Thursday, November 24, 2011

… And they killed their merit

A list of Dalit students who committed suicide in the last four years in leading educational institutes was recently released

Linesh Mohan Gawle died on 16 April 2011. Committed suicide, to be precise. Or perhaps it would be far more precise to say that he was forced to take his own life. Gawle was a Ph.D. scholar at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi. He was one of the 35 scholars who made it to the prestigious institute during the academic year 2009–2010. And now he adds his name to the list of 18 Dalit students who committed suicide across various institutes of higher learning in India in the last four years. Anoop Kumar, the Delhi-based advocate, whose Insight Foundation has compiled this list, says that the actual number of suicides may be much higher; the listed cases are the ones pursued by friends and family of the victim. All of these instances of suicide are in one way or the other related to caste-based oppression.
Gawle’s is the most recent instance of a Dalit student committing suicide. Though all the details are yet to come out,  the institute lost no time in declaring it a case of “failed love” . Fellow students mutter that it is the pressure at the institute that has taken its toll; most students at such elite institutes practically work as slaves and are at the mercy of the faculty for things like favourable recommendation letters and smooth interviews. But one cannot deny the fact that Gawle is the second Dalit student to commit suicide in this institute in the last three years.
Kumar says that in all such cases the so-called premier institutes are ready with stock responses: The student could not cope with the pressure of studies. He was battling with “personal” problems. By this they also imply that these “quota students” actually do not belong there. But according to Kumar if these institutes cannot deal with the diverse backgrounds of their students then they should openly declare that they will only admit urban, English-educated, upper-class, upper-caste students. They should stop calling themselves “national” institutes. “The problem lies with the institutes and not the students,” Kumar asserts.
He also denies the charge that these students are not able to “cope up” with the pressure of the studies. A year before Gawle took the extreme step, Bal Mukund Bharti, a final-year medical student from All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) had hanged himself. A bright student, Bharti had cleared his IIT entrance exam and yet changed stream to pursue a career in medicine by enrolling in India’s best medical college, AIIMS. They don’t come brighter than that; and, yet he was traumatised to such an extent on account of his caste, that he tried to end his life twice and, unfortunately, succeeded the second time.
Suicide sans suicide note
What Anoop Kumar finds most intriguing in all these cases is that, except in one instance, the typical suicide note has never been found.  In the absence of such a crucial evidence, which otherwise is almost always left by the victim, authorities get away with citing any reason they like. Dr Jaspreet Singh, who hanged himself in his college library in 2008, was the only one whose suicide note was found and that too accidentally by his father. That note clearly expressed the reason for his suicide: caste-based oppression.
A bright student at the Government Medical College, Chandigarh, Singh cleared all the exams he ever took during his MBBS but was deliberately failed, by just one mark, in “Community Medicine” by his examiner, who had repeatedly told Singh that he would never become a doctor. In his suicide note, Singh mentioned the Head of Department’s and two fellow students’ names who so tortured him that he was forced to take this extreme step. After his death, the answer sheet was re-evaluated by a three-member expert Board of Examiners, and it passed him. The HoD has never been prosecuted in any way, either by the institute or by the law. It was perhaps this injustice that drove his younger sister to follow in Singh’s footsteps. On the day of Raksha Bandhan the next year, she too ended her life.
The act of suicide is never a sudden decision; in the case of Dalit students, it is result of a long-standing process of denigration and demoralisation . What the SC/ST students need is a healthy, affirming environment (see “Suicide”, pp. 45–47). But can our upper-caste-dominated elite institutes effect a change of this nature? Or shall one look at other possibilities? Anoop Kumar’s Insight Foundation is one such way, which also runs a helpline for students facing caste-based oppression at their institutions.
OBC–SC/ST Combine?
Now, since the reservation in educational institutions is extended to the OBCs as well, a new scenario may emerge in the days to come. There may emerge a Dalit–OBC alliance that stands up to caste oppression. Kumar believes that though OBCs are not welcomed by the upper castes, they are seldom the target of verbal or physical hostility, which is almost exclusively directed towards the SC and ST candidates. Because of a deeply rooted casteist mindset, the upper castes “are trained to use violence against the SCs,” Kumar says. However, a similar kind of caste-based animosity that both the groups experience would bring them together. Kumar hopes that with the increasing number of OBCs in these institutes, caste oppression may actually reduce. This is likely to happen primarily because the monopoly of a few selected upper castes over these institutes will be broken. Diversity of castes will cause a rupture in the vicious caste nexus in these places. The numbers will also play a part. Kumar says that there is violence because upper castes are greater in number and hence they are able to overwhelm the miniscule minority of Dalits. “What chances do 5 have against 95?” Kumar asks.
But now there is a possibility of a coalition between the OBCs and SCs/STs, a possibility of brothers becoming each other’s keepers. And, it will go on to make these institutes truly talent-nurturing centres instead of being graveyards of merit!
Dalit & Adivasi Students Helpline: 0 99 99 48 42 49
This blog documents all kinds of casteist oppression in institutions of higher education, including the kind which results in the ‘suicides’ of young and meritorious Dalit and Adivasi students.

(I was reminded of this story I did for FORWARD Press magazine when today few friends on FB drew attention towards this news item: Exams where caste stigma has no answer. )

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