"The reason for their anger is very simple. Your behaving on par with them insults them".
~ Dr. Ambedkar
The University of Hyderabad (UOH) student Mr. Rohith Vemula (26), PhD scholar committed suicide on 17th January 2016. Hailing from Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Rohith came from a marginalized poor Dalit family, his mother is a tailor and father (divorced from his mother) works as a security guard. Rohith's suicide is just one more addition to the growing list of Dalit Bahujan students committing suicides in the country's premier educational institutions. This growing number of suicides and the several cases of discrimination reported by the national dailies in India's premier educational institutions is itself an indication to investigate the ubiquitous nature of caste in these institutions and the feudal nature of these university spaces towards Dalit and Adivasi students.
Rohith was an active member of the Ambedkar students association (ASA) of UOH, which is a very assertive students organization founded in 1993 by a group of Dalit students. There are formal and informal Dalit groups on campuses, such as ASA, which have been actively participating in the students' union elections and campus politics, negotiating with the administration on different issues etc. One of the major issues which students suffer from is the difference in marks they receive. Other issues include: the non-receipt of scholarships/fellowships; taking up the issues of cultural celebrations of Teachers' day on the birth anniversary of Savitri Bai Phule or the birth anniversaries of different leaders like Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Mahatama Phule and also the celebration of Mahishasur Martyrdom day (which in many colleges has become a regular event) by Bahujan students; and most crucially, the issue of caste discrimination which also results in suicides as seen in Rohith's case.
Most of these Dalit organisations and their names are either inspired from Ambedkar or other political figures like Phule or Birsa, and are linked either to their caste or political identity/category name (like Dalit/Bahujan). Another observable factor is that none of these Dalit organisations (formal/informal) on campuses have any political associations with any of the mainstream local or national political parties like other students groups that exist in campuses. Ironically, Dalit students have to be a part of these groups rather than focusing on their studies because they are compelled to fight for the injustices which blatantly take place in these educational institutions. The non-association with the mainstream political parties makes them more vulnerable and prone to violence from the state and counter-attacks from rival student groups, whether it is from the right or the left.
ASA in UoH was formed when anti-Mandal agitations were at its peak. During these agitations lots of Dalit students were attacked by the anti Mandal protesters across all colleges and universities in the country. This was also the first time when caste became visible in these educational spaces. But the sad part is that there was no support system created by any of the political parties to save Dalit Adivasis and Bahujan students who were humiliated and attacked. Today, the agitation which was triggered by Rohith Vemula has been subverted/appropriated by the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) leader Kanhaiya, through his alleged anti-national speech, which landed him behind the bars under sedition charges, and the attack on JNU by right wing organisations. Similarly, Rohith Vemula was called an 'anti-national'. So today, one sees in all the events and protests which were triggered by Rohith Vemula's suicide, a subversion by other protests to save JNU and a focus on the 'sedition debate'.
Learnings from the Past: the Opportunistic Upper Castes
After the anti-Mandal agitation began all over the country during Mandal l and Mandal ll there were several cases reported on campuses involving harassment, continuous failing of Dalit students in medical colleges and IIT Delhi, physical attacks and humiliation on Dalit Adivasi students in several state and central universities. Taking cognizance of students' complaints there were several committees appointed by the central government, SC/ST commission and non-government organizations on several occasions.
One of the very first committees which was appointed was the Prof. Thorat committee, constituted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, on 12th September, 2006, to probe caste discrimination in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). It was a three member committee along with Dr. K.M Shyam Prasad (Vice President, National Board of Examinations), and Dr. R.K. Srivastava (Director General of Health Services).The committee member Dr. Shyam Prasad in his testimony alleged that AIIMS director P. Venugopal did not provide the "required cooperation" to the panel to discharge its function.
The Thorat committee report clearly states how upper caste professors discriminated against the Dalit Adivasi students, both in overt and covert ways. Dalit Adivasi students had to deal with hostility which comes with being a "quota student". The report alleged the director of AIIMS was guilty of propagating violence on campus against Dalit Adivasi students but there was no action taken against the institute director. Also, none of the recommendations suggested by the Thorat committee were implemented. There were two different cases of suicides in AIIMS, reported by (The Death of Merit, 2011) in their campaign against growing suicides in India's premier educational institutions after the committee report was submitted.
Similarly, in the case of Vardhman Mahavir College, which is also located in New Delhi, 35 students from SC/ST background were repeatedly failed in the subject of Physiology. When the students went to the authorities of that college, they didn't bother to look into the students' plea. The students then reported this incidence to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). NCSC appointed a one member committee with Bhalchandra Mungekar* to investigate students' complaints.
According to the report, excerpts from which were published by many newspapers, Dr. Mungekar stated, "caste discrimination takes an insidious form in higher educational institutions across the country". The report discloses caste bias in examinations and checking of answers. The dean was found guilty along with the director who did not bother to look into the students' plea. Dr. Mungekar argues that rather than focusing on studies, students are compelled to fight against such injustices. He states in the report how caste-discrimination is covert in these institutions, no one will kill or rape, no one will burn houses or beat people - the practices which we generally observe in the traditional forms of atrocities that happen largely in villages. The forms of atrocities are changing in the urban and the Institutional domain. In institutions, Dalits are either repeatedly failed, their degrees are delayed for years if the students are assertive, they are roped in false cases or they are forced to commit suicide. Dr. Mungekar's report also clearly states the changing nature of caste practices in institutions of higher learning in India's top medical colleges (Mukul, 2012).
A survey done by IIT-Mumbai students of freshmen students in the Mumbai campus shows that 56 per cent of reserved category students feel discriminated, 3 per cent said they have had first-hand experience of caste discrimination, and the remaining 28 per cent feel that discrimination exists on campus in an indirect and in discreet manner. Along with the social discrimination against the backward caste students there is also rural urban disparity where 40 per cent students come to IITs from metros, 35 per cent from the cities and 21 per cent from towns and the remaining 4 per cent from the villages.
The survey states that there is no institutional support provided for students coming from vernacular backgrounds. Students from vernacular backgrounds struggle to follow English on campuses, many are also discriminated on the basis of their accent. Friendships and social cultural groups are formed on the basis of languages, status and lifestyle. In IITs, 60 per cent of reserved category students experience more academic pressure compared to general category students (Kishore et al., 2014). In the case of IIT-Delhi, 12 Dalit students were terminated by citing low academic performance. After receiving the termination letters the students filed a petition with NCSC alleging caste based harassment.
The pressure to perform in the competitive market is more on backward caste students than the upper caste students. As Subramanian (2015) writes: 'largely IITians come from upper-caste families of bureaucrats, school teachers, and academics, children of the professional class where educational capital is accumulated because of their caste capital'. While Dalit students carry the caste baggage and shame because of the notion of pollution attached with their caste, so rather than feeling pride, their own caste makes them more vulnerable to compete in the higher competitive IIT environment. The faculty and fellow upper caste students in IIT-Delhi harbour deep prejudices against Dalit Adivasi students. Those who are admitted through reservation, despite performing well, are graded poor and sometimes forced to commit suicide.
IITs in the country have seen more suicides than any other institution: Aniket Ambore, a 22 year old Dalit student of IIT-Bombay who was in his fourth year doing dual degree in electrical engineering, committed suicide in 2014; M. Shrikant, final year B.Tech, who committed suicide on 1st Jan 2007 in IIT-Bombay; Prashant Kureel, first year B.Tech, IIT-Kanpur committed suicide on 19th April, 2008; G. Suman, final year, M.Tech, IIT-Kanpur, committed suicide on 22nd Jan, 2009; Madhuri Sale, final year B.Tech, IIT-Kanpur committed suicide on 17th November, 2010; Manish Kumar, III year B, Tech IIT-Roorkee committed suicide on 13th Feb, 2011. There are many more suicides documented by The Death of Merit.blog (2011) in India's premier educational institutions. It also says that the list mentioned is not an exhaustive list, it only covers cases where parents and relatives have raised their voices and had accused the institutions of caste discrimination against their children that led to their suicides.
These technological institutions have received immunity not only from the state but also from India's rich upper castes/classes, the so-called 'meritorious' clan. So, one can't even resist, assert or say anything against these crème de la crème institutions. Had the action on the report by Anoop Kumar (2009) or Thorat Committee Report (2007) or Dr Mungekar's 2012 (unpublished) been taken by the UPA or NDA government, we could have stopped or prevented some of these suicides. It is important to see these instances because Rohith's case is not an isolated incident which happened in this country. There are many Dalits and Adivasi students who are going through similar kinds of struggles in these institutions, especially those which are funded by the centre or the states.
All the above incidents happened when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power from 2004 to 2014 i.e. more than a decade, and when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power from 1998 to 2004 and from 2014 to the present - neither could do anything for Dalits, Adivasis in higher education. Neither governments took any major steps to stop the kind of discrimination Dalit, Adivasi students go through in higher education and university spaces. Though, after making headlines in the newspapers after The death of merit blog reported the cases, and taking cognizance of the cases and promising to come up with a strong law to reduce the budgetary allocation in education and stopping the Non-JRF fellowship, such activities are directly impacting more negatively the Dalits and Adivasis on campuses. So, looking at Rohith's suicide as an isolated incident will be a great injustice to their fights and the ones ASA had been fighting. But I am scared that Rohith's suicide would be reduced to a mere political tussle between the Congress, BJP and left fronts for their own political gains.
Learning from Ambedkar
One must refer to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's Marathi speech that he delivered at the Mahar Conference held in Mumbai on May 30 and 31, 1936. In the speech, he makes us aware as to how we can survive within the continuous struggle between the upper caste Hindus and the Dalits. He states that "those who desire to live in obedience to the dictates of the Hindus, those who wish to remain their slaves, they do not need to think over this problem. But those who wish to live a life of self-respect, and equality, will have to think over this". I believe most of us wish the second. For that he suggests three types of strengths which Dalits should have to survive through such struggle in this country. It has been nearly 80 years since this speech was first delivered, and it is important to look back and see if we have succeeded in achieving any of these strengths by now: The first strength he talks about is: I) Manpower, the second strength he talks about is ii) Finance and the third strength he talks about is iii) Mental Strength.
Let's talk about the first strength to which Ambedkar refers i.e. Manpower. Can we claim today that we have manpower? No, we can't. Because we are numerically lesser and the most fractured community because of caste, and each caste is loyal to its own caste brethren. One of the traits of caste is hierarchical grading which also means that one caste can only be recognised in contrast to other castes. Every caste and its members are socially, economically, politically and ritually related. So, each caste hierarchically supports its own caste. Similarly, neither do we have 'men' who can stand by us during crucial times such as when some atrocity or something happens with the community, nor do we have any power. The Dalits as a whole constitute 16 per cent of the total population in which there are more than one thousand castes which are hierarchically divided. Because of this, a handful of Dalits in academics, politics and administration and civil society organisations can do something rather minimal for other Dalit victims. So the fault is not theirs, it's the caste system which needs to be smashed.
One can simply see that the consciousness which Rohith's suicide has created led to a pan-Indian solidarity resulting in the coming together of many Dalits, non-dalits, upper castes, left, liberal, progressive students from different campuses (which is very much appreciated). They all joined the protests and solidarity marches at different places. It can be also seen as manpower which is joining Dalits against the long standing battle to annihilate caste. But, that is not the case because this isn't the kind of manpower which will be with Dalits for prolonged periods of time. Simply because of their parochial vision of our anti-caste struggle, our upper caste allies haven't accepted the brahminical privileges they have received at birth, which have sublimated because of their caste into social, cultural and economic capital.
They, as individuals as well as a social class, still have domination and control over resources and all aspects in villages as well as in the cities. Even their slogans against Brahmanism don't scrutinise their own caste/class privileges. In such cases, the whole act of being an ally turns out to be a patronizing attitude or sort of "doing for them, or you people" rather than standing with or behind the Dalits in solidarity. To understand who can be our best ally for longer struggle please read Yashica Dutt and Pardeep Attri.
It is understood that societies such as ours which are divided easily lead to the rise of movements of counter-protests. Most of the student groups which exist on campuses are politically aligned with the national political parties - like Students Federation of India (SFI) is the Communist Party of India's student wing, National Students Union of India (NSUI) is the student wing of the Congress party, same is the case with Akhil Bhartiya Vidhayarti Parishad (ABVP), which has its political alignment with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), and the All India Students Association's (AISA) association with the CPI (ML). It is only Dalit student groups on Indian campuses which are not a part of any of the above student groups and are not associated with any political party. Unlike the other groups, the Dalit students organize voluntarily. So during any kind of backlash or counter-protests or police action, it is Dalits and Adivasis who are much more vulnerable and affected due to these actions which often lead to false cases on them, failing in examinations, physical and mental trauma, hampering of Dalit students' careers, as well as forcing them to commit suicide. Whereas the students associated with other political parties don't have to go through any of the above, majorly because of the caste/class privileges they uphold.
The second strength which Dalits need to survive through the struggle is financial strength. So do we have financial strength? No, we don't have the financial strength, because millions of Dalits live a life of poverty and unemployment. Since precolonial era, Dalits have been living under penury, humiliation, oppression and tyranny. Constitutional rights assigned to Dalits have not yet translated into economic prosperity.There is also strong labour market discrimination, public funding crunch and lack of mentoring because of which we have managed to produce only a handful of Dalit Adivasi entrepreneurs. Very few among us have reached from rags to riches: some are into trade, some own businesses. Dalit entrepreneurship hasn't increased the economic power of Dalit labourers, it is still largely in the confines of the capitalist system. The other service class employees among Dalits associated with different political and social groups, are seen to shift their attention from larger economic and political goals to their own selves. That's why we see there are no consolidated efforts to work on, to fight on an atrocity case that happens in the community, or redress the issue successfully in the court of law.
The third necessary strength which Ambedkar talks about is mental strength. Do we have the mental strength to fight with the etiology of caste oppression? No, because of multigenerational oppression of untouchables resulting from age old caste oppression, in the form of bonded labour (kind of slavery), traditional forms of caste violence against Dalit & Adivasis. All that has now changed are its forms: it has taken the shape of a more institutionalised casteism which is perpetuating caste discrimination in higher educational campuses. This institutionalised forms of caste discrimination directly impact our "confidence, vigour, and ambition", to fight against caste. These attacks also make us "helpless, unenergetic and pale". The sense of revolt can only arise when we will stop accepting things without "complaint or grudge".
We need the above-mentioned strengths to fight and survive the battle against the powerful opposition that we face. Sometimes the enemy is amongst us; when a Dalit standpoint is defined from his particular caste position, it's hard to predict the enemy. It can be either in the sympathetic left who other than being sympathetic towards Dalit atrocities hasn't really worked within their own politbureaus, or acknowledged their own social privileges, along with concomitant social cultural economic capital. Nor have they shown any interest in the project of annihilation of caste among themselves. And the right wing: here, there is a clear positioning of Hindutva ideology and pro-caste attitude which gives them a cultural supremacy. It is easy to fight when you know who is your enemy but when you don't, the battle gets prolonged with the kind of limited 'strengths' we have. There is a need for us Dalits to rethink and to build our strength.
To conclude, the stigma associated with the caste of the Dalit students marks them as unworthy. There is a strong relationship between a Dalit's caste and the behavior of the upper castes against him because of which the centuries old caste discrimination still persists. Dalit students often experience that many professors ask their caste background either directly or indirectly. As a consequence, their grades get affected. It is also observed that once our caste identity becomes public knowledge, we become more vulnerable and prone to indifference and discrimination, either from fellow students or the faculty. This indifference also goes to the extent of humiliation, dehumanization and violence. Some survive through this, some can't. Perhaps Rohith's death was avoidable, perhaps Rohith could have been saved. He could have survived and become a writer of science, like Carl Sagan. But many of us are still in these spaces fighting this battle every day. Rohith's suicide is not an isolated incident and cannot be seen in isolation to other suicides.
Rohith's suicide which created humongous media glare and public sympathy along with students' anger, should decide the future course of demands for justice: like a Rohith Vemula law for caste discrimination in campuses. It shouldn't only be limited to Rohith but also give justice to all the Dalit Adivasi Bahujan students who bravely fought and continue to fight the battle in higher education campuses.
* Dr. Bhalchandra Mungekar is a famous Indian Economist, Teacher, Educationist and Social Worker. He was a Vice Chancellor of University of Mumbai, planning commission member and also member of Rajya Sabha. Along with that he also fulfilled several responsibilities with the state and central government at different committees and positions. He also authored many books. http://www.archive.india.gov.in/govt/rajyasabhampbiodata.php?mpcode=2135
~ Committee, T. (2007). Thorat Committee Report: Caste Discrimination in AIIMS .
~ Kumar, A. (2009, Feb-March, 2009). Caste Discrimination in IIT Delhi: A Report . Retrieved from The Death of Merit: https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/caste-discrimination-in-iit-delhi-a-report/
~ Mukul, A. (2012, Sep 24). Probe finds discrimination against SC/ST students in Delhi medical college. Retrieved from timesofindia.indiatimes.com: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Probe-finds-discrimination-against-SC/ST-students-in-Delhi-medical-college/articleshow/16521598.cms
~ The Death of Merit. (2011, May 21). Who Killed Dr. Balmukund Bharti in AIIMS? Retrieved from TheDeathofMeritinIndia.wordpress.com: https://thedeathofmeritinindia.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/who-killed-dr-balmukund-bharti-in-aiims/
Nilesh Kumar is a PhD Research Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences interested in documenting dalit histories and narratives.