Hyderabad Suicide: Death on a Campus

Published: January 21, 2016 - 15:16

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

How we live our lives is usually a matter of choice. How we die is seldom of our choosing. Few people choose the time, place and manner of death. Unfortunately most of those who do so are victims of pressures perceived to be insurmountable and in death seek an escape. Others are victims of disorders brought about by chemical imbalances, which in turn are often caused by stresses and strains. Very few embrace death with a cool and calculated rationality for a higher cause and reason. Few deaths have captured the popular imagination and have galvanized a nation to a higher cause than the case of Bhagat Singh.

On 30 October 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai when protesting against the Simon Commission was assaulted by a British SP, James A. Scott. Though he died of a heart attack on 17 November, doctors believed that the death was hastened by the injuries received.

Seeking revenge for the death of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh assassinated John Saunders, another British police officer on 17 December 1928. He eluded efforts by the police to capture him. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt threw a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly "to make the deaf hear" as their leaflet described the reason for their act. Then the two showered leaflets into the chamber shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’ and ‘Long live Proletariat!’

Bhagat Singh and B.K.Dutt let themselves be arrested, even when they could have escaped, to use their court appearances as a forum to kindle patriotic sentiments in the hearts of the people. Bhagat Singh surrendered his automatic pistol, the same one he had used to kill Saunder’s, knowing fully well that the pistol would be the damning proof of his involvement in the Saunders’ case. He was convicted and hanged for this at the age of 23. By this he captured a nations and he still remains an inspiration to young India.

Was the Rohit Vemula suicide similar to this? While I have no doubt some of his compatriots might think so, it is clear the deaths were of a very different class and cause.  Bhagat Singh beckoned death and by it chose to make a propaganda statement. Rohit Vemula, and his rather eloquent suicide letter makes this amply clear, was a victim of an oppressive system, or one he thought so. In it he expressed his inner turmoil and reason, both, explicitly and succinctly:

“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. May be I was 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. 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.”

This was tragic but it was not for “Inquilab Zindabad!” The sad suicide of Rohit Vemula has nevertheless been truly politicized and is now at the center of yet another political storm and churn. It may even have lasting consequences for the Sangh Parivar, and in this manner the suicide might yet serve a higher purpose, albeit a partisan one. It is because of this a virulent campaign has been unleashed by acolytes of the BJP/RSS in the social media.

Two criticisms predominate. One is that Vemula protested against the hanging of Yaqub Memon. Why is this a litmus test of a person’s patriotism? There are a huge number of people in this country, the writer included, who perceive the hanging to be a miscarriage of justice. Most of those who opposed the hanging oppose the death penalty. I also do. But I also felt that since Memon was lured back to India by our intelligence officers with promises of leniency in exchange for inside information on the Dawood Ibrahim gang living under ISI protection in Karachi. This promise should have been honored.

Others want to make something out of unsubstantiated insinuations that Rohit is not to be a Dalit, that is in local terms not a Mala or Madiga, but a person belonging to the Waddar caste of stone cutters and quarry workers who are listed as a backward caste. The local police and the TRS leadership have been making much about the fact that Rohit Vemula was a Waddar and not a Dalit. Suppose it was so. Does it then mitigate the crime against him?

The ABVP/RSS has been circulating a video clip of Rohit Vemula showing him denouncing the notion of Hindutva in acerbic language. I have seen this clip. In this clip ABVP supporters are interrogating Rohit and he answers that he will fight it everywhere and anywhere. He is speaking in Telugu. The literal translation in English of the term he uses to state this is a commonly used four-letter word.


This word is commonly used in English slang to denote various suggestions. For instance to say ****off is a rude way to say get out. Likewise, in Telugu the term has many usages. In the interrogation Rohit is asked if he will do it to a Hindutva poster in the campus - he defiantly answers 'Yes, I will." He is then asked what he would do to a Hindutva symbol in his home. He answers in the same way.

Now let’s be realistic - to say I will **** a poster doesn't mean anything but to tear it down. Let's not make too much of the language in a surreptitiously taped video. Many of us often use similar language to underscore our feelings.

One must see the events in the University of Hyderabad between the Ambedkarite students’ movement and the ABVP and relate it to the attempt by the IIT Madras to ban the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle there. In that case also it was pressure from the BJP that caused it. To get an understanding of what Hindutva ideologues think of Ambedkar one must read the book on him by Arun Shourie - "Worshipping False Gods." Presumably, the milk drinking stone Ganesha’s are the true Gods?

The tragedy of Rohit Vemula’s suicide is a time for introspection. Why did things happen this way? Why was he pushed to extinguish his life? Perhaps there is something we might yet learn from this? So far it doesn’t seem so. As in the words of the song:

“Now, I understand, what you tried to say to me

And how you suffered for your sanity

And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how

Perhaps they'll listen now”