By Shiv Visvanathan
Jan 21, 2016
Dear Rohith Vemula,
I am writing this letter because your letter moved me. I wanted to reply to it, talk to you, and listen to you. We have never met, though I believe you were in the social science department that once used to invite me often. I was wondering why no faculty member got up to defend you, why no one took you home. I wonder why no one told your mother that you had no hostel, but lived in a tent outside the university. I want to begin with this everyday sense of neglect because those who capture you for the headlines are taxidermists of the moment; they freeze a life into a second and forget that sense of being that made you what you were: A man who cared, a man who protested, who believed that protest and research went together, that being from a backward class meant being more than backward.
You and I know how universities function. They are bureaucracies which forget to pay scholarships, but demand research reports regardless. They are hypothecated to politicians who decide the fate of students. Expelling five students who are from the backward classes makes little difference, especially when a regime classifies you as casteist, extremist and anti-national — three stigmas which have become three signs of grace. It is a pity that no report told me what your thesis was about. I would have loved to talk to you about it. You have dealt with vice-chancellors and ministers as dictators, and I sense your helplessness and humiliation at being suspended unfairly and treated without dignity because you were an easy target. Your vulnerability colours the place, yet no one seems to sense it. There will be inquiring committees which will banalise your situation and talk of the problem that you were a student, activist and from a backward class. Dissenters never had an easy life in the university. An inquiry report of a man who wanted to travel to the stars would be the final obscenity.
I guess politics is murky, but political activists have always dreamt of an ideal and just world. As a group you protested against the death penalty to Yakub Memon. It was an attempt of one struggle to reach across to another, to express the solidarity across particular battles. What is beautiful is that the university still cares about this kind of connectivity of struggles and of disciplines, of researchers despite the V-C and ministers.
I was trying to imagine you sitting in your tent, imagining what the future will be. One sensed your humiliation, the feeling of despair at being restricted to some parts of the university, of being treated as a pariah twice over. One senses you had friends — like Ramu, who you borrowed money from and whose room you used for the last act.
Bureaucrats forget that the hostel is more than a residence, a locality; it is home, refuge, identity, it is community, a student utopia. By denying it to you, even when the charges were not proven, they were eating into your vulnerability. You were silent about yourself even as you protested about the treatment of others. It is your vulnerability that bothers me.
You wanted to write and you felt the desperation of not writing. You wanted to write like Carl Sagan and travel to the stars. Yet, you felt that the magic of writing was still an impotent wish. Sagan had dreams of a different kind — of astronomy, of life on Mars, dreams which he expressed with words that added a literary touch to astronomy where number and distance acquired a touch of intimacy. To write like Sagan was a dream-like vision because astronomy and science fiction went beyond the everyday darkness of politics. Every reformer battling odds needed a second, even a third self to sort out the utopias in him. Your dreams were not limited to the world of the backward class alone, but of the worlds yet to come.
One senses that beyond the stars the mystique of writing haunted you. For you, it was not politics that screamed of impotence. Politics only reeked of corruption. It was not being able to write. One senses you felt the act of writing inside you, experienced the textures of thought that link word and feeling. Writing haunted you and for you a book, a manifesto would have been the beginning of liberation. You understood the meaning of the book and one must pay tribute to that. Reading and writing are the two dreams of a university. One must have sensed your feeling of loss that you lacked a room of your own to write. All we have now is your last note and your silences. You died in silence in a season of literary festivals. I hope next year that they dedicate a special session to the sense of the writer in you. I cannot wave you as a flag. I wanted to see you as a friend, wished to see you as a person — a person who wanted to preserve his individual self, who “wanted to be more than a vote or a number” who felt he had “never been treated as a mind”. Sociology, you felt, could not exhaust you, because you know you were “a glorious thing made of stardust”. Yet you were part of the community, its politics, but your letter warns people not to stereotype you, collectivise you. You were lonely and alone, and yet a part of many collectives, drawing your inspiration from many a group. Your dream is not a dream. It is a dream all dreamers can share and in invoking the citizenship of the dream and the commons we call protest, you have touched a chord, becoming a tuning fork for the unfulfilled dreams of today. Your silence became a symphony of the unsaid and the unfulfilled.
Yet your text, the letter, and the fragment you left behind meant so much. It was your first and yet final letter. It is a toast to life, which mentions the lives lost in you. You want to account for yourself before you provide that literal piece of accounting. It is a reminder that you as a student might have unfulfilled wishes, that the university remains a collection of unfulfilled promises. You did keep the vision intact without your belief being coloured, “untouched by filters of artificial art”. I hope they name a star after you. That much the world owes you. I have never met you. But your absence will haunt all the universities I know. One hopes the university stops being a rusticator of dreams.
Another social scientist