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Notes on Rohith Vemula’s Suicide

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1. “It takes a loud voice to make the deaf hear, with these immortal words uttered on a similar occasion by Vaillant, a French anarchist martyr, do we strongly justify this action of ours.” These were the opening words of the leaflets that Bhagat Singh and Batukeshwar Dutt threw after bombing the Central Legislative Assembly in New Delhi on April 8, 1929. By the massive reaction across India to the suicide committed by Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student at the Hyderabad Central University, it is not an exaggeration to say that this action of his was justified – as a loud voice or explosion that we all heard. If murder is justified as a politico-legal act (in case of executions, as legal murders), why not self-murder? It is ethically far superior or noble too as it is directed towards oneself – as a samadhi, both in brahminical and anti-brahminical traditions.

2. One might say that the revolutionary terrorism of Bhagat Singh challenged the state, by openly defying its laws. One might further admit that in revolutionary terrorism, the nobility of the cause is objective and evident. Revolutionaries are distant to their acts and their effects, which are fully under their command. It is for the emancipation of humanity, workers or nations that the revolutionary terrorists live and die – a mark of extreme selflessness. They standout among the masses, they are heroes whom we all look up to – kind of supermen. If they are democratic and responsive to people, it is their humility, which further adds to their stature.

But suicide? How can it be revolutionary? It is an act of extreme selfishness and cowardliness. It is this belief that shows up slyly even in the massive pro-Dalit and Dalit responses to Rohith’s suicide, even in their bid to disprove it. Of course, they will not call this act selfish or cowardly. They will explain it to disprove all this, but ultimately the paradigm to demonstrate its something else-ness is same, whether you sanctify it as a kind of protest, in which you must add, suicide when nothing else works or call it an “institutional murder”, or a desperate act of a depressed individual. Rohith must be either a victim (of the system or of groups/individuals) or depressed or even, at least for the status quoist forces, a desperado.

3. Marx had published a peculiar write up in 1846 on suicide, which is not much studied. Till recently it was thought to be merely a translation of a French police administrator, Jacques Peuchet’s work on suicide cases. The fact that why on earth Marx translated a piece on suicide too was not touched upon. It was its retranslation in English, its comparison with the original one by Peuchet along with short studies by Kevin Anderson and Eric A Plaut revealed the importance of the text. Marx’s omissions, commissions and editorialisation in his translation transformed it into a very significant text where Marx directly deals with women’s issues, bourgeois family and a generalised system of alienation. He twisted the text which was already very graphic and condemning with his powerful unattributed insertions. One of them is:

“Those who are most cowardly, who are least capable of resistance themselves, become unyielding as soon as they can exert absolute parental authority. The abuse of that authority also serves as a cruel substitute for all of the submissiveness and dependency people in bourgeois society acquiesce in, willing or unwillingly.”

What Marx does in the text is to show how cowardliness and impotence of people in authority and power lie in their inability to make sense of suicide. Marx thus translates Peuchet:

“What characterises courage, when one, designated as courageous, confronts death in the light of day on the battlefield, under the sway of mass excitement, is not necessarily lost, when one kills oneself in dark solitude. One does not resolve such a difficult issue by insulting the dead.”

Marx pushes the argument further by inserting:

“One condemns suicide with foregone conclusions. But, the very existence of suicide is an open protest against these unsophisticated conclusions.”

4. At least the state, as the collectivity of ruling interests, is well aware of the lethality of the self-afflicted terror, suicide. It knows how this act is a powerful means of undermining it. That’s the reason, suicide is a crime. Foucault succinctly put, suicide was a crime “since it was a way to usurp the power of death which the sovereign alone, whether the one here below or the Lord above, had the right to exercise.” He proclaims, “This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life.”

5. An act is not just its grammar, it is a performance – when, where, who, before/against whom etc all characterise it. Hence, the divide between revolutionary and reactionary acts. A “revolutionary suicide” is an act enmeshed in politics of experience, like any self-murder. It is a response grounded in the personal self-full experience of the perpetrator. It is devoid of the nobility and selflessness of a declassed revolutionary or a self-flagellating noble liberal, volunteering to think about them who can’t think for themselves. Only a black revolutionary could have conceptualised this concept, and a Dalit can very well understand it. When “bereft of self-respect, immobilized by fear and despair, [an individual] sinks into self-murder”, it is, according to Huey Newton, “reactionary suicide.” On the other hand, revolutionary suicide is not a result of “a death wish”, therefore, it is a suicide which is not even suicidal. “We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” The desire is so strong that we seek to satisfy it “even at the risk of death” – “it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them.”


6. Pitting knowledge and reason against experience constitutes what can be called an arrogance of determinism and abstraction. It is immaterial if scholars are aware of this or not. Until and unless this abstraction is re-derived from experience, that is until this duality is resolved in the dialectic of practice, it will have an affinity to the brahminical Cartesian prioritisation of abstracted science. This is where many theorisations and historicisation of oppressed identities fail them. In their attempt to explain the experience of caste and race in terms of its determinations, many times they simply write off the question of the reproduction of the caste system or identitarian hierarchy in everydayness – how it is reproduced in social practice, where, let’s admit, it is nothing short of a conspiracy.


Written by Pratyush Chandra

February 19, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Yakub Memon’s Impending Execution in the Light of a Passage from Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’ Read through a Marxist Prism

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“The public execution did not re-establish justice, it reactivated power. In the seventeenth century, and even in the early eighteenth century, it was not, therefore, with all its theatre of terror, a lingering hang-over from an earlier age. Its ruthlessness, its spectacle, its physical violence, its unbalanced play of forces, its meticulous ceremonial, its entire apparatus were inscribed in the political functioning of the penal system.”
–Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Yakub Memon’s execution will, therefore, be no aberration of our penal system. It will be an exception that is meant precisely to enable the reproduction, through confirmation, of the norm of everydayness of terror that is modernity, and capital. Albeit one that now openly displays its irrational, exceptional and coercive kernel, thanks to this being its historically concrete moment of crisis.

This phenomenon is, therefore, nothing but the norm as an unconcealed and unconcealable neurotic symptom: the norm itself as the demonstration of the crisis of normativity and normalisation. As a result, it now comes across even in its appearance as the entirely arbitrary political functionality that founds, underpins and animates the economy/rationality of the modern penal system.

Hence, let not our outrage — that is produced by the scale and magnitude of the phenomenon at hand — blind us to that. For, that would also blind us to the reformist purport of liberal politics that lies at the heart of such outrage. Instead, let us temper that outrage into a steely resolve to exceed and abolish capital and the modern state — which is nothing but the grammar of capitalist social relations, or the qualitatively equalising and thus distributionist value-relation to be precise, in its institutional congealment. After all, it’s precisely this distributionist dimension of the law of value that, as far as the modern state in its liberal-democratic Indian specificity is concerned, is the objective material basis of the ideological dominance of, among other things, Islamophobia. The ideology that evidently informs the dogged pursuit of capital punishment for somebody such as Yakub Memon.

In other words, let the cry for the abolition of death penalty, which has been sparked off by Yakub Memon’s imminent execution, not remain a weak human rights-based reactive demand placed on the Indian state. Let us strive, instead, to transform that cry into a strong call for constructing a concretely collective political project that seeks, in the here and now, to determinately abolish the state. For, the modern state in being the embodiment and operationalisation of the rule of law is genetically programmed to do precisely that which it currently seeks to accomplish in the specificity of its Indian incarnation: reinforce its monopoly over violence by re-establishing the slave-morality of ressentiment (revenge) as justice.

This is, clearly, a juridico-legal morality that is, therefore, an inseparable and integral ideological dimension of the capitalist social formation constitutive of the structure of mutual competition for domination, and its reproduction. To not grasp that and to insist on envisaging the abolition of death penalty as a human rights-based demand amounts to a blundering failure to recognise that the Benjaminian “divine” or “law-unraveling violence” rests in an embryonic form within this cry for the abolition of death penalty. And to not recognise that is to already repress that potential and distort it into “lawmaking violence”, which faces off “law-preserving violence” of the state merely as its constitutive antithesis. Not for nothing does such human rights-based ‘politics’ presuppose the conceptual and thus concrete validity of the modern state — and the juridico-legal social formation of which such a state is both an effect and reinforcing cause — that it ‘confronts’ with its politics of demand. In the ultimate analysis, such politics ends up, not surprisingly, reinforcing and reproducing the condition of possibility of precisely those enormities it claims to want to eliminate.

So, let’s not allow our outrage to be a cathartic expenditure and exhaustion of politics. Rather, let it simmer like a slow fire over which we forge the concrete strategy of how (our) red ‘terror’ can emerge with full antagonistic force against the epochal social power that orientates and articulates the continuous norming and normalisation of (their) white terror.

The essence of what one has articulated here in a hurriedly clumsy manner is put forth with elegance and aphoristic precision by Walter Benjamin in the last two sentences of his VIII thesis on philosophy of history: “The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

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