Rohith Vemula: Political Commentator, Hopeless Romantic, and Student

The autobiographical nature of 'Caste Is Not a Rumour' is derived from his need to explain himself and what he believed in

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On October 3, 2015, Rohith Vemula wrote that he wished for a democratic campus “where casteism will not kill my brothers and sisters”. On January 17, 2016, Rohith Vemula committed suicide. One year later, we reflect on who he was, the things that moved him, and his internal turmoil through his social media posts.

#Caste Is Not a Rumour, which is the online diary of Vemula edited by Nikhila Henry, pieces together his life through a compilation of the thoughts he put up on social media. It includes descriptions, outrage, appeals, analyses, and critiques of topics ranging from nationalism to the way science is taught in India, and of course, caste. The title of this book is one of the causes of Vemula’s suicide, and it is also the learning we must take from it.

Who Was Rohith Vemula?

One of the consequences of his suicide becoming a talking point is that people, such as myself, became aware of and fixated on the identity that he died with. This book, on the other hand, tells the reader what Vemula was like before his clashes with college authorities became news. He began as an optimistic young student asking people to help him understand Facebook, to a 20-something deeply disturbed by the Nirbhaya rape case, to a supporter of the Students Federation of India wing in the University of Hyderabad, and finally, one of the strongest voices of the Ambedkar Students Association.

Nikhila Henry weaves together this story and gives it unity. But her commentary is not obtrusive; the main focus remains Vemula’s words. He wrote in a raw, unapologetic style and did not shy away from using metaphors. A lot of the diary entries, especially those dealing with his personal life, need no explanation at all, because Vemula was very self-reflective and observant. The entry about his mother and the relationship she shared with her sewing machine is particularly touching. The autobiographical nature of this book is derived from Vemula’s need to explain himself and what he believed in. This need did not emerge when people started criticising him; it seems to have characterised his writing right from the beginning.

The editor’s own style is empathetic and personal, which seems to result from a connection on both personal and philosophical levels. What I found striking is her decision to place posts from his early life right at the end of the book. It is this chapter called “Early Life”, which contains simplistically written posts when Vemula’s political stance was very different, that really humanise him.

Ideas Are Bulletproof

I found that while the resistance against injustice remained constant in his writing, his sense of hope began to wane over time. Those who will pick up this book seeking to understand the cause of his suicide will be disappointed, but I for one am glad that it focuses on his ideas and perspectives instead. This is where the book, and indeed his life’s story, serves as a kind of warning to readers. Vemula’s crimes were his ideas, and his ideas were his identity.

Vemula seemed to use his understanding of ideologies to question their very fundamentals. His use of black humour (“Make in India is a name apt for government statistics.”), allowed him to critique social injustice in a scathing manner. But the disadvantage of this writing technique is that the attention may have been shifted from the arguments he built to the tone that cemented his beliefs together.

This book exposes the reader to the courage of this student leader. Vemula did not shy away from critiquing any political party or any figure in the public eye, including A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. But this did not mean that he did not appreciate the efforts of those who were trying to make a difference.

No Man Is a Monolith

Henry’s decision to categorise the entries based on the subjects they deal with allows the reader to understand that Vemula’s outlook wasn’t just that of an activist – he was also a “hopeless romantic”, a poet, an appreciator of art, and a son. He was a student of science, and this learning manifested in his thought in the rational and romantic way. It lent a sense of objectivity and rationality to his thinking; he was an atheist. It also made him philosophise about all how humans are made of stardust – an idea he channelised into his understanding of caste. He was a student who regretted not studying thoroughly enough, and he was a young man who found comfort in the occasional smoke and drink.

Henry shows the progression in Vemula’s thought by placing the entries in chronological order. This makes it clear that Vemula wasn’t always the firebrand college leader as we know him. The result is that he becomes more relatable, because just like me, his perspectives were moulded by his increased learning and experiences. However, the strongest feeling that I was left with after reading this book is that I wish I were friends with him. I wish I could have seen him grow as an activist, and I wish I could have learnt a thing or two from him. Most of all, I wish I could have shared in his sorrows.

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