One of the reactions to Rohith Vemula's suicide and the suicide of three medical students in Tamil Nadu, E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha – is that these people have "psychological problems." BJP General Secretary Muralidhar Rao said as much about Vemula.
(Though all three are from marginalised, economically poor and oppressed backgrounds, the fact that there is no large-scale outrage over the girls' suicides shows the gendered nature of our culture.)
This assumes that there are people without any psychological problems and that Rao is one of them. Rao, the national psychologist, goes on to deem Vemula's anti-nationalism as indication of his "psychological problems."
So to be anti-national is a psychological problem.
This shows the utterly deranged thinking of the party in power, showing the unfathomable extent of their own psychological problems. But this reaction is also shared by people potentially sympathetic to Vemula or E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha.
Suicide, to these people, is an act of cowardice. One has to stick around and fight is the argument made. Only the foolish kill themselves. This is indicative of another psychological problem in our culture, which is one of denial.
The idea that one must not have any negative feelings, moments of doubt, depression, sadness, that one must be constantly fighting. This problem constructs suicide in the sterile binary of bravery vs. cowardice. And we are asked to live in a perpetual mode of bravery.
None of this is to romanticise suicide or to deny the fact that Rohith Vemula's death and the deaths of E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha are terrible losses to us all. It is rather to ask the question about what pushes people to suicide and to address those structural and subjectivity-based problems. It is also to address the question of mental health and how we might create conditions that enable people to deal with and contest structural and inter-personal violence.
To address both these issues, we first need to get rid of the sick bravado of the Muralidhar Raos of the world. Instead, we have to admit that all of us have psychological problems and that some of these are enabling.
Rohith's problem with nationalism was the healthiest thing about him. His attending a protest meeting on Yakub Memon was a psychologically humane response to the brutal madness of the death penalty and a death-obsessed state. There is no need to be apologetic about it or claim (as some of his supporters have done) that his presence at that meeting was not about support for Yakub Memon but about an amendment in the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
In either case, it was against death penalty and that includes being against the death penalty handed to Yakub Memon.
We also have to embrace the idea of the pain and suffering some of our problems cause us. E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha could not deal with the pain and harassment meted out to them by the Principal of the SVS Yoga Medical College. Rohith Vemula could not deal with the pain and harassment he was facing from the Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad.
Instead of having recourse to a community which shared and understood that pain, the culture that calls people who cannot deal with their pain 'cowards' pushed them to suicide.
To have a psychological problem is not a problem at all. We all have them. It is the nature of the problem and what we do about it that matters.
The BJP wants us to pretend that we have no problems through a total and unquestioning identification with their nationalist project. For many of us, this identification is the problem and we refuse, like Rohith did, to embrace that identification. The University, like the state, also wants us to totally identify with it, no matter what it does to us. E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha refused that identification as it was a problem to them.
Nationalism and its apparatuses, which include Universities, have no psyches. They refuse to acknowledge contradiction, pain, suffering and misery. And they want us to pretend we have no psyches too. These suicides remind us that we do have psyches and the cost of pretending we do not is too high to pay, impossible to bear.
We must embrace our psychological problems, we must love our psychological problems. And we must create communities which will allow Rohith Vemula, E. Saranya, V. Priyanka and T. Monisha to continue to actually live and struggle with those problems and not just be alive in our memories.
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Ashley Tellis is an Associate Professor in Gender, Writing and Research at IMHST, BALM, Chennai