests are going on against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the proposed National Register of Citizens. After the brutal crackdown against the Jamia students, students and activists gheraoed the Delhi Police Headquarters. Holding portraits of Ambedkar and Gandhi, the students protested against the police. Now across the country, students and protesters are carrying portraits of Ambedkar at the protests outnumbering the Gandhi portraits, and partially this credit goes to Rohith Vemula, who inspired many to read Ambedkar and thereby seek emancipation.

“Rohith's words, that he wrote in his letter, they have ignited us,” says Azhar Ansari, a Jamia Milia alumnus and a member of the Jamia Coordination Committee, “This was a person who wanted to become a writer and he had to pen down his painful story in two pages. Nobody takes their own life just like that. They do so after enduring a lot. And today, we may face the same situation. We students now feel that we cannot tolerate this anymore. And this fire for the movement was given by Rohith.”

Inputs from Priyanka Thirumurthy and Sanyukta Dharmadhikari 

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