Jauhar ki gat Jauhar Jaaney Ya Jin Jauhari Hoey
Only a jewel recognizes the worth of jewel or else a jeweller
Ghayal ki gat Ghayal Jaaney Ya Jin Ghayal Hoey
Only the wounded know what the wounded feel
Only the hungry can know of the pain of the hungry. This oft-quoted aphorism, almost absurd in its obvious observation, is a phrase that is casually quoted in everything from political speeches to drawing room conversations. This short adage contains within it an allusion to one of the fundamental problems that continues to plague societies across the world: people never pause to think of other people’s pain. In fact many, intoxicated by their own egos, ascribe the pain of others to their weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings.
By now Rohith’s death has made newspaper headlines all over the country and every small and big television channel has convened the usual suspects to shout themselves hoarse. Predictably, two groups have formed. One is hell bent on finding fault with Rohith’s life and for that matter his death too, while the other, almost as if they are following a script, try to act as flag bearers of individual rights, freedom of speech and a whole host of other such issues in order to gain political traction. In this age of sensationalism and twenty-four hour news everyone is vying with each other to obtain some new evidence. Most recently, the Hyderabad police have admitted that ‘certain people’ want Rohith’s cast background investigated. Earlier, ministers tried to argue that this was not about Dalits and non-Dalits. Perhaps these people have not read Rohith’s letter but it seems almost farcical that our politicians think that proving or not proving whether Rohith was a Dalit will somehow clear the entire matter. One can just imagine someone on Times Now haranguing co-panelists while saying “BUT HE WAS AN OBC. LISTEN HERE, AN OBC.”
Rohith’s letter reveals a number of important things. Firstly, Rohith always felt the burden of being born in the background that he was. He felt as if his caste background precluded all other aspects of his personality. This lead to a vicious cycle because even if someone wants to leave behind their caste or religious background, the fact of the matter is that our political system is such that it only views us through our caste or religious background. Now, if someone wants to break free from the system, then ironically they have to give precedence and importance to that very aspect of their identity.
Rohith wrote that ‘my birth is my fatal accident.’ One can only imagine what kind of mental pressure someone has to be under in order to doubt their very existence. Social pressures, financial hardship and the implications of religious or caste background are just some of the contributing factors. In his letter he continues to write ‘I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. I have become a monster.’ He then writes that he could never recover from his ‘childhood loneliness’ and in the next sentence gives us a glimpse into his mind at the time. ‘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.’
Very few, if any people, have been talking about the depression and mental anguish that Rohith was clearly suffering from. Despite all the talk of progress and scientific development mental health- or rather mental illness- is an issue that is largely ignored in our societies.
Unlike diseases that affect out body and are therefore in some way ‘visible,’ mental disorders are treated as the result of weakness or indeed in many parts of both rural and urban India, as an ‘attention seeking act.’ In our everyday life how often do we pause to consider the effect our words or actions might have on the mental well-being of another person? Perhaps insensitivity and ignorance is part of the reason that everyone from the Vice Chancellor of Hyderabad University to the various ministers and politicians were able to take such harsh steps without thinking about their consequences.
Some time ago Rohith protested against the hanging of Yaqub Memon and also agitated against the banning of a film screening on the Muzaffarnagar riots. As a result, his organisation, the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), got into an altercation with the local branch of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidya Peeth. The ABVP’s leader complained that he was man-handled though this was initially dismissed by the university. Subsequently a minister saw fit to write to the HRD ministry about ‘casteist and anti-national’ politics at HU whereupon the ministry pressured the university administration to take action. Rohith and his friends were subsequently suspended. Universities and indeed all educational institutions should not only provide an environment of learning but indeed they also have a pastoral role, a responsibility to nurture students. Keeping this in mind it is even more important to safeguard individual liberties on a campus because people are still developing and growing.
The freedom to question and interrogate ideas is key to the flourishing, not only of an institution of higher learning, but society at large. Of course, the lack of an atmosphere free of political and other pressures is something that will have broader repercussions for society at large.
It is clear that Rohith had a heightened sense that is caste background had already dictated his future. Perhaps this is what led him to become a student leader. This is borne out by his letter in which he writes that the value of a man is reduced ‘to a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as his mind.’ His last act of hanging himself in a banner of the ASA speaks volumes about the conflicts that must have plagued Rohith’s mind. On the one hand it announced his loyalty for a cause he held dear but on the other hand symbolically this last act was a physical reminder that of what he had written in his letter: his caste had been the death of him. It is painfully ironic that he all his life he had felt suffocated by social stigma and then his life ended the way it did.
I have deliberately not used the word suicide in this article because sometimes suicide is actually murder. Of course, there are instances where genetically or otherwise someone is prone to depression. However, often someone’s suicide can be attributed to additional factors- the lack of any support structure or being driven to the edge by the actions of individuals or society at large. Perhaps Rohith would say that his suicide was not murder. However, the fact is that his circumstances and therefore society at large is responsible for his state of mind. Indeed, our silence bears witness to our complicity.
(Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad is an assistant professor at Ashoka University where he teaches political science and history. His undergraduate degree was in Middle Eastern History and Political Science. He has also studied in Syria and has traveled extensively in the Middle East. He writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu national daily,Inqilab and has also written for a number of national and international English language magazines and newspapers.)