HOWEVER democratic we may be, discrimination on the basis of caste system has not diminished. Every day, in some part or the other, there are instances of dalits being burnt alive. Only the other day Dadri, near Delhi, was the scene of a dalit family being consigned to fire. In the national capital itself, a JNU student hung himself because he could not stand the jibe of discrimination. The 28-year-old M.Phil student had dreamt of studying in JNU and was fortunate to get through on his fourth attempt. Hailing from the South, Muthukrishnan was reportedly a sober personality and generally kept to himself.
Surprisingly, there is very little impact on the society or, for that matter, in India. It was just an incident and forgotten. Instead, the country on the whole should have been shaken. Had this been the case of an upper caste student, there would have been many statements calling for attention notice in parliament. But there was not even a whisper in the present case. The media was equally guilty because it reported the incident only as a periphery to some other bigger stories. This only underlined that the media persons, generally belonging to the upper caste, have the same old mindset. The youth is supposed to be radical, but this was not the case. Obviously, the deceased student’s father and even some students believe that there was some foul play. The police was led to record FIR under relevant provisions because the police thought that it was a case of suicide. The parents have demanded a CBI inquiry. I don’t know how it would make the difference because the CBI would itself depend on the Delhi Police which is in the dog. A similar issue had cropped up when Rohith Vermula, a dalit research scholar from Hyderabad University, committed suicide last year. However, unlike in the JNU student’s death case, there was a big hue and cry and students took to streets and the agitation even led to the change of guard at university’s department.
Incidentally, Muthkrishnan had recalled Rohith’s death and condemned Hyderabad University’s alleged role in the dalit scholar’s suicide. The JNU student had a Facebook post in which he had criticized JNU’s new admission policy, obviously recounting several instances where he had to face discrimination. What do these incidents in varsities indicate? We need to apply our minds to address the problems that dalit students face in institutions of higher education. Not long ago, the Hyderabad University had to revoke the suspension of students after Rohith’s death. Indeed, his suicide had caused great shock and resulted in outrage, but similar sentiments were expressed when Senthil Kumar from Salem, another student from the University of Hyderabad, killed himself in 2008. Muthukrishnan, too, is from Salem in Tamil Nadu.
There have been over dozen cases of suicide by students, mostly dalits, in various institutions in Hyderabad between 2007 and 2013. In the north, besides two cases of suicide by dalit students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, 14 other cases of suicide by dalit students were reported between January 2007 and April 2011. It is almost as if we have become immune to these frequent instances of suicide mainly by dalit students. The student population on campuses of higher education has become increasingly diverse. According to 2008 data, of the total number of students in higher education in the country, four percent of them are Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 per cent Scheduled Castes and 35 per cent Other Backward Classes. Hindus alone accounted for about 85 per cent of students, followed by Muslims (8 per cent) and Christians (3pc). And yet, 23 out of 25 were of dalits!
There are several researches which indicate that experiences of discrimination, exclusion and humiliation are the predominant reasons. After analyzing some cases of suicide, the conclusion seems to be that there seems to be more than enough evidence to believe that caste discrimination played a significant role in driving these extraordinary individuals into committing suicide, and that elite professional institutions are the places where caste prejudice is so firmly entrenched that it has become normal. A study in 2010 by Professor Mary Thornton and others of five higher educational institutions in India and the United Kingdom observed that “separation of groups on the higher education campus is pervasive and ubiquitous. While some such separation may be for supportive reasons, at other times it is due to overt discrimination on the grounds of race, region, nationality, caste, class, religion, or gender”. In 2013, Samson Ovichegan, in a study on the experience of Dalits in an elite university in India, observed that “this university is yet another arena in which the practice of caste division continues to exist. The university environment reinforces and maintains a divide between dalit and non-dalit. Dalit students do, indeed, experience overt and covert discrimination based on caste at this premier university”. As much as we admit to the persistence of caste discrimination and stigmatization as a problem plaguing higher education campuses, there is also a constant denial or attributing suicides to incident-specific situations with total disregard for links with larger social milieu of exclusion. True, there are incident-specific reasons, but it cannot be a coincidence that out of 25 cases of suicide, 23 were of dalits. Thus, first thing for policymakers is to come out of denial mode.
No doubt, the situation may have improved. But the shame of caste system continues in one form or the other. Relations between the dalit students or, for that matter, with other students and teachers and administrators, have always been questioned. In my view, we need to takes steps to address the problems of dalit or other marginalized students. The only solution I can think of are the legal safeguards against discrimination, civic education, academic assistance to students who need support, and participation of dalits in all decision-making bodies of universities and colleges.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.