Opinion Columnists 23 Jan 2016 The tragedy of Vemul ...
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy

The tragedy of Vemula’s suicide

Published Jan 23, 2016, 1:40 am IST
Updated Jan 23, 2016, 1:41 am IST
The tragedy of Vemula’s suicide is a time for introspection.
Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room in Hyderabad. (Photo: Facebook)
 Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room in Hyderabad. (Photo: Facebook)

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. In death, they seek an escape. Others are victims of disorders brought about by chemical imbalances that, in turn, are often caused by stress and strain.

Very few embrace death with a cool and calculated rationality for a higher cause and reason. Few deaths have captured the popular imagination and galvanised the nation to a higher cause than that of Bhagat Singh.


On October 30, 1928, Lala Lajpat Rai was assaulted by a British SP, James A. Scott while protesting against the Simon Commission. Though he died of a heart attack on November 17, 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 December 17, 1928. He eluded efforts by the police to capture him. On April 8, 1929, Bhagat Singh and B.K. Dutt thr-ew a bomb in the Central Legislative Assembly “to make the deaf hear” as their leaflet, which they showered into the chamber shouting “Inquilab Zindabad!” and “Long live Proletariat”, explained.


Bhagat Singh surrendered his pistol, the same one he had used to kill Saunders, knowing fully well that it would be the damning proof of his involvement in the case. He was convicted and hanged for this at the age of 23. By this he captured the nation’s attention.

Was Rohith Vemula’s suicide similar to this? While I have no doubt some of his compatriots might think so, it is clear the two deaths were of a very different class and cause. Bhagat Singh beckoned death and chose to make a propaganda statement through it.

Rohith Vemula and his rather eloquent suicide letter make it amply clear that he was a victim of an oppressive system, or one he thought to be so. In it he expressed his inner turmoil and reason quite 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 Vemula has, nevertheless, been politicised.


A virulent campaign has been unl-eashed by acolytes of the BJP/RSS in the social media. Two criticisms predominate. One is that Vemula protested against the hanging of Yakub Memon. Why is this a litmus test of a person’s patriotism? There are a huge number of people in this country, this writer included, who perceive the hanging to be a miscarriage of justice.

Most of those who opposed the hanging oppose the death penalty. I do too. But, more importantly, I 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 honoured.


Others want to make something out of unsubstantiated insinuations that Vemula was not 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 Vemula was a Waddar and not a dalit. Suppose it was so. Does it mitigate the crime against him?

The ABVP-RSS combine has been circulating a video clip of Vemula where he is denouncing the notion of Hindutva in acerbic language. I have seen this clip. In this clip, ABVP supporters are interrogating Vemula 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, Vemula is asked if he will do it to a Hindutva poster in the campus and he defiantly replies, “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 demonstrate our feelings.
One must see the events in UoH 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 under pressure from the BJP. To get an understanding of what Hindutva ideologues think of Ambedkar one must read the book on him by Arun Shourie, Worshipping False Gods.

The tragedy of Vemula’s suicide is a time for introspection. Why did things happen this way? Why was he pushed to end his life? Perhaps there is something we might yet learn from this.