Political tyranny is nothing compared to the social tyranny and a reformer who defies society is a more courageous man than a politician who defies Government.
~ Dr. Bhimrao. R. Ambedkar
The Rohith Vemula institutional murder which grabbed headlines in the last two months made me sit and write. I will be writing more about my personal experiences as a Dalit living in an upper caste dominated place, and studying in elite colleges where Brahmins and Banias are over-represented and consider the presence of Dalits as hurting 'their' colleges in the future. Where even the Dalits and OBCs studying in such colleges are Brahmanized, akin to a Brahmin soul living in a Dalit body. To whom SC/ST is a just a certificate to be taken out to get admission and then hidden again.
I was born into a Marathi-Dalit-Buddhist-Ambedkarite family. My parents always dreamt big for me and wanted me to get all the three degrees (BTech, MTech and PhD) from IIT B. They wanted me to become IIT B Director – director of the place where my father worked as a peon (class 4) worker all his life.
I was always a bright and sincere kid since childhood. This used to make my parents proud. But at home, my mother used to be ill most of the time. When I was in 12th she was hospitalized due to a rare tuberculosis and doctors diagnosed that she might not survive. She was put on very heavy dosages of drugs and had emaciated beyond recognition. I managed to get 82% in my 12th board exams and cracked IIT JEE screening (i.e. was among the 19,000 selected to give main JEE from the 4 lakh candidates) - both without any coaching.
My rank in IIT-JEE mains was not good enough for me to get into IIT B and my parents were not allowing me to go outside Mumbai, due to various reasons. I am sure I would have scored better ranks had I got coaching. JEE coaching in Mumbai was very expensive and all my classmates had enrolled for it. Some had enrolled at two coaching centres to get the best of both and each of these used to cost them 50,000 rupees. None of them - all upper castes Brahmins, and children of IIT Bombay professors - could crack the screening even with expensive coaching, and they would always blame reservations for their incompetence.
Let me now come to the verbal and physical incidents that happened due to my being a Dalit, and how it unfolded in a so-called progressive and highly educated society. It was when I was in the 9th standard in Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) at IIT Powai, Mumbai. KVs have a compulsory morning assembly where the whole school assembles. All the students have to stand, sing the prayers with closed eyes and folded hands in Sanskrit and Hindi, take pledge, listen to some lectures (mostly propagandist types about how Gandhi was a superman) and then end by singing the national anthem and shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai. This circus goes on for 20 to 30 minutes every morning.
On one such day when we reached our classrooms post the assembly, the class teacher asked, "Whoever is from achut castes raise hands" and then said "anyone from untouchable castes". Next she asked "any Jai Bhim wallas" to raise their hands. The contempt in her voice and the expressions on her face felt like she is calling out for some criminals or people she abhors. I raised my hand when she said "Jai Bhim wallas" as I was an Ambedkarite Dalit who had embraced Budhism and Jai Bhim was used by Dalits to greet each other. Of the 65 students in class, only I had raised my hand. And that was the end of innocence. The world changed for me forever after this.
My parents had enrolled me in this school as it was one of best government schools in the locality and convent schools were out of their budget. They wanted me and my sister to get the best education but didn't have the money for convent school fees. Most of the Class 4 employees of IIT used to send their kids to local Marathi medium municipality Schools which were just outside IIT campus. They used to feel that IIT KV was tough since it had CBSE syllabus and English was the medium of instruction. The children of group D workers who enrolled in KV used to fail and drop out during primary classes and then join some other local municipality school where teachers didn't even exist. By the time I reached 9th grade, most of my classmates were IIT Bombay professors' children and others who from Hiranandani gardens (swanky address in Mumbai). There was another guy who I knew was a Dalit (we even shared a common surname) but he didn't raise his hand. When I asked him, his reply was "I am from general category". He was passing (passing means hiding his caste and passing as upper caste) and I was shocked since his relatives were Dalit leaders in the locality and stood for elections also.
The bullying started and it was hellish for me. A few days afterward a teacher came to my section and asked our class teacher "any SC/ST in your class?" to which she replied "Ek hai... woh wahan par (There is one... that one over there)" pointing towards me. The other teacher replied "I don't have any", with a smile as if she was saved from some big trouble. I felt like running away from the place, hide somewhere and never come back. They were not even sensitive enough to avoid asking such things in class like this.
A few of my classmates who knew me from childhood would ask in lunch hours. "What are you?", "what is SC/ST?", "so you are SC or ST?", "what is different in SC and ST?" The questions used to be endless. After that day, I was bullied by most boys and even the girls in class. Most IIT B professors were Brahmins and people coming from Hiranandani were Banias and other upper castes. Their children used to taunt me with names like "Kachrewala", "Bhangi", "saala achut (bloody untouchable)" and many such slurs. This went on and on with some of them putting garbage in my school bag sometimes for fun. I told this to my parents; they asked me to just focus on studies and not get distracted. I still continued to get good marks and that only annoyed the bullies further. They would taunt me by saying "why do you need to study? You will get grace marks in your exams; just attach your caste certificate to the answer sheet".
My parents never used to allow me to go for picnics during school days. And I had adapted to living with doing what I was told to do and not demand things from my parents. But in 9th standard our school was going for a picnic to Karnala – a bird sanctuary near Mumbai. I was allowed this time, and there I was ostracized. Once you become an object to be bullied, everyone will keep bullying you. When we had to form groups for some activity, a guy in my group named A. Sharma (including name to emphasise his caste) asked me to get out of the group as "we don't want you with us". It was not like I was a criminal. I was good at studies. The most disciplined one. This is just one story. Many such incidents happened. Many a times I was asked to show them my answers during the tests and was abused later if I didn't show. I was pushed out of the queues, kicked, and chewing gum smeared on my shirt by classmates in that picnic, and during that year.
When I couldn't take it any more I complained to my class teacher Mrs. N. P., a math teacher from Kerala. She used to wear sandal tilak on her forehead. Her reply was "go and join the school where you people go. Do not come here from tomorrow if you have a problem". I was dumbstruck. It went on. My parents comforted me saying that the students would soon get tired of doing it and stop eventually. But it never stopped. It went on. It looked like it would go on forever - get up, go to school and get bullied and teased all day. I felt so small and powerless. I was given the name "Bhangi" - which was used to call me during the PT hour. I scored 89% in 10th. I didn't want to join the same school for +2 but was forced by my parents to join it. And this continued for 2 more years. I never went for picnics after 9th standard.
Instances of abuse are not limited only to school children but also involve grown-ups. I will narrate two such instances. The first one is an incident where I was physically assaulted by a person who taught basketball to IIT students and professors' children. I had started going for run (exercise) in the IIT B gymkhana (a big ground with cricket, soccer and hockey fields and places to run) during my 10th vacations. This basketball instructor observed me for three days and on the fourth day came to me and asked "Who are you? What is your name? Where do you stay? What does your father do?" I answered all his questions. The very next moment, before I could realise what was happening, he caught me by my collar and started abusing me. He began kicking me on my legs as he dragged me with him. I was shocked as to why he was doing this. He was using swear words and saying "you people come and destroy the ground". Will your dad pay for this? It took us Rs. 50,000 to put new basket. Tera baap dega kya? (will your father give it?). If you have to exercise go and run on the roads, not inside this ground". Then he took me to a place - all the time holding my collar and twisting it to the point where I was choking - and tried to lock me in a room. Only after I cried a lot and promised to never come back did he let me go.
Now he has been promoted to the post of sports officer for IIT B. His name is E. I got to know from others that he does similar things to anyone who is not one of the IIT B professors' children - accusing them of digging the ground for stumps and other such false accusations, in order to get promoted and look good in the eyes of the higher ups. You can very well see a reflection of this in Indian jails - most of the inmates are Dalits or muslims. Upper castes constitute a very low percentage of jail inmates. Many are held on false charges and kept without trial so that the police can get promotions and medals of bravery.
I went back to the ground only 7 years after this incident, after I got into IIT B. One day he saw me, recognised me and sent his peon to get my ID card and keep it with him. I called up my father who came and went up to him to ask why he took only my ID card when there were 5 other guys with me playing badminton. The peon replied that E had ordered him to take my card, but E denied ordering the peon about anything and in turn claimed that the peon was acting on his own and lying.
Similarly there was a swimming coach who teaches IIT B students and IIT professors' kids. I wanted to learn swimming after my engineering graduation, when there was a gap of a month or so before I joined M.Tech. As I knew that he taught the professors' kids, and I knew basic swimming, I felt like asking him if he could teach me. When I went to him with this proposal he asked me "what does your father do here in IIT?" I just told the name of his department and that he was staff. He was not satisfied. He probed further, asking "lekin kya kaam karte hai?" He wanted to know it, and I didn't know why. But in a small ecosystem like IIT B where everybody knew everybody else and you could make out one's caste from surname and designation, it is easy to see why he refused to teach me. He just said that I would have to swim for 1 km (i.e, 20 laps in a 50-meter swimming pool) non-stop and "then I will teach you" (1 km non-stop? If I knew this I wouldn't have come to you right?). Still I managed to win a medal in IIT B sports 2 years after this incident (self-taught, Youtube videos and observing other swimmers). This person is an upper caste from Andhra, whose wife was a teacher in my school.
During my 12th boards, a certain Iyer - a senior IIT Bombay professor's son - was caught with chits hidden in his socks and shoes. The Principal was called and he was taken to her cabin. Later he was let off. That was the last paper of the boards and it is not clear if he was doing it in all the other papers as well. Today he is in the USA after completing MS from a US college. Most IIT B professors go to US to do MS and settle there. Had it been a Dalit's son involved in such an adventure, he would have been barred from taking boards and would have destroyed his life and his family forever. He would have become a peon or casual labourer, living with the guilt and stigma of getting caught and insulted in front of teachers and principal. And today upper castes cry "merit" to discriminate, while they were crying "faith, culture and religion" to discriminate in the past.
IIT Bombay was akin to a village. And my school had become like a village too. Everybody knew my caste identity and so when I got into IIT for my M.Tech in Computer Science and Engineering, I got messages in my Facebook inbox from some three or four fake profiles threatening me. Asking me "till when will you eat up our seats" apart from many other casteist remarks. I was so fed up that I deleted that Facebook account when I was in IIT B. I created a new one after I passed out of the college. In such a closed ecosystem, you bump into your classmates if you go out to run, or to the gym, and they try to gang up to abuse you. I later came across that A. Sharma on many occasions where he tried to verbally abuse or mock. Similarly when I would go for walking and come across someone whom I knew, they would exchange hi-bye and pleasantries, and eventually during the conversation, would pass comments on the lines of "you are using your SC/ST Certificate well, wish we had it too".
I can go on about many such problems and hurdles and abuses which all have their roots in caste. But I fear that I might digress from the topic at hand. I will just say this. The ones who have never faced any discrimination will never see the problem. They will only shout at the top of their lungs that their seats are going (were their names were engraved on these seats?) to someone without merit and less deserving than them. It is easy for them to say that caste has died and that they don't discriminate, that there is no discrimination anywhere now, that it's a thing of the past - while the problems in my life are all due to this one reason.
Swapnil Jadhav is a management graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, who did his M.Tech from IIT B