As an Indian, I am proud to say that my country is known for its beautiful diversity in religion, culture, language and food. People in India practise at least nine recognized religions. One of these religions and the most famous one practised by the majority is Hinduism. This religion is especially known for its division into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and their dharma (duty). This system is known as the caste system and it includes starting from the peak of the hierarchy the Brahmins (Priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), the Vaishyas (farmers, traders and merchants), the Shudras (labourers), and the Dalits /Untouchables (outcastes who are street sweepers and latrine cleaners). Dalits in India still face caste-based discrimination, although per law India abolished the untouchability.
This background knowledge about the caste system is essential for my non-philosophical stimulus. In my stimulus, a Dalit student who commits suicide leaves a suicide letter. In his letter, Rohith Vemula describes the flaws of his society. However, at the end, he gives the blame for his actions to himself. He writes that his birth was ”a fatal accident” and that ”he was becoming a monster”. In such a society, it is very difficult to find one’s identity. Is it the identity his religions imprinted on him his actual identity? Or is it something which changes with time and experience? With this follows the question, if identity can change? (What are the social consequences of a not changing identity? Can there be a liberation from one’s identity imposed by society? Why should someone care about personal identity?)
In order to answer these questions one must first see what is known under the word identity. The dictionary Merriam Webster offers some satisfactory definitions. Identity is the ”sameness of essential or generic character in different instances” or it is ”the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”. Now both examples imply on the oneness and the individuality of a person.
In the case of Rohith Vemula it seems as if his identity of being a Dalit is a fixed one. He identifies himself as a Dalit and thus he thinks that he does not belong to the ”real” world and blames his birth for all his problems1. But is the identity of one’s being part of a religion, a group, a caste one’s personal identity? What is in fact the personal identity?
Individualists focus on each individual and on an essence, that defines an individual’s unique identity. The first position an individualist would take on the personal identity is the physical criterion and its focus on the body. The obvious way in which we identify people in the first place is by their outer appearance or more specifically on the same body.
In the past, Dalits were identified as ”black”, unhygienic people. They were identified to some extent through their outer appearance. People in small villages knew who belonged to the lower caste and who did not. The body theory states that personal identity persists over time because you remain in the same body from birth to death. Philosophers who support the body theory states that we are our bodies. When a person’s identity is constructed through his body, it would mean in the case of a Dalit, that he would always be stuck in his body and thus conceived by the society as someone inferior to the great majority of this community. In this scenario, the community we live in plays a pivotal role. It fails the Dalit to create his own identity through his body, because all the while from his birth onwards he was prejudiced and discriminated through his body and thus his body will become a burden for him and with this burden also his personal identity.
1 Rohith Vemula suicide note ; http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/dalit-student-suicide-full-text-of-suicide-letter-hyderabad/