“May be I was wrong, all the while, in understanding world. In understanding love, pain, life, death. There was no urgency. But I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life. All the while, some people, for them, life itself is curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. The unappreciated child from my past.”
These unsettling words of Rohith have brought forth the horrific reality of caste based discrimination, exclusion, and humiliation of Dalit students in the Universities of India. However, this is not the first time a Dalit student committed suicide, nor was he the last. 27-year-old Dalit student Muthukrishnan took his own life at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Just a few days before his death, Muthukrishnan posted on Facebook, “There is no Equality in M.Phil./PhD Admission, there is no equality in viva–voce, there is only denial of equality.” Balmukund Bharti, another Dalit student, committed suicide in his hostel room at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in 2010. He decided to end his life after constantly being taunted by faculty and fellow students as a “quota guy.” “How could Chamars become doctors? You are here only because of quota, you would not be able to go ahead from here” were the usual taunts that haunted him in campus.
It’s an open secret that Dalits face discrimination in University spaces. Every day they have to face verbal abuse by fellow upper caste students. Some are more blatant wherein they refer to Dalits as “quota guys”, or taunt them as donkeys who are leaving horses behind because of “ill-fated reservation”. Others are more subtle and their words are couched in either the language of “equality” or in the skewed idea of “merit”. They blame reservation for the country’s many problems.
The founder of Blue Dawn, Divya Kandukuri said, “I was made to feel different, because of how I dressed, how I spoke and how good my English was. Imagine yourself in front of a very condescending upper caste person who looks down upon you, no matter how confident or talented you are.”
The root of much of this hate comes from a feeling of caste superiority, social capital and smart command over English. It comes from the feeling that education is the preserve of the upper castes where all other entrants were supposedly entering their domain, taking their spaces. Dalits never had an access to such institutions; historically they were denied access to education. It’s not easy for a Dalit student to catch up with the grammar, the confidence, the articulation and the exposure of upper caste students. One is broken by being constantly targeted in the class, canteen, playground; by being made to feel like an alien amongst other fellow students; by being made to feel an inferior.. And when one starts asserting for one’s rights or dignity, one is called a “free-loader”. Poet and writer Meena Kandasamy wrote, “education has now become a disciplining enterprise working against Dalit students; they are constantly under threat of rustication, expulsion, defamation, and discontinuation.”
Sharing an experience of his life in a premiere institute, Shrikant said, “I come from a poor Dalit family, a first generation learner. This is the first time I left my home, I thought I will improve English and learn new things from my fellow students, I was happy, I thought my dream came true but the situation was different, I was targeted because I got an admission through reservation. They made fun of my looks, my English, my clothes etc. they always used to tell me the story of a Dalit student who possesses a macbook, iPod, KTM bike and other expensive gadgets during their degree college.” That is to insinuate that such rich Dalits are availing seats in institutes thereby depriving “deserving” and “poor” upper caste students. Shrikant says “now it’s been more than three years I heard the same story in different places from different upper caste students for three times.” What they refuse to acknowledge is that reservation is not a poverty alleviation program. It is an affirmative action meant to address social and educational backwardness that is borne out of thousands of years of deprivation and discrimination in the name of caste.
There are a number of instances that show that administration and teachers discriminate against Dalits. Since caste discrimination is fundamentally rooted in our society, the problem has spread across many segments of the society including the education institutions.
In an interview with BBC, Apoorvanand, a professor from Delhi University said, “he had gone to Delhi’s AIIMS, to investigate a case of discrimination against a Dalit student. He found vile abuses written on the doors and walls of hostel rooms where Dalit students lived. When he went to the director of institute to lodge a complaint, the latter flatly denied that there was caste discrimination on the campus.”
Pratik comes from a Dalit family, a first-generation learner. He studies in a premier institute which known for its socially inclusive curriculum. Even then, while presenting his assignment in the classroom his professor said, “Who gave you admission, you don’t deserve to be here. You better get admission in some Marathi medium arts college.”
Part of the anger and hatred is also from the fact that more and more Dalits are seeking higher education, are reaching spaces of learning and are even attempting to democratize campuses and curriculum. Deprived of land, dispossessed intergenerationally, with next to no social capital, Dalit youth, following Dr Ambedkar’s vision are taking to education as the only possible ladder for upward mobility, for better lives. The dominant caste groups who have so far depended on land and “honour” for maintaining their social status cannot tolerate such attempts at mobility by the Dalits. This leads to further attacks on them in education spaces and elsewhere.
Discrimination and mental health
Dalit students continuously experience, fight against and bear emotional scars from caste discrimination, which can lead to increased anxiety and poor mental health outcomes. Eisenberger and Lieberman says, “Interpersonal discrimination can affect mental health by altering evaluations of the self, which in turn affect feelings of loneliness and social connection.”
When Rohith Vemula, Muthukrishnan, Payal Tadvi died, mainstream media said, it’s because of their “personal issues” but nobody wanted to investigate the mental harassment they were facing. They were harassed in different ways in order to remind them that they don’t belong here. In unequal power spaces, it becomes difficult for the Dalit/tribal students to come forward and fight against the oppressors, sometimes oppressed student(s) have leave those discriminatory spaces and sometimes s/he, takes extreme decisions.
Puja said, “I was ignored in group assignments; I was treated disrespectfully; they laughed at me, indirectly insulted me and my fellow community students for getting stipend of 5,000/- rupees for the field work. I was facing mental harassment but nobody was there for me, I felt alone, worthless and no longer close to anyone.”
It’s a sad reality of our country that, still Dalits have to face discrimination, even in the premier institutions where liberal, inclusive and humanist ideas are supposed to prevail.
‘I am the wound of multitudes, the multitude of wounds
For generations, an unfree individual in a free country
Having been the target
Of humiliations, atrocities, rapes and torture
I am someone raising his head for a fistful of self-respect
In this nation of casteist bigots blinded by wealth
I am someone who lives to register life itself as a protest.’
– Kalekuri Prasad
Sagar Kumbhare has completed his Masters from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur and is currently working as a researcher at the Centre for Equity Studies. His research focuses on public policy and socio-economic exclusion.