India’s on fire: Letter to Rohith Vemula from his transgender friend
Rohith, We wrote to each other when you were alive. And before you died you wrote a letter that packed in so much that it will take me a lifetime to keep writing back to you.
I am writing because this entire country is on fire in a way that it never has been over the institutionalized murders of dalit students. You had fought for justice after each such death on the University of Hyderabad campus, an annual event (except for the year that Ambedkar Students Association won the students election). You have touched the millions of people who read your letter because your letter reflects so many parts of you that were the way you wished the world was – beautiful, honest, full of amazement, full of humility, of magnanimity. I am writing because your letter gives people who never met you an inkling of what we have lost and this is why so many people are mourning.
I am writing because already the right wing has realized that the only way they will win is to try to tear down your charm. So I am writing to state a few things that have been inaccurately reported in many places: several witnesses, including the campus security, the police, and campus medical doctor, know that the case filed against you by the ABVP president was a false case. I want to state that we teachers at the University backed the students’ struggle for justice and our views were discarded along with the truth, under political pressure.
I know only a little glimmer of how painful being alive in this world was for you. And how you still loved the world, the universe. You had just lost hope in people. Because they, we, could not create a world without the twisted thorns of caste that maliciously wrought the pain you were forced to feel, the pain you fought against tirelessly, impatiently. You were pricked by every injustice, and this is what I want people to know. I want to send your mother and brother this letter so that they know. I will never forget how you sweated more than anyone else cutting timber for cooking food after the May 1 rally for workers rights, with a ferocity that is precious and rare. When, as the first transgender person in the University, I was preparing with my hijra sisters and transgender family in the Telangana Hijra Transgender Samiti to organize the first Swabhimana Sabha to assert transgender self respect – it was you who reached out to me. Who laboured over the first poster on transgender dignity on campus, issued by Ambedkar Students Association. The poster was detailed, incredibly well-informed – it is rare for an ally to frame things in the right direction – and I realized that you must have put several days of reading into this.
I want people to know that you were not only an aspiring scientist. You were a researcher already, and your rationality, your thirst for knowledge, informed your approach. At a time when so many science students and teachers see science as routine labwork divorced from rationality, who see no contradiction in wearing their caste threads while investigating the genetic basis of diabetes in the afternoon, who are paradoxically the bulk of students shepherded into the rank and file of the ABVP by a Brahmin-dominated scientific and academic establishment which equates science with obedient and unquestioning study – you had liberated yourself from these chains and you knew that paradigm shifting science was always historically done by discarding authority and asking questions, and often paying for asking those questions with one’s life.
On the same date that we mourned your loss, exactly a year ago, Pravallika, a trans woman was murdered by a man who had already at that point brutally assaulted almost 30 transgender women with rocks and blades. We knew what you have showed– which is that the system doesn’t move towards justice when an injustice is not fatal. An arrest on any one of those assaults would have prevented Pravallika’s murder. But the system is bloodthirsty. Our attention spans are bloodthirsty. Society needs dead bodies before it reacts in unpredictable ways. The unpredictability is what shakes society, has the potential to create temporary accountability. What is harder is systemic change. Making universities sites of learning and questioning, not agraharams producing obedient robots.
We talked about my caste and class privilege. About how they are the only reason I was sitting in the university as a teacher, while millions of bright, questioning, hard working minds were being destroyed, excluded, controlled, demeaned and rejected by the same structures. You fought for the annihilation of caste, class and gender; hating yourself for every small act of complicity in the structure; all the while my complicity dwarfed yours and today I am, we are, complicit in your death.
(Karthik Bittu is faculty fellow, University of Hyderabad, and a member of Telangana Hijra Intersex Transgender Samiti.)
(The views expressed in this article are personal.)