Secular Humanism

Depression FROM Oppression – A response to Manu Joseph

Ambedkar Students' Association leaders, including Rohith Vemula (pictured with Ambedkar's photograph) leaving the hostel after being rusticated.

Ambedkar Students’ Association leaders, including Rohith Vemula (pictured with Ambedkar’s photograph) leaving the hostel after being rusticated.

Numerous attempts have been made by people to derail the actual reasons of Rohith Vemula’s suicide and a recent article by Manu Joseph published in the Hindustan Times is deceptive on a whole new level. Although, the author has claimed his views as personal expression, the notion still needs to be debunked not just because it can be but also because a lot of people tend to overlook the veracity. The first flaw can be easily noticed in the title itself. As the title goes “Oppression or Depression”, the author has tried to draw a fine line between the terms ‘oppression’ and ‘depression’ ignoring the fact that both concepts actually sustain a cause-effect relationship.

CW: Discussion about Suicide

People tend to understand a suicide by ascribing reasons. Usually, they tend to give an inordinate importance to the suicide note. The living are seldom believed when they explain themselves, but the dying are in their final hour.

The reason people, including forensic experts and psychologists take suicide notes to their utmost significance is because of its psychological credibility and truthfulness. Suicide notes provide information about the psychopathology of the suicide victim and there are a number of researches to support that. The presence of a suicide note is itself a blunt indication of the person’s emotional openness and mental state. Statements like “The living are seldom believed when…” sound wise and cocky but it doesn’t take much to understand that the living and ruling also possess the capability to counterfeit everything and anything, verbally and nonverbally.

But Vemula’s final letter has been ignored by those who are most moved by his death. In the note, the young man, who was not known to restrain his words, took pains to absolve everyone but himself for his action. As a result, his well-wishers had to find other reasons, reasons that make sense to them, powerful reasons, for his death. As Vemula had written in his final note, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity.

The author quite naively tried to implant a seed of doubt when he presented Rohith’s friends, family and people who have known him for a long time, (some of whom are Dalit and are fully aware of their give and takes with this society) wrong and emotionally compromised by not being able to recognize his depression despite the fact that dalits are identified under the term ‘depressed classes’ for a reason. Quoting from Ratna. G. Revankar’s book, The Indian Constitution – Case Study of Backward Classes:

The terms coined by several committees to denote “scheduled castes” were:- “Depressed Classes,” “Exterior Classes”, “Excluded Castes” and “Backward Classes.

The term ‘depressed’ was intentionally used to relate Dalits with the series of jobs they were entitled to commit to, which as we know are considered utterly grim and insanitary by the society. I don’t think, in times like these there is still a need to explain why the suppressed ones and the oppressed ones are often the depressed ones.

A few months ago, when Deepika Padukone had revealed that she suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies, there appeared to be a consensus in the refined society that it was time we gave depression the respect of a severe disease and not the contempt we have for a character flaw. Can we extend the consideration to Vemula?

Yes, but could anyone go one more step further to recognize the origin of his depression? His loved ones have, but have you? There is no denying in the fact that clinical depression does not get the attention it needs in a society desecrated with stigma but it is worth to note that like every suicide has a cause, every depression has a cause or a source too. Depression doesn’t transpire suddenly in an individual it’s a gradual process and can always be attributed to a certain problem – be it, illness, family, money or abuse. When Ambedkar used the term “depressed classes” interchangeably with “dalits” in his book ‘Annihilation of Caste’, he developed a context of the oppressed minorities being the most despondent ones.

The author then indicated a little agreement when he wrote-

What if the reason for his death was a bit of both — what if he was depressed, and he was pushed to take the extreme step by the cultural cartel?

..And then he went on

But then the fact that thousands like him who face far worse do not end their lives, points to one dominant influence

The very paper this article is published in has another news article capturing the current events which reads the following –

Members of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA) claim that as many as 12 students belonging to scheduled castes have ended their lives since the central university came into existence in the early 1970s, largely due to caste prejudices that many say are omnipresent.

How many more deaths, beatings, harassments and discriminations of dalits would it take to qualify for the reason of dalit suicides being nothing but the caste system itself or in the author’s words, the “cultural cartel”. According to a report by the American foundation of suicide prevention, Over 50 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from major depression, but this doesn’t give one the right to exhibit the other 50% as some sort of a lesson. Depression is exclusive to a particular individual and is triggered by various aspects of that individual’s life.

Well-meaning activists who push the theory that Vemula killed himself because of discrimination convey the lethal message to thousands of clinically depressed young men and women in India that there is a sensible reason to end their lives. Such a transmission occurred in the hypothesis of ‘farmer suicides’, too.

I’ll say it again. How much does it take to ask the question “Why?”

The “lethal” message is not a suggestion the activists are making but a horrifying consequence which is out in the open for everyone to form their own opinions about. The sad part is only a handful of them use reason and logic to make it. A farmer commits suicide not because his fellow farmer did but because he is succumbed into depression and stress by the unpaid debts throwing him in the vicious circle of poverty. Suicide Ideation is not a choice by imitation but an outcome of the oppression. The “message” cannot be stopped; the cause very much needs to be.

Poverty then is a factor, not a cause. Farmer suicide is a depression story, not an economics story. Tibetan monks who immolate themselves in protest against China are a depression story, not a political story. Suicide bombers are a depression story, not a radical-Islam story. Rohith Vemula, from all evidence in plain sight, is a depression story, not a Dalit story.

Why don’t we let social science answer this?

David Émile Durkheim was a French sociologist, social psychologist and philosopher, who along with Karl Marx and Max Webber, is considered one of the prime architects of modern social science. In his book ‘Suicide’ (1987) he postulated four sub-types of suicide which categorizes various reasons that lead people to commit the act of killing themselves. The death of Rohith and other such people fall under the term ‘Fatalistic suicide’ which clearly means a suicide that occurs when a person is excessively regulated, when their futures are pitilessly blocked and passions violently choked by oppressive discipline. Fatalistic suicide served as a descriptor for suicides in traditional societies, because Durkheim was faced with the issue that even in societies with abundant social capital, individuals nevertheless killed themselves. In a similar way, the intentions of the Tibetan monks and the suicide bombers fall under the sub-type, ‘Altruistic suicide’- characterized by a sense of being overwhelmed by a group’s goals and beliefs. Durkheim’s theory of fatalistic suicide was supported by a research conducted at the Wayne State University which resulted in a strong correlation between oppression by a sense of totalitarianism and political overregulation and the rate of suicides.

One doesn’t need an in-depth knowledge of psychology to understand how indoctrination assists caste-abuse. It starts right from the moment when an upper caste-born child observes his elder advising him not to touch the cleaner while handing him the trash. Caste system is a brutal reality that needs to be confronted and not to be daubed with derailment. The article was nothing but a self-righteous admonishing of those who are braving against all odds to secure justice for Rohith and for the many Dalit and Bahujan students who have had to suffer institutional violence, emanating from a heady sense of entitlement that his caste affords. But what is more disconcerting is the fact that he is propped as a left-liberal of some sort, giving his article the unwarranted credibility.

About the author

Prateek

4 Comments

  • Dear Prateek,

    I know that this article is an old one, so I hope that you see my comment. As someone who has been both depressed and suicidal, I want to first thank you for taking on Manu Joseph’s ill-informed article. It is always a problem when people who are not trained in psychiatry make psychiatric diagnoses. I have read a lot about the politics of mental health diagnoses, and it is absolutely problematic when Manu Joseph simply says that Tibetan suicides, farmer suicides, etc. are all because of poor mental health and that what they need is psychiatric treatment, not freedom from the problems in their lives. I particularly admired your use of Durkheim, whom I have not read, to show how complex the issue of suicide is.

    I had two disagreements. The first point I wanted to make is that in using the term “depressed classes,” Ambedkar was not making a mental health diagnosis. What we call “depression” was known as “melancholy” in Ambedkar’s time, and had Ambedkar wanted to make a point about mental health, he would have used that term. In general, “depressed” simply means “forced down,” as any dictionary will clarify. It is telling that “depressed” in this meaning is almost cognate with the Marathi term “Dalit.” We still use “depressed” in this sense. Think of the Great Depression, an event that occurred around the time of the publication of “Annihilation of Caste,” which was talking about the depression of the global economy. In the case of depression as a mental health diagnosis, we are talking about a depressed mood.

    The second point I wanted to make is that your assertion that “like every suicide has a cause, every depression has a cause or a source too. Depression… can always be attributed to a certain problem – be it, illness, family, money or abuse” is not true. This idea that depression must have a discernible cause is associated with poor mental health outcomes and is why I was treated in the United States, not in India. There are people who by every external measure are having an excellent life yet who are seriously depressed. The current medical model for the “cause” of this depression is not life events like illness, money, or abuse, but rather, low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitter levels in synapses are often affected by life events like you describe, yet sometimes, occur for reasons that have nothing to do with bad life events. Any assertion to the contrary de-medicalizes depression and increases the stigma associated with it.

    Hope you are able to reply to my comment.

  • Dear Prateek,

    I know that this article is an old one, so I hope that you see my comment. As someone who has been both depressed and suicidal, I want to first thank you for taking on Manu Joseph’s ill-informed article. It is always a problem when people who are not trained in psychiatry make psychiatric diagnoses. I have read a lot about the politics of mental health diagnoses, and it is absolutely problematic when Manu Joseph simply says that Tibetan suicides, farmer suicides, etc. are all because of poor mental health and that what they need is psychiatric treatment, not freedom from the problems in their lives. I particularly admired your use of Durkheim, whom I have not read, to show how complex the issue of suicide is.

    I had two disagreements. The first point I wanted to make is that in using the term “depressed classes,” Ambedkar was not making a mental health diagnosis. What we call “depression” was known as “melancholy” in Ambedkar’s time, and had Ambedkar wanted to make a point about mental health, he would have used that term. In general, “depressed” simply means “forced down,” as any dictionary will clarify. It is telling that “depressed” in this meaning is almost cognate with the Marathi term “Dalit.” We still use “depressed” in this sense. Think of the Great Depression, an event that occurred around the time of the publication of “Annihilation of Caste,” which was talking about the depression of the global economy. In the case of depression as a mental health diagnosis, we are talking about a depressed mood.

    The second point I wanted to make is that your assertion that “like every suicide has a cause, every depression has a cause or a source too. Depression… can always be attributed to a certain problem – be it, illness, family, money or abuse” is not true. This idea that depression must have a discernible cause is associated with poor mental health outcomes and is why I was treated in the United States, not in India. There are people who by every external measure are having an excellent life yet who are seriously depressed. The current medical model for the “cause” of this depression is not life events like illness, money, or abuse, but rather, low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Neurotransmitter levels in synapses are often affected by life events like you describe, yet sometimes, occur for reasons that have nothing to do with bad life events. Any assertion to the contrary de-medicalises depression and increases the stigma associated with it.

    Hope you are able to reply to my comment.

  • I have realized after a lot of thinking that Nirmukta is caught in a trap! It actually intended to fly free. But, it will never fly! Forget flying, it won’t even take off!

    None of your works are either bringing about a welfare in the society or attempting to transform the human beings into better individuals. You are a bunch of one another pseudo-intellectuals who have neither developed a command over science nor mathematics. None of you here are probably even eligible to talk on ideas like astrology, astrophysics or astronomy.

    Further, your understanding of ancient Indian scriptures is superficial. Your depth of knowledge in terms of history of science is zero. Zero is actually valuable! I don’t know which word suits better to explain your cynicism and ignorance!

    SHALLOW COMMUNITY!

    Well, I hurled all these shallow and lengthy abuses to just give you an idea as to how your articles are! Most of the authors here are suffering from verbal diarrhoea. Pile up words and convey nothing! LOL!

    If at all you are rich with your intellectual capacities, you disprove point by point the discussions between C. K. Raju and Claude Alvares. It is available on YouTube in 4 parts.

    “C. K. Raju interviewed by Claude Alvares”

    Forget disproving them, you guys as a community probably will not even understand what is happening there!

    Change your attitude, guys! If you wanna bring about a change in the society, work on causes like deaddiction, improving the mental health of the youngsters, enriching the productive emotions of the humanity!

    Alas, for a group of people filled with poison of cynicism and skepticism, you guys will neither prosper nor let anyone else evolve!

    Mark my words, “beginning of the death of Nirmukta has begun.” It is just a matter of time 🙂

  • Are Dalit students really facing discrimination due to their caste in Indian campuses? How any one knows one’s caste? I rather would say Brahmin students might be facing discrimination in Indian campuses due to vegetarianism, general meak behavior, Hindu religiosity , not organized etc. Again aren’t so called dalits oppressed by OBCs? because I think as far as Brahmins are concerned there should not be any difference between a dalit and an OBC or a non Hindu? Why always Brahmins, vedas, Sanskrit and Hinduism is attacked when some atrocities happen against Dalits?

    Ambedkar was a great visionary and a nationalist . But If dalits start a campaign to impose their neo ambedkarite anti Hindu ideology on others that may not work well especially in this age when Hinduisation of OBCs is happening. The failure of such organisations the reason behind Rohit’s suicide?

    I mean dalits should not commit the same mistakes others did to Dalits. Hinduism is not responsible for their plight. The four varnas split to innumerable castes and system became well deep rooted. Dalit organisations should empower them, but attacking the single largest contributor in our unity within diversity must not be attacked. That approach will further alienate the community

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