Caste is not a Rumour - book review

 

 Pranav Kuttaiah

caste is not a rumour

Caste is not a Rumour: The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula (Ed. Nikhila Henry, Juggernaut Books, 2016) 

In a speech delivered at Nalgonda in Telangana not so long ago, noted intellectual K.Y. Ratnam said that what Rohith Vemula wrote was not a suicide note, but an introduction to Dr. Ambedkar's classic 'Annihilation of Caste'. Vemula's note was indeed a remarkable piece of literature – displaying eloquence, vision and clarity of thought far beyond his years. But what was truly striking about it was the brevity for such a power-packed document – in a world where most academics and writers feel like they're taking pages and pages to make a point, his every line; every sentence was packed with the punch of precise thinking and lived experience. It was this format that Rohith had perfected – the art of a paragraph-length rumination that was worth more than many unreadable academic works. "Caste is Not a Rumour: The Online Diary of Rohith Vemula" (ed. Nikhila Henry, Juggernaut Books, 2016), a compilation of Rohith Vemula's writings on Facebook, is a unique addition to the ongoing discussion surrounding caste in Indian campuses. The book provides snippets into the thinking of a radical young mind in the form of succinct and hard-hitting status updates, bringing a whole spectrum of Indian and global political issues into the context of student politics at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU).

The book is divided thematically on the basis of various recurrent ideas in the life and politics of Rohith Vemula. The chapters include his collected thoughts on nationalism and religion (Chapter 4: 'The Anti-National Atheist'), on the politics of gender (Chapter 6: 'Gendering The Revolution') and the politics of the Indian left (Chapter 10: 'The Indian Left or Left of Centre?') among others. This categorization allows for an easy way of indexing and documenting his thoughts on specific themes throughout his life; although it comes at the expense of using a chronological sequencing that allows one to look at his thoughts developing over time.

The book's tone is refreshing and unapologetic in challenging structures of authoritative knowledge that have been built up in the country. When Rohith declares, "I tried to be calm and cool, but my history won't let me" - it is the voice of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi assertion on social media embodied by platforms like Round Table India, Dalit Camera, Savari and others that are carving out their own niche and language to combat caste. In the Indian context at least - social media has been the main tool that has opened the space for dialogue of the marginalized by rejecting a historically hegemonized and closed media and academic space. This book embodies exactly that movement – with direct and provocative attacks and clearly spelled-out challenges to hegemony. A fine example is his unpacking of the notion of 'identity politics' – "When I speak about my community, I am non-Nationalist. When you speak about Nationalism excluding my community, it is never questioned."

Henry's introductions to each chapter provide a sense of context and also acquaint the reader with the charming, sensitive and humane side to a political icon like Vemula. He flits between various questions of identity – ("I am made up both of light and darkness, of compassion and jealousy, of goodness and ugliness, of love and indifference...What you get out of me depends on which side you touch") and reveals a deep and inextinguishable curiosity and amazement echoing his hero Carl Sagan despite facing the worst excesses of educational fascism – "We are made up of Stardust and Dewdrops. We are amazing, even without having any worldly accomplishments. Because we are not ordinary." The edits also provide context to some of the battles and characters Vemula encountered over the years at HCU.

The book is a tour-de-force in that it takes the reader on a world tour of global resistance through the course of Vemula and the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA)'s struggles. He roars from the pages, darting effortlessly between Malcolm X and Savitribai Phule, Che Guevara and Karl Marx, the Panthers Movement and Bhagat Singh. His radical intellect and grasp of history can only be matched by his deep and endearing sense of love and justice. He places a great emphasis on his idea of liberation, declaring that "Not left, not left liberals and not even left radicals. Only radical Ambedkar can liberate us."

As a political document, the book also paves the way towards a radical intersectional thinking that is at the heart of ongoing anti-caste assertions. Vemula is mindful of this and displays a constant sense of self-reflection about his own male privilege. He points out that "Fighting against patriarchy or misogyny is actually fighting against Kyriarchy. Any form of social oppression should be contested and destroyed. In fact, going by history, making a law that too in India will not make much of a difference. The resistance towards marital sexual assault (has to come from) the revolt of women against their 'sacred' husbands. Women who can control the rebellious cattle in villages should use the same tactics against their husbands", and goes on to quote Assata Shakur's famous saying, "Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who were oppressing them."

The title of the book, 'Caste is not a rumour', is a wonderful thread that ties together the entire narrative. It combines theory and history with the deep echoes of lived experience to assert in all walks, across all spaces of the Indian University – Caste is a blunt, visceral experience that creates roadblocks, friction and violence. The book is provocative, edgy and militant but rife with humour, intellectual anger and also a deep sense of pathos. It is a human being laying bare all his convictions and emotions in their rawest form – devoid of any pseudo-intellectual frills and unnecessary jargon. It is a fitting tribute to reassert the status of Rohith as a defiant warrior in the face of varied attempts to victimize him. His thoughts and ideas are not feeble complaints against a Vice-Chancellor or Minister or Government – they are a condemnation and direct confrontation of an age-old hierarchical social order. The book is a wonderful and necessary archive for students of radical politics and those passionate about justice to look to for guidance in many battles to come.

In his final words, Rohith Vemula lamented that he always wanted to be a writer, but was only getting the chance to write this letter. This book is a fitting posthumous tribute to an intellect that went unappreciated. It breathes life into the dream of a fallen hero and preserves his memory to inspire the many generations to come. Each time the book is read, a fuller understanding of an inspirational man takes shape; a foretelling that Rohith leaves us with very evocatively:

"One day you will understand why I was aggressive.
On that day, you will understand why I have not just served social interests.
One day you will get to know why I apologized.
On that day, you will understand there are traps beyond the fences.
One day you will find me in history.
in the bad light, in the yellow pages.
And you will wish I were wise.
But in the night of that day,
you will remember me, feel me and you will breathe out a smile.
And on that day, I will resurrect."

 ~~~

 

 Pranav Kuttaiah has studied at St. Xavier's College (Mumbai) and Sciences Po (Paris). He is currently a fellow at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore.

 

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