The death of Rohith Vemula and our Reckoning

Hinduism image
(Image from Google)

I’m a Brahmin. Which according to the caste system means I’m at the very top of traditional Indian society. Basically, if I were to live in India, I’d be that country’s white elite. And to be honest, there are days I wonder what that would be like. Usually, I’m steeped in this nation’s own sordid past of structured racism and injustice, that I’d rather not think about it. Then again, I’m privileged enough to care about my caste when I choose to. For others, that’s not a reality whatsoever.

This brings to mind, Rohith Vemula, the PhD student who committed suicide after feeling he’d been mistreated because he was Dalit.

In his suicide letter, Vemula wrote:

“My birth is my fatal accident… I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life… I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.”

A young man was driven to his end, based on an inane system conceived thousands of years ago.


My own relationship with Hinduism has been a complex one to begin with. I do identify as Hindu, especially depending on the context. For example, if I were in a room with mostly white non-Hindus, I will try my best to describe the faith in the best possible way just because I understand that to outsiders, any faith from the “East” can be seen as strange, even though those feelings are based on prejudice and Orientalist views, as the late great Edward Said would’ve put it.

Growing up, the first representation of Hinduism I saw was in the movie The Temple of Doom by Steven Spielberg. I didn’t watch it entirely since my family and I couldn’t get past the scenes of Indian men eating monkey brains but essentially, the plot goes as follows: Crazed Hindu man pulls out hearts from peoples’ chests, and strong white man (Indiana Jones) tries to stop him.

Hinduism is more than just one movie’s interpretation. When I often think of it, I picture my mother praying in the early morning, or of my best friend basing his principles of doing the right thing on what he learned in the Mahabharata. I too wear a pendent of Ma Kali. Even though I believe in the Big Bang, evolution, LGBTQ rights, and basically everything that would make a dogmatic person’s head turn, I also feel safer and more whole when I wear the pendent around my neck. In fact, my belief in justice stem from my faith in Kali and what she symbolizes: a figure who looks evil square in the eye, and fights.

Yet, that’s also the same faith that led Vemula to end his life. That still holds up one group of people over another. No one should believe that caste is only an Indian or Indian-American issue. As mentioned, within white European-American communities in the U.S., we have racism, which affects us today. That being said, as upper-caste Desis, such a comparison often is used to insulate ourselves from criticism.

There has been a resurgence of conservative right-wing Hindu belief and thought on the subcontinent and abroad.

In a piece last year in The New York Times, Sonia Faleiro wrote of this increasing intolerance:

“In August, 77-year-old scholar M. M. Kalburgi, an outspoken critic of Hindu idol worship, was gunned down on his own doorstep. In February, the communist leader Govind Pansare was killed near Mumbai. And in 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for campaigning against religious superstitions.”

I’ll be honest. I am a Lefty, as some would describe. My version of a just society is one based on democratic socialist values. So when Narender Modi was running for PM of India, it frustrated me to see so many Indian-Americans also support his cause. Modi and his party, the BJP, represents a version of Hinduism I can never ascribe to. What really made me upset was seeing all the Desis going to see him speak at MSG in Manhattan, or to watch on TV, the legions of fans cheering for him when he visited the U.K. All I witnessed were middle-class bourgeoisie Indians and Indian-Americans falling in love with an illiberal politician.

I understand that I can be interpreted as a snobby American imposing his ideas. But this is directed toward those of us who see the writing on the wall, and can connect what happened to Vemula as part of a bigger and more ominous picture. If we are concerned about human rights and social justice, we must also confront what we see among ourselves.

This means, honoring the life of people like Vemula, and sharing his story. This means taking part in activism, such as holding rallies outside the Indian embassy and demanding that actions be taken to preserve every life. Most of all, this means challenging those closest to us as well, such as our family members about their prejudices.

The sad reality is Vemula isn’t the first person to have been discriminated because of his caste and he won’t be the last.

But will we be the generation to pretend the problem will somehow be eliminated on its own? Or will we look evil in the eye and fight?


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