Death, depression, caste and politics: The anatomy of Rohith Vemula’s suicide

He was slowly losing the battle from within, and no one understood him.
Death, depression, caste and politics: The anatomy of Rohith Vemula’s suicide
Death, depression, caste and politics: The anatomy of Rohith Vemula’s suicide
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Stories of suicide are difficult to digest. It isn’t just the tragedy of somebody’s death, but the dark, lonely and depressing path to it. Those who have attempted suicide often talk about how suicide isn’t easy. It takes an inexplicable combination of courage and helplessness to do that. To gather the courage to take a rope, tie it to the roof, hang yourself, and wither in pain till the rope squishes the life out of you, takes guts. At the same time, the hopelessness, diffidence and emptiness which pushes you into doing it is unfathomable. For those who have not felt these emotions, it makes no sense, and that’s why they ask, “Why did he have to do it?” and not “What should we have done to stop it?”

Who was Rohith Vemula?

Rohith Vemula was a troubled mind. In his suicide letter, he writes about his love for science, and for people. “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living,” he says.

He writes about his own ‘faults’ and the lonely childhood he had, “Maybe I am wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”

Not so hidden in this is the excruciating nature of caste politics and what it does to a young child wanting a better life.

Rohith, however, was no pushover. He was a fighter, a brave ideologue who stood up to aggression and communal politics. This video, which has been released by ABVP members following his death, shows him standing up to a bunch of ABVP members all alone, saying that he will tear down ABVP posters.

When ABVP members ask him why he tore their posters, he says with a cold, dismissive look, “I saw it, I tore it. I saw ABVP and the saffron colour, so I tore it.” Rohith Vemula was a fearless, seasoned campus politician who took on powerful groups.

The most telling part of his final letter however is this: “I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That's pathetic. And that's why I am doing this.”

Those words took me back to a video I had seen last year. Among those trying to overcome depression, one of the most popular videos is Andrew Solomon’s “Depression, the secret we share”. In a simple, effortless and yet powerful narrative, Solomon breaks down how it feels to be depressed. He says, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.”

We don’t know if Rohith was medically depressed. But he was empty. He did not feel the 'vitality'. He was not hurt or sad, but simply did not care anymore. He did not bother about what happened next. That’s the kind of stuff depression is made of. There is no reasoning or logic to this. It just is.

This path to death by suicide is a tumultuous one. It’s filled with pain, self-doubt, pessimism, intoxication, lethargy, diffidence and despair. And all of it is wrapped in a fake personality which shines confidence and bravery. While the body walks ahead with vigour, the soul is crumbling from within, until one day the soul takes the body away with it to death.

Rohith’s suicide is the collective failure of our society. Not only are we far away from reforming ourselves, but our politics of religion, identity and caste is pushing the less-privileged amongst us further into a cesspit of misery. And our lack of understanding of our minds is only making it worse.

Rohith was a Dalit. His mother was a small-time tailor, and his father a security guard at a hospital. He had a lonely childhood. He worked hard and got himself into HCU, rubbing shoulders with those with privilege. When he saw the rampant caste discrimination against him, he rose up and fought. Political parties worked against him, student groups did everything in their power to get him rusticated. He stood up to them. But he was slowly losing the battle from within, and no one understood him. And then, he died.

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