Echoes of stillborn histories

by thedeathofmerit admin

What can we learn from this documentary, ’The Death of Merit’?

Bal Mukund Bharti was determined to become a doctor. And his teachers were also very determined: ‘you’ll never pass MBBS’, they told him.

Bal Mukund didn’t give up, nor did his family. Father, mother, married sister, uncle, aunt– they were all determined to support him in his ardent journey, which was steadily converted into an uphill struggle by AIIMS, to become a doctor. They scraped, pooled together whatever meagre resources they could to send him to AIIMS.

Uncle says they invested everything they earned in his education. Sister who made only 2,500 rupees a month helped whenever father, who worked in a job which sometimes made him wait 3 long months for wages, couldn’t. It wasn’t a small dream; if realized, it could have become a source of hope and pride for many more people outside the immediate family.

As Bal Mukund’s proud father says, ‘he was the first one from our community to become a doctor in fifty years!’. Bal Mukund’s intelligence and superior scholastic record instilled that kind of confidence in the family, stoked such high hopes.

Imagine: the first doctor from a community in fifty years, or in two millennia, possibly. Also imagine Rakesh Sharma or Kalpana Chawla, people of the ‘wrong’ race, being told by the Russians or the Americans: ‘you’ll never go into space’.

But AIIMS was determined it would see Bal Mukund only as a ‘harijan’, as a person from the ‘wrong’ caste. Imagine history being snuffed out in the womb. That shouldn’t be very difficult to imagine if you step two years back into history and think of Senthil Kumar of the University of Hyderabad. 

In the voices of Bal Mukund’s family, you hear echoes of all those stillborn voices and histories that didn’t find any listeners outside the families they left behind. Like Bal Mukund, Senthil was also a pioneer: first person from his family and his Panniandi community, traditionally associated with pig-rearing, to have registered for a Ph.D.

Like Bal Mukund, Shyam Kumar of Sarojini Institute of Engineering and Technology, Vijayawada, also came from a poor family. His parents, farm workers, couldn’t afford his ‘clothes, books and bus passes’ as the news reports say, even after he got a scholarship. Like Bal Mukund, Jaspreet of Government Medical College and Hospital, Chandigarh, was also hounded by those who were supposed to guide him. The echoes never stop.

Bal Mukund didn’t give up, even when, as his father remembers him lamenting more than once:  ’professor log humein like nahin karte’. Five professors, the family says. Five, not one lone casteist. But Bal Mukund didn’t give up.

Bal Mukund wasn’t a stranger to discrimination and hatred. He came from a village and a region where in workplaces and teashops, as his folks remind us in the video, a Dalit is always offered tea in disposable plastic cups while others drink from glass tumblers. The kind of place where a Dalit, in the wrong village, could not expect anyone to offer him a glass of water even if he’s dying of thirst.

Bal Mukund had probably not grown inured to prejudice and its various abusive forms, but he couldn’t give up. He had this spark in him that couldn’t be smothered. It took him to a Navodaya school first and then earned him a ‘certificate of merit from the President himself!’

The family still clings to that moment. But Bal Mukund didn’t stop there. In the year he had appeared for the AIIMS admission test, he had also taken three other entrance exams. And he had excelled in all four! ‘CPMT, IIT, AIIMS..’, his sister recalls all the challenges he had overcome.

Even now, his zest for learning, in the form of books packed in all nooks and shelves, further dwarfs his small home. He had started making preparations to take on the IAS a few weeks before he died. Bal Mukund couldn’t give up.

Does Bal Mukund seem like someone who couldn’t take ‘academic pressure’?

Some people might say, other kids too die in these elite institutions. Does that make any unnatural death there acceptable? Do these institutions need periodic ritual bloodletting to prove themselves meritorious in the public eye? Such irrational thinking seems to dominate the attitude of the administrative leadership manning these ‘scientific’ institutions, which seem incapable of serious introspection.

The simple, only relevant question they need to ask in this context is: why should there be any unnatural deaths, harassment of students in an educational institution? Eight students committed suicide in IIT-Kanpur in the last four years, three of them Dalits (going by information available until now). 3 of 8– wouldn’t you call that disproportionate, considering that figure is 3 or 4 times what it should be?

Bal Mukund wouldn’t give up, bowing down to academic pressure. He liked challenges, his whole career was marked by a continuous series of triumphs over them. It was AIIMS which did not like challenges like Bal Mukund Bharti.

They ‘tortured’ him, his family repeatedly says. They targeted him during practical exams. They’d fail him repeatedly in one exam– a paper he had never figured as challenging. They told him he’d never pass MBBS.

It seems like all of AIIMS had geared itself up for the challenge called Bal Mukund Bharti.

The amazing clarity of the family in understanding the causes behind Bal Mukund’s death: has it ever been spotted in the reams and reams of research on caste and Dalitness produced by India’s many ‘meritorious’ universities?

When Bal Mukund’s father says, ‘hum sab harijanon ko ek union banana chahiye’, wasn’t he making it plain that this is a problem that a lone Dalit can’t face single-handed?

That what a harassed Dalit or Adivasi faces in those institutions of higher education is not one or a few individual tormentors but the institutions themselves, as persecutors? One needs unions to stand up against institutions and structural adversaries.

Bal Mukund’s sister reveals how acutely aware the family was of the fact that it was an institutionalised adversary they were up against. Every time her brother told them about the harassment in his college, they’d console him by saying: ‘you’ve only 4 more years..3 more years or just six more months for this to end’. As if he was serving a term in prison.

But Bal Mukund didn’t give up, even when he was driven to, probably, more stark isolation than he ever was in his village. Why would he talk of changing his caste, like it could be surgically excised from his body, otherwise?

His caste started haunting him from the very beginning of his term in AIIMS, when the teachers started probing his caste-lessness. He wanted to change his caste, his father says. Because it was the only complaint AIIMS had against him? But what you see in the news reports is that Bal Mukund suffered from ‘depression’, not caste-lessness.

If depression was the sole cause of his death, then suicide should claim the lives of at least a tenth of all humanity, because ‘depression’ is as common an ailment.

You hear the echoes again. Ajay Sree Chandra, Ph.D scholar of I.I.Sc was also accused of suffering from depression. So was G.Suman of IIT-Kanpur, who was also ‘depressed’ because he didn’t get a job. Like Bal Mukund, both had excellent scholastic records. Bahujan students who probed into Ajay’s death claim he was ‘terrorised’ by someone in his lab.

Ankita Veghda of a nursing college in Ahmedabad was also ‘stressed’, so she fell off the terrace of her hostel. But her parents point fingers at incessant ragging by seniors and an unsympathetic warden.

None of them gave up. It’s time the institutions they so trusted, so struggled to join, gave up their excuses.

Bal Mukund didn’t give up, but his family had to give up some of its dreams after he passed away. An insecure father, who calls Bal Mukund’s younger brother, at a college away from home, twice every day (in the morning and evening), says they’re content with only ‘chhoti vidya aur chhoti naukri’ now.

What more evidence do you require to understand how caste reduces people, emaciates them?

When the Indian students were attacked in Australia, who were the first to jump to the conclusion that it was ‘race’ which fueled the random violence, even before any substantive investigation had happened? Too many deaths have happened here, too much evidence has been ignored, too many excuses, in the name of causes, have been bandied around. No more, please.

Dr.Bal Mukund Bharti didn’t give up. He staged one last protest.

We salute you, Dr.Bharti.

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