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Brahmanism, White Supremacy and Homicide by Suicide

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Every powerful society subdues an internal seemingly powerless community that exists underneath it. And every powerful society propagates lies about that seemingly powerless community that struggles to break free from subjection. This is the unending story of humankind; this is the crux of the Fall of the human collective. Humankind has never known nor will it ever learn how to coexist peacefully with equal distribution of access to power and resources, without notions of “peace” and “civility” becoming weapons against those who desire freedom, equality and justice. From the United States of America to South Africa, from Palestine to India, and every powerful unnamed society flourishing on this earth, oppression of one group functions as the catalyst of prosperity and comfort for another group.

In the U.S., it is racial and economic injustice. In South Africa it is still the effects and debris of Apartheid. Along the Gaza Strip it is oppression of Palestinians through Israeli occupation. And in India this clash of collectives is the maintenance of an ancient oppressive hierarchy known as the caste system that disenfranchises, disempowers and denigrates 167 million Dalits while also discriminating and demeaning the 104 million people who belong to tribal communities. This is to say nothing about that every form of oppression in this world is instantiated and disseminated through pervasive patriarchal logics that leave girls and women vulnerable to economic and sexual violence.

Because of the nature of social relations and the injustices we engender with ease, I am arguing for an international combining of forces, a continuation of intercontinental solidarity started by freedom fighters long before us. I am arguing for a continued connection of ideas and empathy between Black Americans, South Africans, Palestinians, Dalits, indigenous peoples and all oppressed communities across the globe. This is not a new idea. This is an idea realized and crafted by a combination of our strategic ancestors. They knew fundamentally that in order to rid ourselves from the multifaceted components and logics of oppression that trample human beings for the fruit of capital, we have to struggle together.

What has caught my attention are the horrible cases of homicides by suicide occurring in the U.S. and India from Sandra Bland in Texas to the late, Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula in India. On January 17th, Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at Hyderbad Central University, committed suicide thirteen days before his birthday. His suicide – and the suicide note he left – ignited outrage across the country, garnering national attention due to the controversy of the details. This atrocity initiated demonstrations from non-upper caste Indians as the result of allegations of discrimination and injustice against Vemula and four other student members of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA). First, Rohith reported that the school ceased paying his stipend of 25,000 rupees per month causing him to struggle and suffer financially. Secondly, Vemula was accused of attacking Nandanam Susheel Kumar, a right wing activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). A suspension of the students and Vemula ensued. Then they were expelled. A couple weeks after the expulsion, Vemula is found dead with a note.

According to the note, Vemula chose this way of departure because he felt “empty and unconcerned” about himself. And although I believe that despair foregrounded the suicide and the note he penned, it is not a letter of despair. It is not a proclamation of inconsolable anguish. It is not a letter of rage. Rather it is a note that exposes a deep unmitigated disappointment with a world so “unlike the stars,” a world so unlike the coherence and aesthetics of the science and nature in which he delighted.

Some have argued that this painful event has nothing to do with caste; after all, Vemula never explicitly mentions caste; he never explicitly states he is a Dalit; he never explicitly writes a word about the Hindu right or Brahmannical culture. Others have argued that because ABVP student activist, Kumar, is himself a part of an OBC caste, that the initial allegations of casteist foul play against Vemula must be untrue and sparked by leftist political propaganda. And in connection to that there are those who have argued that it was because of Vemula’s needless involvement in leftist politics that instigated this horrendous occasion in the first place.

All three arguments – drenched in condescension – miss the essential elements that color this entire catastrophe. The issue with their rebuttals is that caste never has to be mentioned; like race, caste is always implicit in the structure of the culture itself. Vemula never had to mention caste; caste is always and already announced. Like race, caste exists independently of its citation. Like race, caste is a permanent feature of the socio-cultural logistics of Indian society. Therefore, the effects of caste oppression, bullying and discrimination was highlighted by Vemula when he wrote that his birth was his “fatal accident.” That is also why BSP Chief Mayawati called this ordeal “government terrorism.”

Secondly, like the structures of white supremacy, like the effects of apartheid, like Palestinian hatred, caste operates independent of the presence of an upper caste person. The absence of upper caste people in no way suggests the absence of Brahmin supremacy. Again, these are logics that exists in spaces, practices and structures that are accepted and imbibed without awareness. That Kumar and Vemula were both lower caste, in fact, is proof of the permeation of caste oppression.

Lastly, Vemula’s activism, the activism of the Ambedkar Students Association, the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement, the activism of The Dalit Women’s Self-Respect movement, the activism of the #SayHerName campaign, the activism of the old but never forgotten Black and Dalit Panthers, cannot be reduced to ideological cliques of leftist politics. That is too shallow a way of qualifying the raison d’etre of these movements. These movements are about saving lives and preventing murders of the flesh and soul, and nothing less. Therefore, it is my contention that it was not the activism or the leftist politics that distracted Vemula from his studies. In fact, I believe, it was his activism, his outspoken commitments to changing the hierarchy in South Asian culture that actually kept him alive more than anything.

Vemula’s activism was about saving lives and changing the structure of Indian society. That is why his suicide note was more than a letter about his impending death. It was a letter about ensuring that his loved ones’ financial needs were taken care of after his departure. It was about consoling those who would be hurt after he was gone. Vemula’s suicide note was, in fact, if you read it closely, about performing the duties of being a decent human being seconds before death. Do not misunderstand me; I in no way wish to glorify Vemula’s suicide or his letter. It is tragic. It is terrible. I wish it never happened. But I do want to honor Vemula by showing how even in the face of death he was still caring for his people. There is an integrity in the tragedy that cannot go overlooked, that should not be missed. His death, although because of caste, does not mean he was defeated by caste. His death, at the heart of it all, is a radical indictment of caste.

For Dr. B.R. Ambedkhar, the annihilation of caste meant the annihilation of Indian (and the rest of caste infected South Asian) culture that employed the deaths of lower caste people for its productivity (it did not mean ignoring caste as a topic of discussion in order to deny its current prevalence and violence). Vermula’s suicide is a testament to India’s failure in heeding Ambedkhar’s words. The gang raping of a woman in Rautahat is a testament to India’s failure in heeding Ambedkar’s words. The rape and abuse of a 15-year-old girl in Baduan is a testament to India’s failure in heeding Ambedkhar’s words. Not to mention the numberless moments of undocumented violence and enforced impoverishment of the lower caste humans.

Like economic and racial injustice in the U.S., caste is an evil too large, too sanguinary, too ingrained in the mechanics of the society to be overcome and defeated without help. It is a historical contention between international freedom thinkers that our countries are too big, too self-interested, too politically malicious and morally bereft to alter their ways of abusing the powerless in their societies; therefore, it will take global solidarity, international coalitions, widespread, extensive empathy that travels across oceans between the oppressed in order to join hands and minds to eradicate the systems that kill us.

We need each other’s help to fight and eradicate these systems because these systems are killing us into killing ourselves. The sharp truth of the matter is that the U.S. has too much invested in the benefits of economic and racial injustice to do all that is necessary to restructure its current way of life. The sad truth of the matter is that India has too much stock, too many assets in maintaining the abusive configurations of caste to decide to expunge it from its culture without pressure.

What we need, and what it has come down to, is the demand for internationally organized political anarchy. What it has come down to is the need for aggressive, disruptive demands from the citizens of this world who seek justice. What it has come down to is the need for inaugurating a brand new world and the destruction of the current way of the world as we know it. If that sounds too rancorous, too extreme, then you are unaware and unfortunately oblivious to just how violent and vicious normal, polite society truly is. There is blood everywhere. Just look down, there, underneath you.

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Jamall Andrew Calloway is from Oakland, CA and he is a PhD student in Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He received his Masters of Divinity from Yale Divinity School and his Bachelors of Arts in interdisciplinary humanities from Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS. Jamall writes about faith, resistance and hope in the face of evil.

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