Anitha: A Crack in the Gospel of Manu
"Suicides are mostly a product of a mental state and is largely personal"
September 9, 2017
“What if Vemula, like almost all of us, including Dalits, was a person who would not take his life just because the world has been unfair?”
-Manu Joseph, Journalist.
On 17th January 2016, HCU mourned the loss of an activist and a scholar. Around the same time thousands of students gathered to protest his death in the absence of any active call for mobilisation. The power of this strength gave rise to huge debates on television and even the Delhi-centric nationalist media had to finally direct their lens southwards. That same day, Manu Joseph’s piece (excerpt quoted above) appeared on Hindustan Times and I unfollowed his Facebook page.
An act of unfollowing such as this isn’t going to create a ripple in the large fan base that Manu Joseph has achieved over the years. He is after all a “great” writer that the average English speaking Indian follows to show their mark of intelligence around drawing room discussions. He is also known to be politically “objective” and hence, both sides of the spectrum adore him, when they find him stating the gospel of truth every now and then. But, Joseph is all of that an example of caste privilege.
Seventeen-year-old Anitha, dalit and daughter of a labourer lived in a small village called Kuzhummur in Tamil Nadu. Except for one earning member in her family, Anitha and her four other siblings had nobody else to rely on. She had no “circles or networks” that could guide her, nor did she have any access to resources where she would be automatically in touch with someone who could mentor her. She learned what she could from a regional government school and in halting English, she explained how this lack of privilege was denying her a seat in a medical college. Contrast this with Manu Joseph’s reminiscence of his 17-year-old self. In his own words, Joseph hails from Kerala, a 100 percent literate state with soaring HDI and has English-speaking parents. He laments how he found it tough to speak in Malayalam (his mother tongue) at an early age and how he began thinking entirely in English when he was 17.
In his recent piece, Joseph tries hard to sell the idea that suicides are mostly a product of a mental state and is largely personal. He believes that the notion that socio-economic factors can lead to a suicide is a dangerous one; one that is largely similar to the Blue Whale Challenge. In other words, the battle that the 17- year-old Anitha led to protect her family, her community and her future was a result of her succumbing to the “cartel” and the “melodramatic media” which encouraged her to take up the Challenge. Imagine telling this to her parents who rejected the 7 lakhs that came their way in spite of their poor economic situation. Imagine telling them what Joseph told Kanhaiya Kumar that they should not have let their daughter dream but should have sent her to work at the earliest if they were so poor and needy.
Most Indians (read upper caste and liberal) are reluctant to accept the blame that they are the oppressors. In spite of glaring gaps in caste, class and cultural capital, it is this section of the population that finds it difficult to process the death of Anitha and Vemula and so many others. So they conveniently start framing pleasing narratives: Poverty does not result in farmer suicides, Rohith Vemula was only depressed and not oppressed. This level of caste blindness then percolates into their understanding of reservations: “Why should they get benefits?” “But, caste disappeared a hundred years ago, right?” And yet, they find themselves in the company of upper-caste friends, English-speaking writers and brahmin or upper caste partners. They turn a blind eye when they see wedding sites catering to aristocratic communities; caste no bar but no SC/ST.
With a slight smile, Anitha bravely stood before a camera and launched a fight against a system that never let anyone from their community fight an equal battle. She took the less-trodden route and decided not to settle. But a century old practice that oppressed her family and her forefathers broke her spirit. "That unfair system" led to her suicide. Not “just” depression.
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