On January 17, I lost my friend, colleague and leader Rohith Vemula. He ended his life by hanging from a fan using the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) banner almost a month after he along with his four other friends--the tallest leaders of the organisation and the University of Hyderabad--were expelled from the hostel, subjected to social boycott and humiliation for a silly scuffle with a fascist, anti-intellectual outfit in the campus.
We are left emotionless as we continue to fight for justice for our beloved brother. We haven’t even got time to mourn his departure. Rohith was the epitome of Ambedkarite politics, he was the soul and heart of the ASA. He always wanted to tell stories and to listen to others’ stories. I remember the night before he took his own life--he took some of us out and arranged a bonfire. We sat together, and he shared stories from his hometown Guntur. He talked about science, stars, his childhood memories and so many other things.
Rohith was a real fighter--always concerned about the plight of our community, of the marginalised sections. He was always in action. In our gatherings and meetings, he talked about the importance of educating our younger generations, about the importance of fighting the oppressive caste system and other forms of discrimination. He showed us the need to have a plan of action for everything. He was in a way setting the agenda of subaltern politics in Hyderabad for the last two years. He had close ties with the Ambedkarite movements in the area. He didn’t believe in activism within academic constraints. He always vocally expressed that our very existence is political and defined by our resistance.
Rohith and our other four friends set up a small tent, a ‘velivada’ or a Dalit ghetto, in the centre of the university on January 4 after the ruthless administration locked their rooms. In the extreme cold of winter, the ‘velivada’ became the centre of all kinds of revolutions. They slept there in the mighty presence of Babasaheb, Savitribai, Jyotira Phule, Periyar and several other legends. We--the ASA and the Joint Action Committee for Social Justice--guarded them, but not always. This ‘velivada’ will go down in history books as the thing that triggered a sense of belonging among all deprived sections in our country.
The picture of Rohith coming out of the hostel to the ‘velivada’ with a pillow in one hand and the portrait of Babasaheb Ambedkar in the other will continue to shake the Brahminical structure of India for centuries. The ‘velivada’ didn’t attract opportunistic crowds, but obviously flourished with the compassion and brotherhood of different people. Today, after the death of Rohith, the entire nation is filled with a sense of grief and outrage. He has emerged as the symbol against injustice and oppression.
Most of the days, and especially during his time in the velivada, I often had long conversations with Rohith. He was very optimistic about the future of Ambedkarite politics in the campus. He prepared the year plan for the ASA, and talked of unity and maximum utilization of resources and cultural capital available within our movement. He urged the committee members to step up and build the organisation around young people. He was pretty sure that the ASA would emerge as the most popular student movement in the entire world, as an inclusive platform, by overcoming all complexities and dynamics.
The upcoming Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations were his biggest priority. He had been planning the event for a while, and used to discuss with us about the various ideas he had. Aside from the personal loss his death is, the impact it might have within the organisational cannot be foretold. We certainly hope that Rohith will guide us down the right path, into the horizon where he wanted the ASA to go.
During our conversations he always tried to invoke an interest in natural sciences. His very body language and gestures were always oozing with his convictions and politics. He had a very philosophical approach towards life, love and pain. He tried to look everything with a fresh perspective. People who knew him closely will understand the depth and significance of his suicide note. He often spoke of the embedded intricacies in our bodies, which are reduced to certain identities.
On September 3, he had written another brilliant piece of poetry:
One day you will understand why I was aggressive.
On that day, you will understand
why I have not just served social interests.
One day you will get to know why I apologized.
On that day, you will understand
there are traps beyond the fences.
Rohith must be smiling among the stars seeing his departure shaking the entire power structure of the nation
One day you will find me in the history.
in the bad light, in the yellow pages.
And you will wish I was wise.
But at the night of that day,
you will remember me, feel me
and you will breathe out a smile.
And on that day, I will resurrect.”
. He was quite clear and had complete wisdom and vision in whatever he was doing. Time will prove the historical significance of Rohith’s sacrifice. He lived, and died, for a cause greater than himself.
(Ayoob Rahman is convenor of the Ambedkar Students’ Association, University of Hyderabad.)
(The views expressed are personal.)