Dalitization of politics and the suicide note of Rohith Vemula
Slavery’s crime against humanity did not begin when one people defeated and enslaved its enemies (though of course this was bad enough), but when slavery became an institution in which some men were ‘born’ free and others slave, when it was forgotten that it was man who had deprived his fellow-men of freedom, and when the sanction for the crime was attributed to nature. Yet in the light of recent events it is possible to say that even slaves still belonged to some sort of human community; their labour was needed, used, and exploited, and this kept them within the pale of humanity. To be a slave was after all to have a distinctive character, a place in society – more than the abstract nakedness of being human and nothing but human.
– Hannah Arendt1
There can therefore, be no doubt that untouchables have been worse off than slaves. This of course means that untouchability is more harmful to the growth of man than slavery ever was. On this there is a paradox. Slaves who were worse off in law than the untouchables were in fact better off than untouchables and untouchables who were better off in law than slaves were worse off in fact than slaves. What is the explanation of this paradox? The question of all questions is this; what is it which helped the slave to overcome the rigorous denial of freedom by law and enabled them to prosper and grow? What is it that destroyed the effect of the freedom which the law gave to the untouchables and sapped his life of all vitality and stunted his growth.
– B.R. Ambedkar2
THE striking similarity between Hannah Arendt’s and B.R. Ambedkar’s views on slavery in the context of the plight of Jews in Europe, particularly during the first half of the 20th century, and the ‘untouchables’ in the context of ‘India’ respectively, may provide us a different entry point in the possibility of engaging with the question of caste in our present political thinking. On the one hand, both of these observations indicate the impossibility of locating (or resolving) these historical questions within the liberal notion of ‘individual’ and its political structures based on ‘human rights’. For instance, Arendt in her book on imperialism dedicates a chapter to the problem of refugees titled ‘The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man’ where she links together the fates of the rights of man and of the nation state. Her striking formulation seems to imply the idea of an intimate and necessary connection between the two.
Arendt argues that the very figure who should have embodied the rights of man par excellence – the refugee – signals instead the concept’s radical crisis. She states that the ‘conception of human rights based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human.’3 In the system of the nation state, the so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man show themselves to lack every protection and reality at the moment in which they can no longer take the form of rights belonging to citizens of a state.
In his commentary on Arendt’s radical conception regarding the crisis of the rights of man, Giorgio Agamben has noted that, ‘If one considers the matter, this is in fact implicit in the ambiguity of the very title of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, of 1789. In the phrase La declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, it is not clear whether the two terms homme and citoyen name two autonomous beings or instead form a unitary system in which the first is always already included in the second.’ A simple examination of the text of the Declaration of 1789 shows that it is precisely bare natural life – which is to say, the pure fact of birth – that appears here as the source and bearer of rights. The term nation derives etymologically from nascere (to be born) – thus closing the open circle of man’s birth.4
Keeping in mind this paradox of what constitutes the rights of man in liberal political thinking, one should think of an even larger paradox while engaging with question of ‘human’ and ‘rights’ in the context of caste based political/policing order of the Indian polity. Let me begin my analysis through recent incidents which led to the death or institutional murder of a dalit research scholar and student activist of the University of Hyderabad, Rohith Vemula, and the possible implications of his ‘suicide note’.5 In the brief note that Vemula had written prior to his suicide, he stated that, ‘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…’ which starkly marks this peculiar historical location of dalits. It clearly posits the impossibility to accommodate dalits within the confines of the brahmanical sovereign order and its modern preserver, the Indian nation state.
Further, with an unbridled sense of urgency and an unparalleled intensity, Vermula’s note states that, ‘I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body’ and this bareness, systematically produced by the institutions of knowledge and learning, reduced ‘the value of a man [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.’
It is an obvious fact that this suicide note of Rohith Vemula throws open numerous questions regarding the hegemonic nature of knowledge production and its oppressive (modern) institutional structures. And in the context of India, as most of us are well aware, caste plays a major role in the production, perseverance and accessibility to most forms of knowledge. It has a historical genealogy since the foundational logic of the brahmanic order is based on the expulsion of the ‘lower castes’ from all domains of codified knowledge. Rohith’s letter further stated with an undeterred incisiveness that ‘never was a man treated as a mind’. The invocation that dalit selves/subjects are reduced to the bareness of body exposes the way in which the brahmanical (policing) order has constructed the social psyche of this nation.
If we were to examine writings regarding the so-called danger posed by the constitutional provision of reservation in educational institutions and jobs in government services, they are largely premised on the question of efficiency. Commentators of various hues and colour have time and again argued that the nation as a whole (or common good) has and will suffer in terms of productivity if the lower castes are allowed to hold positions other than their traditional occupations, even though there is ample empirical evidence to suggest otherwise.6 The Indian state’s own rationale to exempt the ‘institutions of national importance’ from the ambit of reservation is built on this brahmanical logic.
It is important to note here that even though the caste system as such claims an ancient religious order, the very logic of untouchability which constitutes its foundation constructs the system outside of any communitarian order. That is the reason dalits can be killed at the whim and will of the brahmanical system, resulting in even our progressive intelligentsia perceiving this as ‘routine violence’ that stems from a pre-modern order. Furthermore, in the structural unconscious of the Indian polity, dalit lives/bodies still remain within the domain of ‘impurity’ and are not considered worthy enough to stand-in for ‘universal ideals’.
In his influential philosophical treatise The Logic of Sense, Gilles Deleuze has observed that ‘the event subsists in language, but happens to things’.7 The intensity of the political ferment caused by the death and the ‘suicide’ note of Rohith can be understood through the inoperative logic of the ‘event’. These political ferments – or the event – I would argue, are instances of substantive moves which transgress the given boundaries of ‘dalit politics’. But instead of recognizing the intensity and potential of this transgressive moment, not so surprisingly left-liberal debates in both mainstream and so-called alternative media continue to be structured around the collaborative potential between what they term ‘caste based resistance’ and class based politics. Such unity is projected by many commentators of this idea as an ideal solution to the onslaught of right wing fundamentalism.
What has to be noted however, is that while the left-liberals only recognize the fascist tendencies of the present political dispensation as an exception to the otherwise broadly ‘secular-democratic’ state, dalits (and marginal/minority groups in general) identify and experience the policing order of the Hindu polity (irrespective of its ideological hues) as an everyday tyranny. In that sense, to begin with, we have to acknowledge that dalits and other marginal/minority groups call for a more intense and nuanced understanding of the rules of Indian politics than the left-liberal intelligentsia. The latter’s pragmatism, we might say, has led to their failure in even understanding what constitutes dalit politics. Let me elaborate.
There seems to be a tacit agreement among various political adversaries – be it left, right or centrist groups – in defining dalit politics. The primary assumption which binds all these political stakeholders (and their ‘radical’ splinter groups) together is that dalit politics is a mere mechanism to ensure the implementation of affirmative action. For example, almost all mainstream political parties, time and again pledge their support to ‘reservation’. So entrenched is this notion that its traces can be diagnosed even among groups that primarily work against caste oppression. Such kinds of positioning, however, result in reducing politics into a mere struggle for representation in the existing political order.
This (mis)recognition, I argue, is a by-product of conceptualizing politics at large as ‘police order’. In such a conception, as Jacques Ranciere has pointed out, a form of order is instituted where nobody actually needs to speak any more because the ‘natural stakeholders’ of power will put in place the mechanisms for necessary checks and balances. We have enough historical evidence and experience to suggest that such appropriations, contrary to their claims, cannot guarantee that the gap between policing and true democratic principles will be bridged; they are, in fact, antithetical.
Further, unlike Ambedkar’s vision of reservation, which is an ethically and philosophically charged proposition, the policing order of politics has substituted such concerns with mere proceduralism, thus labelling dalit politics as a by-product of ‘beneficiary politics’. In so doing, the question of reservation is shifted from the sphere of popular contestation into the restrictive sphere of judicial authority. In turn, politics is reduced to whether or not these constitutional rights have been justly implemented. And in addition to this, through a careful denial (and perennial deferral of the actual delivery) of these rights, this policing order has systematically projected the implementation of reservations as the sole objective of dalit politics, thereby systematically branding it as a politics of sectarian (and immediate material) interests.
Let me revisit the suicide note of Rohith Vemula once again to explicate some of the crucial aspects of the present political configuration. My proposition is that this note has made possible a transgression of the police order, thereby enabling us to concretely imagine politics – or reenergize its imaginative potential – as, following Ranciere, the (re)distribution of the sensible. We have to bear in mind that without this note, there was a near definite possibility of ignoring the instance of his ‘suicide’ as yet another dalit student suicide. But the note is significant for the way that it has punctured the language games of the liberal political order.
As I have quoted earlier in this essay, Rohith marked the devaluation of dalit life as mere ‘number’, ‘vote’ in ‘every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.’ I argue further that such devaluation (of dalit lives) has been central to the production of the liberal intelligentsia as (sole) representatives of the ‘revolutionary forces of history’, contributing in turn to the further devaluation of dalit lives. The paternalistic gaze of this intelligentsia has reduced dalits into inert bodies (or bare lives) waiting to be rescued by the former’s grand gestures of ‘redemption’. Rohith’s note, which struggles against this inertness imposed on him, transgresses this police order and its representative logic of politics by targeting the dogmatic image of thought itself. It has evoked an absolute sense of universal humanism by ascribing the ‘human’ as ‘a glorious thing made up of star dust.’
Further, as a form of writing ‘formalities’, Rohith states, ‘No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this. Do not trouble my friends and enemies on this after I am gone.’ By stating that no one is responsible for this act of killing himself, he (re)distributes that responsibility to everyone. This (re)distribution, or the refusal to name, is a reclamation of the sacredness of his act, thereby constructing a new critical ontology of the self. This act – of non-closure – moves away from all forms of instrumentality which is otherwise the sole yardstick of the police order of politics.
Similarly, by clubbing his ‘friends and enemies’ together, Rohith also makes visible the political non-differentiability between the two in the context of the caste question. All these non-closures also mark the entry point of the politics of apparition. If the Indian left (liberal or otherwise) suddenly woke up to the agonizing realities of caste after the death of Rohith, one has to attribute it to the haunting power of spectral politics. My argument is that Rohith’s note serves as a spectre that haunts the structural unconscious of the Indian left, which ironically claims to have exorcized all the ghosts of the past through the magic wand of class. Needless to say, dalit politics as that which stands in for the larger emancipatory goal is likely to relentlessly haunt the policing order of all mainstream political positioning.
In conjunction with this, we also have to position Rohith’s refusal to reduce politics to mere bodily acts. The prophetic intensity of his thought that demands the treatment of ‘a man’ as ‘a mind’, forces language to bleed internally, thereby exposing the instability of categories as they appear, or better yet, that the idea of a ‘category’ does not capture what the future of politics and the politics of the future stands-in for. His words exemplify that there is a chaos that is internal to both the world and language that undermines the stability of the dogmatic image of thought, and in turn produces a new form of politics which defies the logic of instrumentalism in toto.
The events unfolding in Hyderabad, as I have argued, are critical in rethinking the future of not just dalit politics but the future of politics, as such. If one of Ambedkar’s visions for reservation was that it would become the ground for producing a new organic intellectual class, the events in Hyderabad epitomize this moment in our contemporary times. Because while on the one hand they (the events) definitely stand-in for and continue with the struggle for constitutional rights, they consistently defy any and every attempt at categorizing the struggle as mere proceduralism.
The affective dimension of politics initiated by these emergent formations deserves an analytical scrutiny. First of all, they have consistently resisted the left-liberal propagation that ‘discursive consensus’ is the only legitimate mode of political action. Strategically planned and carefully monitored protests that are synonymous with most of the (radical!) left political actions of the capital exemplify this mode. Certainly, there are elements of meticulous planning in the protests organized by these new formations as well. But it is politically important to acknowledge the ways in which they have retained the significance of spontaneous human action. In this emergent political-scape, notions such as violence and non-violence, performance and life, actual and the virtual, banal and spectacular, etc. acquire a valency that elides the binary logic.8
All of this has brought forth a new critical ontology of political action based on what I would like to call intensive differences. Let me explain this briefly by drawing on the work of Deleuze. In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze marks a crucial distinction between extensive and intensive differences. According to him, extensive differences (such as length, area, or volume) are intrinsically divisible. Intensity, on the contrary, is indivisible. The indispensable property of intensity however, is not that it is indivisible, but that it is a property that cannot be divided without involving a change in kind.9 I draw on this distinction to propose that while the left-liberal ideas regarding unity are based on the principles of extensiveness, dalit politics is largely based on the aspect of intensity, thereby radically altering the symmetry of the very order of politics itself.
In this context, we must revisit the common assumption that dalit politics is an instance of identity politics. There are several pitfalls in such ascription. First, it provides an impression that dalit politics brings about unity among pre-given identities. Second, it provides an impression that dalit assertions are merely aimed at achieving a ‘respectable’ identity within existing systems. Concurrent to this, it provides an impression that it is a struggle against some aberrations in the social order.
Against such forms of the policing order of politics, we have to reassert that there is nothing organic about identities; the entire struggle of Ambedkar against Gandhi was precisely regarding this organicity of identity. This organicist ideology provides a worldview that anti-caste struggles are aimed at restoring the lost glory of Hindu/Indian civilization. On the contrary, we must vehemently assert that the Ambedkarite and dalit struggles are based on focusing on difference rather than identity. In that sense, Ambedkar’s political moves, be it separate electorates or the conversion to (neo-) Buddhism can be understood as attempts at conceiving an anti-essential dalit community formation. They clearly indicate that if community is to be thought of, it must be thought at the level or in the interstices of what can be signified or produced as a recognizable common identity.
The term Jean-Luc Nancy uses for communal nature, ‘being-in-common’, might be a useful tool to understand the driving forces of dalit politics or more accurately the dalitization of politics. The politics initiated by the Ambedkar Students Association (UoH) is unique in character since instead of merely forging identities among many existing marginal or minority communities, it has attempted to propose a new communitarian politics where being-in-common clearly does not mean having something particular in common. Rather, it means being exposed to the others in a relationship of sharing in which the limits of the individual are neither stable nor destroyed. As Nancy observed, ‘Being-in-common means that being is nothing that we would have as common property, even though we are, or even though being is not common to us except in the mode of being shared.’10
This conception of community avoids the dangers of individualism that liberal democracy generates (left or right wing) as well as the pitfalls of totalitarianism. It avoids the first danger by refusing to countenance the idea of an individual as pre-constituted before his or her immersion in the community. It avoids the second danger by refusing to countenance the idea of a common substance by which the community is identified and its communal nature articulated.
To think about dalitization as a political process (or a processual politics), they have conceived themselves as a community without direct signification. These crucial moves enable them to provide a minoritarian consciousness without falling back on the notion of a common substance, which in turn enables them to avoid suppression of differences on the pretext of obligation. In that sense, the newer community formation such as dalit is not merely the unification of oppressed castes against the oppressive castes. A dalit formation is not the traditional liberal view of interaction of different pre-constituted communities. The suicide note of Rohith and dalit as a newer community formation have time and again resisted the traditional liberal view by exposing the fact that dalit is something other than the sum or the relation among castes. This is similar to individuals and their relations with communities because both individuals and communities are not pre-constituted entities.
In short, what dalitization of politics can offer to our political thinking is that any kind of direct signification leads to essential definitions and monolithic/static subject positions that inevitably subscribe to the idea of who we are and who we are not. Taking a cue from Jean-Luc Nancy again, I will argue that this emerging political/community formation has consolidated the possibilities of a ‘non-indexical signification’ on the basis of sharing.
Nancy’s reading on George Bataille has demonstrated that the idea of sharing indicates two opposed movements at the same time.11 First, to share means to divide something up among the participants in the sharing; in that sense it is an act of division. Second, and significantly in opposition to this is that to share something is for the participants themselves to take part in that something which itself may remain undivided. In the first movement, that which is shared is divided among participants who themselves remain undivided. In the second movement, that which is shared remains undivided and the participants, as it were, divide themselves into it. Taken together, sharing indicates a movement in which division and accord are in an economic relation, an unstable reciprocal begetting in which neither sharer nor partaker retain their limits. It shows that even though sharing is an economic concept, it cannot be reduced to a single meaning and so resists direct signification.
This notion of sharing, which is the cornerstone of this emerging architecture of politics, has facilitated the conceptualization of a dalit community or a dalitization of political thinking and action which break away from statist, anthropological and religious categories that forbid a minoritarian consciousness. In a unique and dynamic fashion, this politics of intensity allows us to do away with liberal democratic rhetoric such as ‘unity in diversity’ and majoritarian essentialism of mythic/religious signification and the liberal left’s supplementary logic of alternatives. It would crack open the dialectical logic and ambiguity created by the liberal intellectuals (both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ wings) about dalit intervention in the sphere of culture and politics as an attempt to bring back some caste as the new centre of discourse.
I end this essay by reiterating that the dalitization of politics does not envisage ‘caste’ as an agency that transplants itself as a new centre. On the contrary, it foresees the possibilities of decentring, differentiation, relationality, liminality, sharing and linkages.
1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1973, p. 297.
2. B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Which is Worse? Slavery or Untouchability?’, in Vasant Moon (ed.), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol. 12. Dr. Ambedkar Foundation and The Education Department, Government of Maharashtra, New Delhi and Bombay, 1993, p. 752.
3. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, op. cit., p. 299.
4. Giorgio Agamben, ‘Biopolitics and the Rights of Man’, in Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (eds.), Biopolitics: A Reader. Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2013, pp. 152-53.
5. We are well aware of the political events that have unfolded in the University of Hyderabad since late 2015 which began with the suspension by the university administration of a group of dalit student activists, accusing them of partaking in anti-national activities. This suspension was allegedly based on a (malicious) complaint from a BJP student wing (ABVP) leader accusing the dalit students of manhandling him. The actual event which led to the suspension of these students was one which was organized under the banner of Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), a political outfit of dalits and other minority communities in UoH. The event condemned the extra-judicial killing of Yakub Memon, an alleged terror suspect in the infamous ‘Mumbai bomb blasts’ in the wake of the demolition of the historic Babri Masjid by Hindu extremists. ASA organized a public meeting and film screenings to highlight the procedural lapses in the judicial execution of Memon on the one hand, as well as to foreground the ethical stand against anti-capital punishment endorsed by B.R. Ambedkar.
Even after the committees formed by the university administration itself had submitted the report stating that the accusation by the ABVP student leader was dubious, the authorities under the pressure of ruling party at the Centre (BJP) suspended these students. This had led to the protest by ASA, and eventually to the death of Rohith Vemula. The students’ agitation demanding justice for Rohith is underway even as I write this essay.
6. For instance, see Sukhadeo Thorat, ‘Reservation and Efficiency: Myth and Reality’, Economic and Political Weekly 40(9), 29 February-4 March 2005, pp. 808-810. See also the news report by Rukmini S., ‘Quotas do not Hurt Efficiency’, The Hindu, 5 February 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/news/ national/quotas-do-not-hurt-efficiency-says-study/article6857563.ece, last accessed on 11 August 2015.
7. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense. Columbia University Press, New York, 1990, p. 24.
8. The recent events in the Saurashtra region of the state of Gujarat where a group of dalits were brutally flogged by the Gau Rakshak Sena (Cow Protection Army), a vigilante group of Hindu extremists accusing dalits of cow slaughter, and the protests thereafter are another case in point. The dalit protesters unloaded truckloads of rotten cow carcasses into the citadels of power and privilege and undertook a pledge that they would discontinue their traditional job of skinning dead cows. This event marks another crucial moment in the history of dalit struggles not only in Gujarat but also has a wider ramification in terms of the future of Indian politics.
9. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition. Columbia University Press, New York, 1994, pp. 168-261.
10. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1993, p. 69.
11. Jean-Luc Nancy, Inoperative Community. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1991, p. 25 and 157.