Recently, the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad sparked outrage among Dalit teachers and students, and shocked academics in foreign universities. The latter published a letter in the Indian press following the note addressed to them by the student in which he expressed his belief in universal values. Rohith Vemula’s suicide is just one among a series of suicides committed by Dalit students over the last decade. Caste awareness among the younger generation is said to surface at university level where elite-caste students and non-Dalit professors resent the reservation quota system which has increasingly brought the oppressed castes into the mainstream higher educational institutions. The causes of suicide are: harassment, blatant discrimination and intolerable injustice.
In the recent case, the young man protested with five fellow Dalit students in Dr Ambedkar University in Hyderabad against the hanging of Yakub Menon. They were suspended from the courses and expelled from the hostels. Such protests were staged by other groups across the country but no radical measures were taken against them. Rohith Vemula was a meritorious bright student who got a PhD seat in the general category; he was not a beneficiary of reservation.
After expulsion, Rohith and his friends had to sleep like dogs in the open for fourteen days, and not a single member of the university administration came to see them. His monthly scholarship money had been on hold since July 2015. Expulsion was ordered by two ministers including Education Minister, Smriti Irani, and his government grant removed. Hailing from a deprived background, he had no means to face the situation. Rohith and his friends were forbidden from entering the administration building and interacting freely with the faculty. After the suicide, 20 members of the faculty resigned. Dalit students underwent protests across universities in Mumbai, Pune, Delhi and Chennai asking for the resignation of the Education Minister.
Earlier, tension was brewing between two student union groups with opposed political inclinations. Growing government interference is blamed for the deteriorating relations between university officials and students. The human rights secretary criticized the university’s committee’s decision to suspend the students instead of counselling them and handling the matter internally. The government is said to behave as if it has the right to control universities because it funds them.
In his suicide note, the student expresses concern that universities cease to be a place where everyone is equal, ideas thrive, and free speech is promoted, and students experiment life, liberty and fellow human beings freely. Instead, higher educational institutions foster regressive views and closed minds. Criticizing dominant paradigms such as caste are quickly termed as unpatriotic, anti-national, terrorist and extremist. Upon leaving caste prejudice behind in their home villages and moving to big towns, many students from the marginalized groups believe in a better environment, but they are quickly deluded.
Discrimination in higher education Institutions
Appalling reports on ill-treatment of Dalit students should bring collective shame to Indians. They are branded Dalit the moment they enter university premises, and suffer silently from segregation and abuse. There are hostels meant for them only in some university campuses as other caste students refuse to share rooms with them. “Forward” caste students look down on them and feel they own the universities. Their company in canteens is considered as impure. Complaints are ignored, as university officials look the other way.
In Hyderabad University, official-sponsored discriminations against Dalits are rampant. When they protest against food or university decision to hike fees up to eight times, they face abusive language from other students and are even beaten up. Police ignore their complaints and book them for assaulting those who beat them.
Students who raise their voices are branded “terrorists” and face expulsion orders. Now imagine the psychological trauma of young people from poor rural backgrounds fighting their way out through education and putting up with hostility from fellow students, university administration and the police. In Rohith’s case, he was threatened with dire consequences if he brought his case before the Prime Minister as he planned to.
Frustration and depression engendered by discrimination and injustice are reported to be the causes for suicide. A professor commenting the situation said that these deaths are not suicide but “institutional murders”. Some research scholars do not get supervisors for three years. They give up or change courses. Some universities lag behind in providing special classes, bridge courses and additional support. A mathematics teacher, Professor Sengupta reported, told a student to go back to his village and become a labourer like his parents. Non-Dalit teachers lack the moral commitment to stand by Dalit students.
Over the past decades, Dalit student groups became more assertive and mushroomed in various universities. Government interference to derecognize the groups and bar them from campus universities is no secret. Currently, there seems to be rising antagonism between pro-BJP groups and Dalit student groups who do not share the vision of Hindutva movement. Bullying tactics to snuff out dissent and anti-Establishment views are making maters worse.
Unsurprisingly, downtrodden people whose forefathers were exploited and abused by the caste system cannot be expected to take up the ideology or religion of a system that still stigmatizes them. BJP’s plan to have Dalits within its fold will be no easy task. What is so distressing to students who battle with poverty, darkness and malnutrition is that an individual, however bright he may be, as Rohith Vemula put it in his final note, is never perceived as a mind but as an identity, a vote or a number.
India has the most conservative educated middle class society in the world, hence the rotten mindset embedded in the caste system which has lasted for millennia will not disappear overnight. It would be too lengthy here to elaborate on the implications or the causes of the system of classification of people which is deeply rooted in Indian history.
If anything, it makes the apartheid system in South Africa or anti-Black racists in the 1960s in the US look like angels.