Rohith Vemula’s revolutionary affirmation

“Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them.”

–Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

Institutionalised casteist persecution, launched in utter cynicism and without any sense of shame at the Central University of Hyderabad, occasioned the ‘suicide’ of young Dalit radical Rohith Vemula, on January 18, 2016. That, as things stand, is the fact of the matter. Existentialised facticity is, however, often deceptive. It tends to conceal, if not also mystify, the excessiveness of the act that is immanent in the fact and which the fact is condemned to repress by virtue of being the concrete historical index of the excess that is the act. That is particularly true as far as Vemula’s death is concerned.

His ‘suicide’ is not yet another case of a Dalit victim of casteist persecution being compelled — as much by the persecution as the criminally apathetic social consensus that underpins it — to take his own life in despair. As a radical Kashmiri intellectual has pointed out with great acuity in a Facebook post, Vemula’s is a revolutionary act par excellence. This act of his has revealed the objective situation in which it has occurred for what it essentially is: the ‘pre-modern’ caste system, and its oppressiveness, as an institutionalised digit of segmentation of social labour and barbaric class domination through which our much-vaunted late-capitalist modernity perpetuates itself. To that extent, it has demonstrated the historical objectivity of its revolutionary character. However, Vemula’s act is also, and more importantly, revolutionary as such in the internality of its very subjectivity. For, it is, before all else, an anticipation of a people to come.

The circumstances in which Rohith Vemula decided to take his own life, and the way he went about it, clearly demonstrates it was a political act that nevertheless occurred in absolute solitude. In fact, it is precisely the essential solitude of his act that renders it political and revolutionary. Unlike activism, which is necessarily enveloped by the masses from which it emanates, a militant’s act is always radically solitary. In other words, a militant, unlike an activist, only has his own solitude for company when he seeks to institute the revolutionary duration of militancy through his act. That, at any rate, is the destiny of (revolutionary) militancy in a counter-revolutionary (or a passive revolutionary) situation: a situation wherein the revolution lags behind itself and must, therefore, exist as its own presentiment – that is, it must already be what it will only be later.

The radical solitude that characterises a militant’s act does not mean the militant holds the masses in some kind of aristocratic disdain. Far from it. He acts on behalf of the agitating masses precisely by quietly stepping out of their massified milieu, which even when it is in the throes of grave discontent, disaffection and agitation remains objectively contained by the very system it struggles against. The militant’s characteristically solitary act is one of radical separation from the masses, not in spite of his situation within them but precisely on account of it. Such a radically solitary act is an allegory of the immanent negativity of the interpellated masses becoming its own ground. This act of radical separation is not the abandonment of all hope in the masses and their capacity. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate how the masses can subtract from themselves, and thus break with their systemic interpellation to be the people who are yet to come. This is what distinguishes the militant’s committed revolutionary act – and its essential solitude – from the bloodless detachment of a distant and solipsistic mandarin. A militant acts in radical solitude to become himself. But he does not act for radical solitude. The essential solitude constitutive of a militant’s act is not the style it apparently is. The radical solitude of his act is, instead, an allegorical presentiment of an immeasurable, singular people to come. It is the (im)possibility of infinite thought, which is non-deducible from his finite ontological condition, and yet it must be a decision that makes the militant’s finitude an embodiment of the infinite subjectivity. Vemula’s last letter, at one point, says: “From shadows to the stars.” His ‘suicide’ as an aspiration for the stars is precisely this (im)possible decision of infinite thought.

Rohith Vemula not only chose death, he chose to die all by himself, and alone. This renders the solitude constitutive of his act utterly radical. His ‘suicide note’ clearly proves this was no mere exigency, and that it was, on his part, an act of radical separation, which anticipates a world that is yet to come. The forgiveness he confers in his final moments on friends and enemies alike is, therefore, not a message of harmony — his way of making peace with the historical iniquity from which he is violently subtracting himself. This note of forgiveness in his dying voice, instead, renders his act, and its constitutive solitude, a demonstration of future-directed universalisability of forgiveness, which is the affirmative dimension of the total negation of power and its barbaric horizon.

Clearly, Vemula’s ‘suicide’ is not the desperate reaction of a despairing victim to casteist atrocities. For the same reason, and contrary to what many might imagine, Vemula’s ‘suicide’ has nothing to do with anomie-bred existential nihilism. Rather, it is an act of revolutionary affirmation that in being itself disavows both the victimisation by majoritarian reaction, and the equally reactionary self-flagellating liberal sympathy for such victimhood. It is an affirmative act because it prefigures the affirmation which, much like Walter Benjamin’s “divine violence”, will unravel the lawful world and its states of emergency — wherein “the value of a man (is) reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing” — by virtue of being its excess.


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Pothik Ghosh Written by:

Pothik Ghosh is part of the Marxist collective Radical Notes and is a member of the editorial team of its web-journal.

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