Let me speak first of Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula. I never met him. I wish I had, although that would have made me hardly any worthier of speaking about him. Had I met him, I would have come to know that I shared with him a passion for science, nature and stars. I would like to think that he would have found in me, despite my being from another generation, a comrade-in-arms and a fellow campaigner for a better world. Perhaps I would have also recognized a few of the scars left over from a childhood spent in poverty. But, there, the similarities would have ended.
We were born in the same country but at two different locations in the social universe. Distances separating these locations are not traversable – reason enough for this universe to collapse. Instead collapsed this remarkable young man who longed to be “treated as a mind” – “a glorious thing made up of stardust” – and who did not wish to be “reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility…to a vote…to a number…to a thing”. He was crushed under the weight of a millennial civilization. His end was precipitated by the malignant political forces ready to use state power to banish all reason and every shred of freedom from modern institutions and public sphere. He may have chosen the mode and the time of his death but it was an instance of a death foretold. In choosing death he has challenged the powers-that-be in a manner and with a force that no demons of deception, no army of liars and no battery of ministers can defend against.
Had I met him I would have come to know him as a young man so rare for his courage of conviction – someone who championed unpopular causes far beyond the ones arising out of his own sufferings. But I could not have fathomed the depths of his soul tormenting over the meaning of “love, pain, life, death.” Had I met him I would have recognized that he was a leader – a valiant fighter for justice and for a better world. But I could not have guessed nor understood that one day he would write, “My birth is my fatal accident”. Had I met him I would have met an aspiring writer – “A writer of science, like Carl Sagan” – as he put it. But I could not have anticipated that the sole letter he would ever write would be a suicide note. And, I could not have grasped its historic import – the fact that this short note would be a powerful indictment of an entire civilization.
Can I speak of him – I asked myself. How can I speak of him? What can I say about him? Reading his suicide note for the umpteenth time I came to the conclusion that I would, instead, speak of the stars. That is a tribute I can rightfully pay to him. Many would speak of his struggle and many more should. Many will be inspired by his courage and commitment and I hope this number surpasses millions. But there was something in him that added further glory and enormous depth to what he was fighting for. This ‘something’ is akin to a deeper ‘spirituality’ accessible only to rational minds and nobler souls. It is completely inaccessible to the vulgar religious kind. I do not know whether Rohith was an atheist, but he possessed that deeper spirituality worthy of an atheist. It is not common that one reads in the suicide note of a political activist and a worldly fighter something like this, “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.”
I had nearly forgotten about the stars until Rohith reminded me of them in this most unexpected manner. The last research paper I published as a professional physicist happened to be about stars – a special kind of stars called quasars that live at the edge of universe close to the birth of time and generate more energy and luminosity than a billion Suns put together. This was years before Rohith was born. Soon after that paper I bid adieu to physics as a career and became a full time activist in the left movement of which I was already a part. But I still needed my ‘spiritual corner’. Keeping informed about developments in theoretical physics and brooding privately about the laws of nature became a secret hide-out to which I could occasionally retreat. It had a therapeutic value – a much needed respite from the rigors of an activist life which I could afford without stepping out of that environment.
I do not intend to spring an autobiographical turn and bask in the reflected glory of Rohith Vemula. I am laboring to decipher the secret message hidden in the blinding light produced by the death of an unknown star. I suspect the roots of Rohith’s interest in science, nature and stars lay deeper than his curious mind. I suspect it was also his ‘spiritual corner’. And he needed it far more desperately than I ever did.
I am part of a once-glorious movement that presently appears lost in a rather dark valley of historical time. A mighty river has splintered into uncountable rivulets flowing feebly and separately through a rising sandbank. I am troubled by the sight of small men pretending to walk tall on wooden legs of dogma and populism. I am troubled by the sight of glorious warriors of yesteryears – warriors against feudalism and colonialism, against monarchs and dictators – being turned into gladiators in the coliseum of capitalism. I am troubled by shallow polemics and deep animosities that afflict the movement from within and grievously pained by internecine conflicts and fratricidal impulses. I have watched them at play from too close quarters. I need my occasional retreat into the ‘spiritual corner’.
All this must have troubled Rohith too. He too was part of the same movement. But he must have been troubled by much more and must have suffered a far greater pain. Having been born at the social location that he was, he carried a far greater burden – the oppressive weight of an entire civilization. But the pain was greater for a different reason. He had joined a movement that promised emancipation from all forms of oppression and injustice, unreason and bondage. He would have thought that he was part of a brotherhood not only inspired by ideals of egalitarianism and rationality but also embodying those ideals even if imperfectly. Instead he was confronted by members of that brotherhood who were regular specimens of the homo hierarchicus. Not only they hadn’t forgotten their own castes, they wouldn’t let
Rohith forget his either. In anger and in pain, he walked out of that stream. He made a transition from Lal Salaam to Jai Bheem. It is a sad commentary on the present state of the movement that these two slogans, which are forms of greeting as well, are considered incompatible if not outright adversarial.
Had I met Rohith, he would have, perhaps, refused to talk to me. Or, perhaps, he would have argued with me with his characteristic political energy and intellectual power that I now read about. Irrespective of how my views are taken by a mainstream leftist, I am, after all, a regular member of that stream, even if with some oddities and angularities. He was not going to agree with what he would have, perhaps, considered a piece of the past he had left behind. Had he chosen to argue though, I would have argued with him in the manner I believe comrades-in-arms should reason with each other, especially when they are passing through a difficult phase in their long journey together.
Trying to make sense of reality is not always a mode of justifying it. Rohith gives me the impression that he was grappling with deeper issues and profound challenges not easily captured in the struggles of the day, necessary as these daily struggles are. He had walked out of one stream, but that does not mean he had found an exact resonance and a perfect peace in the folds of another. His deeper quest seemed stuck in an endless expanse of shallow waters. There were thousand battles to fight, but none of those appeared to strike at the heart of the monster. Center of the dark universe continued to hold unperturbed and things that made this universe refused to fall apart.
I would have agreed with Rohith’s critique of the conduct and the dogmatism of his erstwhile comrades. But I would have reasoned with him to strive harder to see why even the lighted paths turn treacherous in a dark universe. New paths cannot be charted by walking over to another stream. Similar tragedies have played out on that side. There too a mighty river has splintered and lost its way into a rising sandbank. The trials and tribulations, and frustrations, of the legendary heroes of that stream are as well known. Inheritors of a great movement and fighters for a great cause have been harnessed into the chariots of the enemy. Of course, Rohith knew all that. But I would have reasoned with him nevertheless.
Preachy as I may sound, I would not have preached to Rohith. No one can really preach to minds and souls like his. He would have sensed that we were confronted with similar enigmas and caught in the same labyrinth of time. We were both faced with a world that did not make sense. It is a world where enemies of the people do not have to work too hard to be accepted by the same people as their leaders – as prophets who would deliver them from misery, poverty and misfortune; where inciting riots and organizing genocides opens doors to seats of power in this much admired democracy; where those who executed these diabolical designs yesterday are today’s visionary statesmen and compassionate leaders; where so-called captains of industry who were supposed to deliver modernity to a hidebound society have no compunction in financing bigotry and medieval barbarism if that brings in a servile government ready to add quick trillions to their formidable fortunes; where Harvard dons and Columbia professors are all too ready to work as backroom boys for these newly minted statesmen even as businessmen babas and rapist sadhus are thrown in as key ingredients in this medieval alchemy of a modern democracy.
Puzzles do not end there. Emancipatory movements of all kinds find it difficult to gain even a small number of new adherents. Deeper politics is more likely to run aground than float. Shallow politics and populist crusaders, on the other hand, have a field day. There are new prophets in shining armor promising to make revolution by rooting out corruption. If that does not happen, they would settle down to the business of reducing politics to bijli, paani, sadak. They would jump from one cause to another, engage in cheap gimmicks, emerge as new dictators, and still they would maintain their status as objects of popular fascination and postmodernist admiration.
The newly minted statesmen that I earlier talked about and these new crusaders are birds of the same feather. One should not be fooled by their mutual sparring, even if they end up giving bloody noses to each other. They draw their sustenance from the same well. Shallowness and cacophony are the staple conditions under which they thrive.
Consider the fact that the new statesmen are promising to build a great nation by reaping the “demographic dividend”, by exporting labour to graying rich nations, by doing the chores of those who have money to get it done by others. This is no prescription for building a great nation or a great civilization. But such plans are being lapped up by a generation that thinks technology is science, missile-men are great scientists, men who amass wealth by trafficking in skilled humans are great visionaries who have ready solutions to the nation’s problems, being educated means being skilled, and culture means breaking coconut and praying to the deity before launching the satellite. The irony is that this India cannot imagine its own greatness without referring to others. A century ago it proclaimed its greatness through the vacuous speeches its god-men gave to troubled souls and confused minds in the west. Now it dreams of a new greatness by providing daily services to nations that are wealthy and aging.
Had I met Rohith, I would have asked him about his reading of our times. I would have asked him – what do we expect from one another? Should we join the bandwagon? Are immediate successes and instant mass following the appropriate criteria on which the values as well as the functionaries of an emancipatory movement ought to be judged? Has the world come to this pass solely because leftists made the mistakes they made?
As I read him, I am convinced that he would not have taken these as rhetorical or hostile questions. These were his questions too and, perhaps, he was grappling with them far more intensely and desperately than I ever have. I could have talked with him of many things. Of course, I would have talked with him of Karl Marx, Jyotiba Phule, Bhagat Singh, and Ambedkar. But I would also have talked with him of Buddha, Ashok, Akbar and Nehru. I would have reasoned with him that in claiming the positive heritage in the great civilizational struggle one cannot go by the same criteria that one adopts in the political struggle of the day. I would have talked with him of Ghalib, Tagore, Faiz, Gurajada, Sri Sri and Muktibodh. I would have talked with him of Darwin, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Witten and our own Ashoke Sen. And, of course, I would have talked with him of the cosmos and the stars.
I cannot obviously talk to Rohith now about the stars. So, I will give these lectures in his memory. There are far more knowledgeable people than me who can talk about the cosmos and the stars. India has great physicists working right here in India and adding to the frontiers of knowledge. India knows very little about them. They would have been the worthy speakers. But these are troubled times. I would not wish to drag them into something that could become controversial despite being a noble and politically innocent endeavor. Every noble endeavor becomes controversial in these troubled times.
I promised to speak about the stars, which I will do to any audience that is willing to listen. But I wanted these words to stand in front of what I have to say about the stars.
Written by Dr. Ravi Sinha. Click here to download the article as a pdf file.