Don’t mind me. I’ll just be in this corner, my face to the wall, frothing at the mouth and talking to myself. Because holy hell in a handbag, what is this country that on paper is mine?
A young man killed himself on Sunday night. Yesterday, while thousands (I live in hope that there are more zeroes to add to that number) mourned and raged that he’d been driven to suicide, government authorities secretly cremated his body. Why? Because they didn’t want a “law and order” situation. Never mind the fact that this man wouldn’t have killed himself if the government hadn’t made a mockery of the idea of law and enforced an order that privileges spinelessness and is repressive, exploitative and prejudiced.
If someone from the government turns around and says that they performed his final rites in this appalling way because Vemula had written he wanted a funeral that was “silent and smooth” (see his terrible, soul-crushing suicide note here), I might just have to draw blood. Literally. Whose blood? My own, obviously. It’s not like I can go out there and murder a few policemen, bureaucrats and politicians, can I? And that’s the disgusting truth. In the country we live in, our rage can only be turned either into words that wilt or dissipate too quickly or onto our own bodies, on our own selves. That’s all we have — not law, not order, and certainly not faith in the ideals that are supposed to be foundation of our body politic.
On January 17th, Rohith Vemula hanged himself in a hostel room in the University of Hyderabad. He was a research scholar and had been a prominent figure in the student protests that had sparked off when about two weeks ago, this young man and four others were expelled from the University. Allegedly, they’d attacked a member of the student wing of the BJP, our current dark lord. Counter-allegedly, these five were targeted because they were outspoken and they were Dalits, and the latter made them easy targets.
The five students belonged to a group that had organised a screening of a documentary that the RSS-led government is violently opposed to because it exposes how politicians and party politics caused and encouraged terrible riots in Uttar Pradesh. The group had also protested the hanging of Yakub Memon, a man many believe has been hanged because the Indian government and judiciary can’t get hold of Yakub’s brother who is the real terrorist in the Memon family. At which point, it seems the Union Minister of Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya wrote to the Ministry of Human Resource Development. Or to quote The Hindu, “Interestingly, the MHRD queries got its trigger from a strongly worded letter written by Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatreya to Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani alleging that the campus has become a “den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics”. (See the letter here.)
A former editor of mine had told us never to begin a sentence with “interestingly”. If something interesting, he’d said, then that will speak for itself and won’t need an adverb to make it interesting. It’s when something isn’t interesting that you need to condition the reader into thinking they’re getting an interesting nugget by using “interestingly”. That same editor would also probably have chopped off my fingers for the number of times I’ve repeated “interesting”.
But the fact is, we live in times when things do need to be repeated and underlined and flagged. Why? Because there’s so much noise and so little of actual significance being heard or seen. It is being done though and it is being felt. That’s why some repetition would actually be great, interestingly enough.
Eight students have been arrested in Hyderabad after Vemula’s body was found because they stood in angry vigil for Vemula and demanded Dattatreya be charged with abetting Vemula’s suicide. In New Delhi, students took to the streets and were received by police and water cannons. Will these charges stick? Probably not in a court of law, but it’s a point that needs to be made because our figures of authority are prejudice-infested selfish cretin.
There’s something piercingly callous about a government that will use water cannons in India. Do you have any idea how much of the country, how many people just in the city of Delhi, have no access to running water? Do you realise that an enormous bulk of this country rations water? And here you are, captains of the nation’s ship, ordering water cannons be blasted, and that too upon students. And let’s not even get started on the faculties and staff of our universities. Athena, the goddess of wisdom in the Greek pantheon, was a warrior as well. The guardians at our temples of education are foot soldiers who will follow the commands of an illiterate political establishment.
This was the second time the water cannons came out in Delhi since December. The last time, they’d been trained upon students protesting against the government’s decision to cut scholarship funding and make it harder to get postgraduate scholarships. This time, the water cannons were to shut up students who didn’t know Rohith Vemula, but were going to stand by him because they’re angry.
Universities in India have been getting more and more violent in the past couple of years. Back in 2013, Presidency College in Kolkata turned into some sort of Quentin Tarantino film after the student union elections. Students and ex-students were roaming around, carrying knives and sticks. A few students were arrested, many were injured. One professor said that he was actually quite surprised that this particular episode of mayhem had got attention in the press. Every other week, there was some case of thuggery on campus, according to him. His solution: get rid of elections because the student unions are basically like sleeper cells of political parties. Because what better way to pave a shortcut to peace than by removing civil liberties?
In 2014, the students of Jadavpur University saw police brutality on their campus after the students demanded a proper investigation into a case of molestation that was being hushed up by the university’s staff. Known as the Hok Kolorob (“let there be a furore”) movement, it began with a 150-hour sit-in by students and grew to thousands of people, from different institutions, taking to the streets in Kolkata.
Last year, students of FTII in Pune began a protest when failed actor and two-bit politician Gajendra Chauhan was named chairperson of FTII. Some would go on hunger strike and at least five had to be hospitalised. While the issue hasn’t been settled, the agitation has quietened and after 139 days, it was declared at an end.
Occupy UGC began last year too, when the government decided to cut scholarship funding and opened up to the idea of privately-funded educational institutions. These protesters have repeatedly faced police who have viciously beaten them with sticks. They’ve had water cannons pointed at them at least twice.
The reasons for the student protests that are flaring up regularly may be different, but they’re feeding off one another’s anger — as they should, because whatever their starting points, the attempts to quell them use the same tactics and those attempting the quelling are the same. There is a simple, clear message that’s being sent out: the government is stronger than you are. That’s a strange message for citizens in what is allegedly a democracy. And it isn’t one that only the BJP-led government is relaying to the citizenry. Every political party, regardless of its affiliations and bluster, is guilty of this.
It’s the 21st century, India is one of the largest democracies in the world and this is the society that we’re creating. One in which the anger of students is easily dismissed and that they’re being manhandled, victimised and arrested is shoved under the metaphorical carpet.
Someone said to me the other day, “There are so many battles to fight. How do you choose one? How do you decide one issue is more important than the other?” My point is, pick one. Pick any one and for the love of all that you hold dear, be passionate about it. Notice when it reaches out and intertwines with another issue. Hold hands with other protestors, instead of badmouthing them, or dismissing a problem as “systemic”, or summing it up as “politicisation”. Getting politicised is actually a sign of awareness, not a descent into unthinking prejudice. Politics came from a Greek word that meant “of, or relating to, citizens.” It’s about ideas and actions that influence the lives of people in a nation; not about political parties that are focused upon contesting and winning elections.
Don’t stop talking about something because that conversation kills the mood at a party. Don’t stop supporting causes because someone else got muzzled. Don’t stay uninformed because seeing the tip of the iceberg makes you realise just how privileged you are to not be touched by the issues that are savaging someone else’s life and their sense of self. It’s true you will have no peace of mind, but how authentic is that peace of mind really when these are our times?
“My birth is my fatal accident.” Vemula wrote this in his suicide note and I can’t get that line out of my head. No matter how many cigarettes I smoke or pulpy romances I sink into, what keeps staining my thoughts like a terrible Rorschach test is that line — “My birth is my fatal accident.” No one should think that, no one should believe it and for no one should it be a fact of life. Certainly not a Dalit who has soldiered on against all the biases that our society clings to and become a research scholar; who hasn’t lost his gift for dreaming. Only the horrendous truth is that Vemula’s line is a truth, one that persists and claims the present tense even while he has slipped into the past.
A lot of public opinion despairs at middle class India’s apathy, at its lethargic acceptance of the unacceptable. The student protests are proof that everything isn’t rolling off the national consciousness like water off a duck’s back. On the contrary, everything that our socio-political establishment thinks it’s getting away with is sticking like burs, its teeth hooking deeply so that it won’t be shaken off. We’re just doing our best to not feel the bite. Why? Beats me.
What we see around us isn’t apathy. It’s fear and it’s exhaustion, topped up with a desperation to keep the blinkers on because if you take them off, what you see are wounds that are not healing but oozing and festering. Wounds whose barely-there scabs are being ripped off by new incidents and new tragedies. Happy hour is when the saddest people gather at a bar. Welcome to India today.