Gurinder Singh Azad
Is it embedded hatred within elite institutes and their students and faculty against reserved category students, or it is merely coincidence, that of the students committing suicide in the premier institutes of this nation, the number belonging to the reserved category students is much higher?
Once again, it is AIIMS that finds itself in the news. On 3 March, Anil Kumar Meena, a tribal student from Baran, Rajasthan, hung himself in hostel No. 6 in the AIIMS campus. The eldest amongst his siblings, Anil Kumar, was the son of a poor farmer. He scored 75% in Class XII and got second rank in the AIIMS entrance examination. However, his dream of becoming a doctor could not succeed in the unsupportive ambience of AIIMS. Anil, despite qualifying in all the basic criteria for admission, endured a torrid time at AIIMS, facing humiliation because he had a Hindi-medium education and belonged to the reserved category. Backed into a corner by circumstance, this was his last revolt against the arrogance of AIIMS, one in which he gave up his life.
'Tu kab paas hoga?'
Meena's Hindi medium background meant he had some problems understanding faculty lectures. His performance began to suffer, and he failed. Furthermore, the authorities did not allow him to appear in the regular exams because of low attendance. He tried to meet the Director and the Dean of AIIMS, but was unable to. During his visits, the UG clerk made derogatory remarks like, 'tu kab paas hoga?'
But Anil had been a diligent student all his life, and his family and friends argue that is was difficult to believe his attendance was not sufficient. A small fact-finding mission provides a better picture. A few students, who did not want to be named, told us the following: "As per the ruling of the Supreme Court, you require attendance in a minimum of 75% lectures to sit in the exams. But this was never followed in AIIMS, and no one was denied. In this case they were quick to implement it. But when general category students were found falling short of attendance, AIIMS cut short the minimum eligibility from 75% to 50%. Adequate grace was given to general category students whose attendance was lower than 50%."
'You'll never become a doctor'
Two years ago on the same date, Balmukund Bharti committed suicide within the same walls. After a lifetime of academic brilliance, Bharti chose AIIMS to study medicine. But he was failed time and again in Community Medicine by a professor. Balmukund's parents alleged that their son used to tell them that he (the professor) openly abused him about being a reserved category student. No one paid heed.
Balmukund was so harried by all this that he even tried to shed his caste identity, as if that is so easily achieved in India. He hoped to change to a Brahmin name so people would look at him respectfully. He brought a stamp-paper to change his name from Balmukund Bharti to Srijan Kumar.
'Can a Chamar be an engineer?'
Suicide cases of lower-caste students are not restricted to the capital, but it is an especial affliction of our premier educational institutions like IIT and AIIMS, long venerated as amongst the great achievements of independent India. Anil's case brings the number of suicides to 19. Manish Kumar, from the SC category, withdrew from classes in IIT Roorkee and jumped from the fifth floor of the hostel. Allegedly, he suffered abuse from his classmates, who would call him 'cham-cham-chamar' and would ask, 'can a chamar be an engineer"? Previously, his father had approached the warden, who punished the students involved, but also advised Manish's father to arrange accommodation for Manish outside campus. The warden admitted his helplessness, saying there are thousands of students, and he could not stop everyone teasing Manish.
'Those eyes scare me..'
Ajay Sri Chandra an Integrated PhD aspirant ended his life on 26 Aug, 2007 in IISc, Bangalore. Here are his scores. In S.S.C. he got 81%, in H.S.C. he got 94% and B.Sc. he got 80%. Moreover, he was one among the top twelve who got into the Ph.D course in IISc at Bangalore. These facts speak volumes about his capabilities and are enough to support the argument that stress due to studies should certainly not be an issue for his suicide. His father is sure of his son being insulted on caste grounds in the laboratory. Ajay was actually in some trouble. Ajay wrote in his personal diary, "those eyes, they scare me, they look with such inferiority /superiority complex @ you. They tell everything (most of the time). Those eyes scare me......those eyes scares me a lot. My legs are paining..."
Senthil Kumar of Salem was from a pig-rearing community, and almost certainly the first of his community to study at Hyderabad Central University for a Ph.D in physics. For the first year he was not allotted any guide. He supported his family with the stipend he received as part of the Junior Research Fellowship. Suddenly his scholarship was stopped, without any prior notice. This was an important amount for his and his family's survival. He tried to meet the administration but nothing came from it. Victim of yet another manner of exclusion, he hung himself in his hostel room on 23 February 2008.
'Do whatever you can, I will make you do your MBBS all over again'
There is perhaps even more murk to be found when you dig deeper. One thing a number of parents, family and friends of such suicide cases point to is the lack of a suicide note in almost every case. The only time a suicide note was found was on the body of Jaspreet Singh, a student of Government Medical College, Chandigarh. Jaspreet Singh's father, Charan Singh, was the first person to see the dead body of his son in the library bathroom of that institution, on 27 January, 2008. Charan Singh found a suicide note in the pocket of his son's jacket in which he names a certain professor, Naveen Goel, responsible, because of constant jibes about being a student in the reserved category. Jaspreet also alleges that Goel told him he would ensure he did not complete his degree.
But this suicide note was not enough to book a case under Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Charan Singh fought for this. It is shocking, however, that Naveen Goel has neither been arrested nor removed from his post of HOD. However, as per law, bail cannot be granted under this act. Jaspreet was the only brother of three sisters. A year later, his sister consumed poison and ended her life, on Raksha Bandhan.
Moreover, according to statements by Balmukund's father, he came to AIIMS to take his son's body and was made to sign a blank paper that turned out to be an NOC giving a clean chit to AIIMS. Apparently this and similar actions have been repeated in institutions across India.
The Thorat Committee report of 2007 (commissioned by the Government of India to examine such cases specifically in AIIMS) reveals alarming facts about prevalent discriminatory practices on the campus. Yet the recommendations of this report have yet to be actioned.
A student from the lowest strata of society fights against all odds to prove her capability and reach the best educational institutions in India; are these institutions doing justice to her hard work, talent and the contribution she could make to society?
When a Dalit or Adivasi student becomes an engineer, doctor, business graduate or scientist, it should be a cause of pride for not just the family or the community but for the entire nation. Instead, our nation and its educational institutions reward their merit with discrimination, humiliation, violence and death? The direct or indirect discrimination all such students face is a sad failing of our educational system. It is time to show that these institutes are not the personal property of a particular community. They belong to all of India.
Gurinder Singh Azad is a Student Coordinator with Insight Foundation which runs the Dalit & Adivasi Students' Portal. Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.
[An edited version of this article appeared in The Sunday Guardian]