The subaltern speaks at the cost of life: Rohit and Fathima pay a price too high

Rohit Vemula and Fathima Latif

By Sanjida Parveen 

“My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past. 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.” were the last words by the promising scholar, Rohit Vemula. “I never realised that I would miss my home so much. I abhor this place. How I yearn for my home, to be suspended in that delicious inertia like an interminable sleep from which I can never be aroused.” were the last words by Fathima before taking the drastic step. There seems to be an uncanny resemblance in the last words by the pupils of two reputed institutions which resonate the Kafkaesque alienation both underwent. Though placed in seemingly different circumstances both were passengers of the same flight without a terminal. They felt misplaced in the institutionalised majoritarian discourse. With almost no one to empathise with them, they felt it difficult to unburden their pathos and choose a path of seclusion and obscurity only to be remembered by posterity.


It’s easier for one to consent and conform to the dominant ideology but to dissent needs a lot of guts. Failure of either brings catastrophic consequences way beyond imagination. In the age of social paranoia, people seek panacea in the virtual world supposing to have a complete cure but in vain. Suicides are one such alternative preferred by young minds to deal with hurdles. The question now of what to consent and what to dissent is imminent. How difficult is it for those belonging to the marginalised sections facing threats of annihilation to resist and dissent to a dominant ideology? What compels them to take drastic steps? Othering and caste-based discrimination have become a regular affair on all fronts of society. History bears testimony to the ways in which the marginalised have been kept away from basic facilities especially education, employment and socio-political participation. Had it not been for some of the framers of the constitution, having access to education would have been a wild goose chase for many. Even after 75 years of Independence people have not been able to overcome the social evils. So, instead of fighting them the condition of minorities and the marginalised have aggravated with every passing day and the present government have only been an added impetus.

Who are they?

Fathima, 19 a resident of Kerala was pursuing an integrated Masters in humanities from the department of Philosophy from one of the most prestigious institutions of India, IIT Madras. On the other hand, Rohit Vemula, 26 a PhD scholar of Social Sciences at University of Hyderabad sustained himself on a monthly scholarship of 25,000 (Indian Rupees) entitled to JRF awardees. The trajectory of their career has not been a cakewalk and they have secured a position they deserve. Brushing aside all the casteist and religious discrimination they had gathered enough courage to move out their zones to seek a space of equality in the so-called secular domains. Nevertheless, to utter dismay they have struggled in vain being unable to reach their ultimate destinations. Having said so this must also be kept in mind these are not the first stories of death on campus.

Almost everywhere there have been attempts of hushing up their murder as a suicide owing to the inability to compromise with situations. But this strikes much deeper a chord than it is evident. Fathima was known to be a brilliant student who was one of the class toppers. What would then have compelled her to take her life? “Just faring a little below one’s expectations isn’t tempting enough for an otherwise good student to take her own life,” says Bibin Thomas a research scholar at NIT, Calicut, Kerala. Whereas in the case of Rohit depriving him socially and economically of what he deserved, deprived him of his social being, robbing him of his individuality and self-esteem.

Rohit and Fathima are not just single entities but the face of the communities seeking empowerment through education. Abdul Latheef, father of the deceased recounts “She was academically blessed child, one in a thousand, lakhs,” unable to surmount the irrevocable loss.  Rohit also belonged to the cream of talent, his grit and zeal to overcome the wrongs done to him by the society being his only resource.

Where do they stand?

It has almost always been observed that the minorities and marginalised have lagged behind and the GER (gross enrolment rate) bears testimony to it. Having access to higher education and availing higher education is the dream of almost all subaltern groups as a means to empower themselves. Those availing higher education or aiming for it is considered to be deviant of the stereotyped mass by the majoritarian sect. They come a long way leaving home and family to prove their worth on the basis of their intellectual mettle. They seek inspiration in all possible ways especially teachers and seniors expecting to emerge out victorious with flying colours. They have to extraordinarily excel in all ways to prove their worth and deem fit to have received the opportunity of an education. Any form of othering or criticism hurts their self-esteem making them inert. Thus, questions like “Are you a Muslim? You are not like the typical ones. Do you belong to SC/ST category? What is the point in getting an education when you are meant for menial jobs?” actually dissociate those yearning to build their identity on the basis of their worth. These questions and remarks signify the kind of othering and segregation rampant in a secular country like India. Journalist and social worker Firoz Hossain from Kolkata very well tries to capture the psychological impact such words have upon students “They feel it’s better to remain enclosed in a cocoon, unsafe and vulnerable out of it”. The multiple levels of deprivation that builds up in the mind create hindrance to progress.  Despite several attempts of forming inclusive policies to uplift the socially marginalised, results are noticeably contrary to expectations. Such incidences of social ostracising ameliorate the situation and every attempt at encouraging upliftment falls flat.

What went amiss

The outcome is what is generally taken into consideration and the processes behind them are overlooked. So, one should be hovering not upon Fathima’s losing a couple of marks and but what might be behind those few marks. Whether she was eligible for it and if she was eligible why was she denied of it and if she was deprived why was she rewarded with those marks again after a scuffle? For the sake of argument, one might also hint at some kind of personal grudges catapulting to the initial denial. A probability of life becoming more difficult becomes quite imminent had she been alive. A discussion with regard to this has been taking place in academic circles that are trying to point out the systematic othering that is happening which is not very evident and those culpable can very easily get away with it. In case of such othering, the victim feels the pain, which is difficult to empathise with. Rather when the victim finds oneself entangled in such kind of nuanced othering through dialogues, he becomes very sceptical of his very existence. He doubts the possibility of an exit from the vicious interminable circle.

Many put the entire blame on a person or two for their abetment suicide but has overlooked the fact that society didn’t provide them with a companion to confide in. The othering is so rampant that it has been internalised to among peers and fellows. The management authorities have also come up with weird way-outs to eradicate chances of committing suicide such as installing fans that would automatically come out with a certain weight. Rumours such as students weighing below 40 kgs would not be permitted admission into IITs are doing rounds. So, time again there have been ways to beat about the bush but confronting the issues head-on seems a tough game. These institutional deaths have been likened to any other suicides happening across the country especially those happening with medical aspirants unable to cope up with pressure from parents to secure a seat in medical colleges. But likening those cases to the present two would be trivialising the gravity of menace that lurks behind such incidences.

Can the subaltern speak?

The Vemula suicide stirred up nationalist movement where many secular faces came out in support of him but the same has not been noticed in case of Fathima. In both cases, it has been noticed that there are similar trends of victimisation of those living in the periphery by the ones living in the centre. When a person is socially ostracised with really no one to consider things rationally with no scopes of bettering situation, giving up seems the easiest possible way. When individuals representing communities are targeted time and again and manhandled by the dominant folks what is the future of the marginalised and their endeavours of being empowered?  Rohith and Fathima spoke for themselves but there are many more who cannot muster courage enough to speak for themselves. Speaking for oneself is the need of the hour but not possibly in the way they did. Could they have taken some other road? Although, the reluctance to give in to the institutional hegemony ended in a complete fiasco there can there be an end to it? Give them a chance and an ear and the subaltern will speak for themselves, self-sufficiently.


The author is a Research Scholar , Department of English at Aligarh Muslim University.


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