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Don’t look away from stories of oppression and exclusion around us

Rohith Vemula’s is one of the most damning and painful indictments of the India and the world today which we have crafted together.

columns Updated: Apr 03, 2017 21:48 IST
Rohith Vemula's mother Radhika Vemula detained by Delhi Police during the candle march in New Delhi,  February 24
Rohith Vemula's mother Radhika Vemula detained by Delhi Police during the candle march in New Delhi, February 24(Ravi Choudhary/HT Photo)

I have never known the disdain of my teachers who believe I am undeserving of a future because I was born to be without merit. To be beaten because I aspire to worship in a temple that people say will be defiled by my step or touch or veneration. To be humiliated every day of my life because I was born into a caste other people regard as unclean.

I have not known what it is to cower as mobs, armed with daggers and light bulbs full of acid, raise terrifying slogans calling for my head and the blood of my loved ones, for the ‘crime’ that I—and others like me—follow a faith different from theirs. To helplessly watch my children burn alive, the girls and women of my family raped, to see my family, my home, my work, my life’s savings, my entire world destroyed forever in a matter of hours, all for this one crime.

I have never been ostracised and abandoned because I unknowingly contracted an incurable ailment. I have never been shunned because I chose to sell my body to raise my children with dignity. I have never been banished from a world because I could not accept the gender into which my body was born. I have never been jailed, and my only little son left outside with no one in the world to care for him.

I cannot imagine the helplessness of a homeless woman who, for 20 years, has to sleep night after night on street pavements, unable to stop strange men from molesting and raping her. I cannot imagine being locked up for years in a beggars’ home only because my legs are malformed and I have no place to sleep other than the streets.

I do not know what I would do if my daughter was killed by the police and labelled after her death by the country’s establishment as a terrorist, a suicide-bomber. Or if my husband was gunned down by militants, and the army insisted that my 13-year-old son was an insurgent.

These are some of the stories I try to tell in my new book Fatal Accidents of Birth: Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance. None of these stories are mine. They could never be my stories, and for only one reason. Because the accident of my birth was not fatal, as it was for Rohith Vemula, or tragic, as it was for others whose stories I try to tell. But these are stories we must listen to, stories we must heed. For far too long have we looked away, and now we must answer the questions Bob Dylan posed when he sang: ‘How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry? Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?’ It is for this reason that we must listen and take to heart the often bleak harrowing stories, but also those of resistance and dignity, of millions of oppressed peoples of our lands.

I believe that our failures to invest sufficient public resources in providing high quality education, public health care, social protection, decent housing, clean water and nutrition to children, women and men born into disadvantage stems not from an absolute shortage of public resources, but instead from a failure of public empathy, a profound indifference among people of privilege and public officials and a cultural comfort with inequality, and ultimately the malfunction, indeed the collapse, of the practice of fraternity that is guaranteed in the Indian Constitution.

Philosopher and public intellectual Noam Chomsky remarked that the idea of social protection is basically the idea, simply, that we should take care of each other. There can be no better encapsulation of the idea of the good state, a state which must be founded on the idea of social solidarity, on the continuous mindfulness of the obligation of the state to care for every person, weak and strong. But Chomsky goes on to say that we live in times when this is considered a profoundly ‘subversive’ idea. For many today, this idea of social protection—or the duty of social caring—is indeed a dangerous philosophy which must be crushed at all costs.

Those opposed to this idea are either people who believe that markets by themselves are both necessary and sufficient to end poverty, hunger and want, or those who restrict their idea of solidarity to narrow notions of identity, whether of race, ethnicity, community or caste, or any other. These two ideas often converge, as in the political arena today of India, America and large tracts of Europe, which renders the opposition to agendas of social protection and the caring state even more adamant and powerful—and for some, so much more charismatic.

In his first and last letter to the world, Rohith Vemula wrote, ‘… some people, for them, life itself is a curse. My birth is my fatal accident.’ His is one of the most damning and painful indictments of the India and the world today which we have crafted together. A country and a world where the lives and its possibilities and the destinies of millions of women and men, young people, boys and girls, still continue to be determined only by the fatal accident of their births. Not by the breadth of their hearts, the glint of their minds, the grit of their endeavours, the mettle of their characters, and the flight of their dreams.

Harsh Mander is author, Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India

The views expressed are personal