Protest Literature in the Wake Of Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

Protest poetry isn’t anything new, given that history has a fondness to repeat and re-enact atrocities. From Shelley’s oft-quoted “Masque Of Anarchy” which influenced Gandhi’s ideas of civil disobedience and non-violent protest to Wilfred Owen’s anti-war anthems for the doomed youth, writing in general, and poetry in particular has always functioned as an agency for the victimized- rewriting parts of history that the State would rather distort or keep under wraps. These celebrate the martyrs neglected by the mainstream media and voice the grievances of the unjustly persecuted. Thus the recent prolific effusion of protest literature in Kerala, following the tragic suicide of Dalit student, Rohit Vemula is not surprising, but anticipated.

The politics behind Rohith Vemula’s case has been much debated and can be summarized as follows: a gifted PhD scholar at the University Of Hyderabad, Vemula’s suicide was the unfortunate by-product of a society famed for its discrimination against members of the lower castes, particularly the Dalits. Vemula was not only expelled from his hostel along with a few other members, his elitist educational institution even refused to pay his monthly fellowship stipend allegedly on grounds of his “Dalit” background and political leanings. He has become an icon for the many scheduled caste citizens whom the State has been victimizing throughout millennia, with his suicide being referred to as an act of “institutional murder”.

While  several writers have written away their awards in response to the increasing violence and intolerance towards minority communities and lower caste sects, some have written and published anti-establishment literature to give a voice to the damned and the oppressed.  For instance, prominent Kerala-based Dalit poet S.Chandramohan’s poem, “Killing The Shambukas”  recalls the myth of Shambuka,  a shudra ascetic who was slain by Lord Rama for reciting Vedic hymns, perhaps in a bid to reinstate the “varna system”.  Chandramohan thus writes:

Blood on books and blood on papers
A black body swinging in mute silence
Strange fruit hanging from tridents

His words suggest influences from  school teacher Abel Meeropol’s anti-racial song, “Strange Fruit” which was written as a response to the hanging of two African American teenagers Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930. But for Chandramohan the situation is still as contemporary and relevant, as he says:


“Even in 21st century, justice and knowledge are being denied to dalits and blacks.’’

Meanwhile, novelist K.R.Meera’s latest work, Bhagawante Maranam (Bhagawan’s Death) inspired by the assignation of Kalburgi is a riveting tale set in post-colonial India delving into the politics of communal violence and identity where the premise features protagonist Amara deciding to kill Professor Bhagawan for desecrating the Bhagwad Gita. Of course the sides are reversed, with Amara injuring himself fatally and being nursed back to health by his Professor who teaches him the true meanings of religion and of God, thereby fostering a Valmiki-like change in the young and delusional Amara. The Professor’s language of teaching is simple but insightful, as he says:

“Son, compassion is more powerful than fear. The gun can only kill, but words give rise to life.”

Finally, poet Satchidandan’s major poems “Pardon” and “Beware” also explore the atrocities perpetrated upon the oppressed. The former poem in particular is also connected to Perumal Murugan, a Dalit writer who chose to stop writing and has withdrawn all his books following the protests against his latest book ‘Madhorubagan’ or ‘One Part Woman’ dealing with the predicament of a childless couple who desire to have a child .But as Satichadandan says :

“The consummate artist is one who learns to creatively absorb the anguished internal self and the outside world into his writings”

It is true that Rohith Vemula’s dreams of becoming the next great science writer like Carl Sagan will never be realized but his spirit will live on, in the prolific protest literature that the circumstances of his tragic life and death has spawned as another martyr lost in the battle that still continues to rage perhaps even more insidiously than before.

Article by Archita Mittra

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