‘Dalit Lives’ in the University

Reading the letters and testimonies written by Rohith Vemula, the essay attempts to understand the social existence of the ‘Dalit’ Subject in the University. The attempt to engage with the discrimination experienced in the science laboratory, the appeal made by Rohith to the vice chancellor with regard to Dalit students in the university and the letter written before his death provide us three instances to theoretically understand this subjectivity.

“Life is essentially itself”
Talal Asad
“Thinking involves not only the flow of thought but their arrest as well”
Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”

Bruno Latour in his famous work We have never been Modern underlines the “illusions of modernity” which we all have been living into. But for Latour “modernity” is not a teleological culmination where we all are destined to reach. Modernity, according to Latour therefore is fraught with inherent contradictions embedded in it, to simultaneously ‘unmake’ what it aims to ‘make’. A similar contradiction can be seen in our university spaces. Though the University is claimed as a “modern” institution which professes all such values that can be the markers of “modernity”, namely; liberty, equality, fraternity and rationality etc., this claim can only be made on the perils of overlooking a large set of questions that emanate from the kind of social reality we live in.

Experience as theory: The ‘Particularity’ of Rohith’s Experience in the Science Lab

Rohith wanted to express the lived reality of being a student in the school of Life Sciences and the discrimination he faced in the laboratory, through an academic paper. He had sent an Abstract to the annual sociology conference to be held in the university. The Abstract was titled “Discovering Caste Prejudices in Science Laboratories: Unheard Narratives” which read as following:

[su_quote]Ideally, science laboratories are seen as rational, non-stigmatic avenues of research. Basic sciences, especially Life Sciences and Chemistry in HCU are considered as best research spaces in India. But these same spaces also have an untouched side of reproduction of caste inequalities. The rampant effect of caste relations inside HCU campus with specific to practices in science laboratories define the interpersonal relationships of the students. An amicable alliance between faculty members and the authority of these groups is largely driven by caste nexus. The interplay of Caste, Religion, Region and Gender are major determinant factors which affects the political structures of both laboratory space and classroom. Students and faculty who come from dominant sections consciously or unconsciously become major actors in maintaining this subtle hierarchy. Starting from the “star” mark in results notification, till the share in career/future opportunities, reserve category students face various forms of exclusiveness and/humiliation in these spaces. The lack of social capital in research institutes across the nation and abroad, non-dominant caste students are forced to depend heavily on the mercy of their professors, who were in turn the perpetrators of these hierarchies. Sometimes, this form of discrimination is invisible and it is unintelligible. This paper mainly attempts to map this hidden caste nexus in formation of relationships and the impact of identity on ‘consensus building’ through my four years lived experience in Life Sciences School. This paper also tries to reflect on the reproduction of inequalities in higher education spaces.[/su_quote]

Rohith’s questioning of the pre-assumed rationality of science and science laboratories emanates from his own experience of being a student of Life Science in the University for the last four years. How this space becomes a terrain for the reproduction of caste inequalities, is brought to the fore by means of his experience. As pointed out by Latour the inherent contradictions of the “modern” space of the laboratory brings back caste inequality to get itself perpetuated. This, Rohith claims occurs through the mode of a ‘consensus building’. All consensus be it the idea of nation or any other conglomeration, are built upon ‘differential sacrifices’ which essentially implies that differences are neither celebrated nor appreciated but structurally marginalised (Pandian 2009: 66). This is ordained through the act of silencing.

Caste therefore becomes a “taboo” and hence has not to be spoken of in the public. This ‘unspeakability’ of caste makes the consensus possible which is ordained by a section or a group which holds the authority. Rohith wanted to “create theory” from this experiential reality of his life but his paper was unfortunately rejected.

Language of Moral Appeal and Shaming

After his suspension from the university, Rohith wrote a letter to the VC of the university making the following appeal. The letter was given the subject head as “Solution for Dalit Problem”

[su_quote]First, let me praise your dedicated take on the self-respect movements of Dalits in HCU Campus. When an ABVP President got questioned about his derogatory remarks on Dalits, your kind personal inference into the issue is historic and exemplary. Five Dalit students are “socially boycotted” from campus spaces. Donald Trump will be a Lilliput in front of you. By seeing your commitment, I am tempted to give two suggestions as a token of banality.

First, please serve 10mg of Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at the time of admission. With directions to use when they feel like reading Ambedkar. Secondly, supply a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students from your companion, the great chief Warden.

As we, the scholars, PhD students have already passed that stage and already members of Dalit Self-respect movement unfortunately, we here are left with no easy exit it seems. Hence, I request your highness to make preparations for the facility “EUTHANASIA” for students like me. And I wish you and the campus rest in peace forever.[/su_quote]

Social ostracism as a mode of punishment for the untouchables may long have been outlawed formally but that does not guarantee that its extinction in real forms. By using a language of emotional and moral appeal, Rohith tries to shame the upper caste sensibilities of the administration and the VC, and tries to make a radical intervention. Being conscious of the larger politics of self-respect of the Dalits in campus, Rohith praises the VC for his ‘historic’ intervention. Caste and its practices like that of “social boycott” are therefore a historical reality which can be seen in continuity. But by historicising it, Rohith also gives a pervasiveness to caste both in terms of space and time not merely constrained by teleological time in history.

Asking for an “easy exit” from this vicious ploy of discrimination and hatred, Rohith suggests the VC for facilities of “passive death” or Euthanasia which is the only way out for students who are in to his situation.

Language of Universalism and Emancipation

Rohith’s letter written before his death, makes a departure from his earlier letter written to the VC of the University. Rohith’s letter makes an intervention in the authoritative Public Sphere where he infuses it with his own experience and transcends the language of rationality. This language also emanating from a deep realisation within, about the action he was going to perform seeing a “liberating” potential in it. His death, as Guru points out, is an “exit” from the larger phenomenon of “social death” that Dalit students and teachers face through everyday forms of discrimination and worse humiliation (Guru 2016). Guru goes on to argue that in spite of his continuous victimisation, Rohith lived a life of the mind that was in contradiction with the caste of the mind (Guru 2016). The letter written by Rohith before his suicide read as the following:

[su_quote]I would not be around when you read this letter. Don’t get angry on me. I know some of you truly cared for me, loved me and treated me very well. I have no complaints on anyone. It was always with myself I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write.

I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science, like Carl Sagan.

I loved Science, Stars, Nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt.

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

I am writing this kind of letter for the first time. My first time of a final letter. Forgive me if I fail to make sense. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse.

May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.

I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.

People may dub me as a coward. And selfish, or stupid once I am gone. I am not bothered about what I am called. I don’t believe in after-death stories, ghosts, or spirits. If there is anything at all I believe, I believe that I can travel to the stars. And know about the other worlds.

If you, who is reading this letter can do anything for me, I have to get 7 months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy-five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that. I have to give some 40 thousand to Ramji. He never asked them back. But please pay that to him from that.

Let my funeral be silent and smooth. Behave like I just appeared and gone. Do not shed tears for me. Know that I am happy dead than being alive.

“From shadows to the stars.”

Uma Anna, sorry for using your room for this thing.

To ASA family, sorry for disappointing all of you. You loved me very much. I wish all the very best for the future.

For one last time,

Jai Bheem[/su_quote]

The recognition of this letter merely as one which only expresses personal anguish, sense of alienation from society would be to reduce the larger philosophical reflection embedded in Rohith’s letter. Rohith chooses to speak in a language of universal human values as he addresses to the larger world outside the university through his last letter.

Science as a realm of inquiry is ordained by natural laws which means nature governs objects and there is therefore an agentless authority that pervades the scheme of things in the natural world. The question of morality is therefore not applicable to nature (Sarukkai 2015). Rohith’s love for nature emanates from the fact that this universe is untouched by a moral rendering of things. It is such a realm where morality has not to be harped upon while the realm of the social is fraught with all kinds of moral subjectivities. Sarukkai points out that since caste draws its legitimacy from Hindu religious texts like the Vedas and the Smritis, and these texts do not have an author, there is an agentless authority even to these texts. The traditions function as the authorless authority in implementing caste rules and practices. As nature is not limited by any morality since it is ordained by an authorless authority, the authorless authority of the Vedas too insulate them to ethics and morality. Thus the social of caste is naturalised. Rohith thus wanted to escape from this social realm of caste and enter the natural and the universal world of stars where no such naturalisation of hierarchical practices of caste gets naturalised. It is here that Rohith points to this anomaly of people no longer being the part of that natural world.

Rohith then takes up another universal metaphor of the mind. The universal entity of mind which all human beings are endowed with is in clear contradiction with what Rohith refers to as ‘immediate identity and nearest possibility’. While Rohith may speak a language of universal it essentially emanates from his own immediate social identity.

Birth becomes a fatal accident for Rohith as caste is ordained by birth in Indian society while at the same time it also becomes a marker to gain access to different kinds of public spheres in Indian society. This segregation of the mind is what makes him feel lonely and alienated. Rohith claims that this alienation persists from his very childhood which the mind always remained unappreciated. Although a ‘dalit’ may obtain many accomplishments in his life, this is rarely recognised in the larger mainstream caste society as recognising the worth of the mind of the dalit is to refute the hierarchical place of it in the caste order. The Brahmin thus becomes the marker and the benchmark in imagining the other who will always stand subservient to it.


The conundrum of modern history, for Walter Benjamin, is its stormy forward movement but the conundrum of radical political action lies in the need to break this stream of history, to interrupt or arrest historical processes in order to inaugurate another possibility or “actuality” as Benjamin would refer to (Brown 2002: 156). The Ambedkar Student Association’s attempt to “arrest” the historical process unfolding in the larger mainstream politics was an attempt to break from the existing socio-political realm so as to open up possibilities to actualize a rather radical intervention in the realm of mainstream politics practiced at that historical conjuncture. The methods of intervention can be infinite but it is also determined by the avenues available at a given point of time. It also depends on the creativity of certain actors in “actualizing” this process of radical transformation.

Gopal Guru one of the leading dalit intellectuals of our times argues that social science practice in India has a marked hierarchical division of an inferior mass of academics who pursue empirical research and others who are the self-appointed theoretical pundits (Guru 2002:5003). Thus Indian social science, according to Guru’s formulation is divided into Theoretical Brahmins and Empirical Shudras (Guru 2002:5009). Guru therefore suggests that doing theory for Dalits is a moral and social necessity rather than an instant recognition in the academia (Guru 2002: 5009). Taking cue from this argument of Guru, Pandian argues that certain kinds of “radical empiricism” can transcend the divide between theory and fact and open spaces for alternative politics for subaltern groups (Pandian 2008:34). He goes on to claim that forms such as fiction, poetry, autobiography and testimony need not be seen as a compensation for the theoretical deficiency of Dalits but rather a compensation for the deficiencies of dominant mode of doing theory in social sciences (Pandian 2008:35). Not bound by objectivity and authorial neutrality, these can serve as enabling descriptions of life world and the re-imagination of the political (Pandian 2008:35). While in Social Science theory making belongs to the “discourse of causality”, dalit texts belong to the “discourse of participation” (Pandian 2008:40). Not constrained by mere objectivity such a process of theory making embedded in the lived realities of the dalit subject in the university and its resistance to dominant structures and practices of power, theory can transcend its canonical definitions and provide a ground of ethical and emotional appeal (Pandian 2008:40). “This contradictory engagement with modernity by the lower castes has an important significance for all of us: That is, being one step outside modernity alone can guarantee us a public where the politics of difference can articulate itself, and caste can emerge as a legitimate category of democratic politics. Being one step outside modernity is indeed being one step ahead of modernity” (Pandian 2002: 1741).


This article was presented as a research paper at the Graduate Students Conference at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences held at the IIT Delhi in April, 2016 on Caste as Identity in the City: Urbanity, Space and Power. I would like to thank Milind Wakankar, Manohar Kumar, Ravinder Kaur and the participants at the conference for their comments and criticisms.


Brown Wendy (2002), Politics out of History, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Gupta, Ganesh (2016), University Beyond the Nation, Raiot, 22 March, https://raiot.in/university-beyond-the-nation-2/

Guru, Gopal (2002), ‘How Egalitarian are the Social Sciences in India?’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.37, No. 50, Dec. 14-20. – (2016),

Johari, Aarefa (2016), How Hyderabad’s Ambedkar Students’ Association grew to establish a national footprint, Scroll, 21 January, http://scroll.in/article/802184/how-hyderabads-ambedkar-students-association-grew-to-establish-a-national-footprint

Latour, Bruno (1993), We Have Never Been Modern, trans, Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pandian, MSS (2002), ‘One Step outside Modernity: Caste, Identity Politics and Public Sphere’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 18, May 4-10.

-(2008), ‘Writing Ordinary Lives’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 38, Sep 20 – 26.

-(2009), ‘Nation Impossible’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 10, Mar. 7-13.

Sarukkai, Sundar, ‘The Nature of the Social’, Lecture in the School of Social Sciences, JNU on 22nd September, 2015.

Senthilkumar Solidarity Committee (2008), ‘Caste Higher Education and Senthil’s Suicide’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 43, No. 33, Aug. 16 – 22.



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Ganesh Gupta Written by:

The writer is a research scholar of Modern Indian History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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