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A Dalit Rite of Mourning


Speculation on death is a philosopher’s domain, of extreme necessity and rigor in thought. Notwithstanding this, I would like to open a realm of experience where an event such as death invokes a reaction in the form of mourning.

From Gandhi to Rohith Vemula, political resistance has turned full circle in India and the state is no longer at the centre or even the nation state it has proclaimed itself to be. The state, which was absolved of all violence in the assassination of Gandhi and rose to the immaculate heights of purity, is trying to relocate itself as a decentred state of knowledge. This is the reason why it is facing scathing criticism for the institutional murder of Rohith.

This is also where bereavement or the pain involved in death fails our assessment of the transition of the state from an active role as a nation state in valorising heroism, to a passive role as a knowledge-state in mourning the victim of political resistance. This passivity cannot be better expressed than in its portrayal of Rohith as someone who, according to it, becomes “the instrument of punishment and the one who suffers or merits it—the victim.”

Sasheej Hegde has recently sought to evaluate what grounds there are for the social sciences to predicate an “eloquent death” such as the suicide of Rohith (“Rohith Vemula and ‘Us’: The Gift of a Life and Death,” EPW, 3 December 2016). Admitting that there could be hardly any, he suggests that the “gift” (Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies) may be a suitable metaphor for identifying where we stand vis-à-vis the death of Rohith. I would like to thank him for having opened the door into the chaos that exists amongst us for which this gift bears a testimony or witness. But, let me ask if it will not be long before such chaos is substituted with an immortality of some kind?

For, we have seldom run short of heroes, icons, deities or gods that represent the extremes of chaos, which we have designated as our culture, eventually to be forgotten altogether as real men or women who lived amidst us. This is the aporia in the gift of death, which Jacques Derrida himself alludes to while trying to explain it through abstraction: if death invokes immortality, then it is sure to be that of a god, and it is a well-known fact that all men try to become immortals and wish the death of gods.

This shared feeling amongst us is what disturbs us in the death of Rohith. Hegde has made it clear poignantly that it is not the work of mourning, of reason, of background socialities that will determine the meaning of his suicide.

Two thinkers throw light on the question of historicism of death, especially death as righteous citizens. Martin Heidegger says, “Where history is genuine it does not pass away by merely ceasing; it does not just stop living like the animals. History only dies historically.” As if in a continuation to this, Georges Bataille maintains that a death that escapes history also means chaos, to the point of revealing the absence of chaos, that of life itself that opens up to death.

To ask whether the victim should be the grounds on which victimhood is built, as Hegde does, is also to escape history and enter chaos, as much as to enter politics itself. This denial of the victim to be the instrument of one’s own punishment, then, remains also the point of a Dalit arrival at the doorsteps of a rite of mourning as a deconstruction of the heroic identification of death with politics. The unusually long rite of passage for Rohith’s mourning is due to its denial of victimhood, which augurs a politics beyond martyrdom and is, hence, unknown to the state of knowledge itself.

K V Cybil

NEW Delhi

Updated On : 29th Jul, 2017


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