After reading Rohith Vemula’s letter, it felt both impossible and indecent to write anything on the tragic end to his life. His poignant, electrifyingly clear, and horrifically moving testament deserved to be the last word. To write on him in a way that claimed to understand or explain would be to deny him, even in death, every value that the letter exemplified. His was a testament against our age: An age, to use Matthew Arnold’s words, of “sick hurry and divided aims”. In an age that marked him by identity, he articulated a profound individuality; in an age of the self over determined by sociology, he sought genuine freedom; in an age deep in muck, he reached out for the stars; in an age of over interpretation, he sought to set the terms of his own meaning; and in an age of easy moralism, he transcended the confines of moral language. He sought to escape to the stars. But he underestimated this culture that fogs and clouds even the stars.
It is difficult to pretend to “know” the trajectory that brought him to this point.
It is always a tricky thing to connect large sociological explanations to an individual act. There is no right register in which to write about him. Here was a soul determined not to be used; determined to be himself. Every cause at stake in this debate, caste politics, intolerance, university hierarchies, discrimination and alienation, is at one level understandable. Yet every cause in which he is enlisted threatens to mutilate his striving in some significant way. All we can do is reflect on the effects of his letter on us: The sense in which it makes us feel empty. It would be a truly obdurate soul that on reading his letter did not feel a sense of meaningless futility. How could so promising and thoughtful a voice, as evidenced by his letter, how could so wilful and full of life a person, as evidenced by his personal struggle, end with this sense of emptiness? There is a genuine and disconcerting calmness in the tone. But it is a calm that haunts us because it is the calm of a void, where suddenly all dreams and desires lose their lustre, even resentments give us no reason to live.
The striking thing about the letter is its defiance of any conventional moral categories. It can be read, as some have, as a tract of forgiveness or a cry for justice. But in some senses, its critique is even deeper; it is a critique of the moral horizons in which we work. For it shows that behind all our moral vocabulary is an act of power. Forgiveness is a great virtue but it is also a treacherous one. For it implies the power to forgive, it implies a receptivity to seek forgiveness. In his letter, there was a humility deeper than that of those who forgive, as if saying, “who am I to forgive?” Justice requires a belief in power: The power to order the social world in a way that is ethically rational. Even in a disordered world, we operate with some hope, some sense that such an ordering might be possible. But what social experience makes us hold on to that belief despite constant evidence to the contrary? Is it, in the end, nothing but the reluctance to give up the semblance of the belief we have of our own power? Does that belief come easily with privilege? The sensibility behind the letter, a total refusal of power of any kind, even the power to forgive, makes it a far more ethically radical document than our conventional language can capture.
The letter has no trace of rancour and resentment. It exposes the paradoxical idea that more than our dreams, it is our resentments that give the will to live. For elevated souls, for those who seek a space beyond rancour, there is no place in the world. Certainly, the ugly response that has followed his death is a reminder of how much our motivational energies are constituted by our resentments.
The unprecedented and deeply disfiguring attack unleashed by BJP spokespersons on him is nothing but a reminder of how national life is becoming a tissue of contrived resentments. The vicious assault that the BJP has unleashed on everything he stood for is the opposite of what a genuine ethics looks like. The aggression of the HRD minister and BJP spokespersons in the face of poignancy, their complete obtuseness to any decent moral register, any sense of occasion, betrays the corruption of ethics that now besets the nation. This is an ethics of power through and through: It is an ethics that claims the monopoly power to define patriotism; it is the ethics that claims so much power that it can never admit a mistake or say sorry; it is an ethics that will define everyone’s identity for them; it is an ethics incapable of allowing genuine mourning; it is an ethics determined to colonise all inwardness. It is nothing but an attempt to carpet bomb the moral landscape with a show of power, the complete opposite of a utopia that imagines a space outside power.
But it is easy to blame politicians. The accumulated institutional rot that afflicts our universities has been building up over decades. If even universities are mutilating our spirit in a way in which not even a minimal degree of reciprocity is possible, where dreams are ultimately reduced to the prison house of identity, then what hope is there? Universities are internally socially divided: A potent combination of the deep exclusion and intimidation of the marginalised and resentment of the privileged. The fact that among students, even a minimal degree of solidarity, qua student, was not possible does not portend well for the future of our politics. It used to be that whatever conflicts students might have, they had solidarity as students: They could beat each other up but were united against the idea of any outside authority expelling them. The university was meant to be the space and the medium where “the fatal accident of birth” was genuinely overcome. This is a vain hope in a society where even tragedy is turned into farce. One cannot claim to understand the specificity and individuality of Rohith’s experience. But one can meditate on the deep truth of his letter, its yearning for a space beyond power and rancour.