JNU has been celebrated for critical thinking, political activism and regarded as one of the premier institutions for higher education and excellence in research. Students also strongly believe that campuses like JNU would be a 'cultural mechanism' for interactions within the student community coming from diverse social groups, and a resourceful platform for academic learning. For some months now JNU had been in the headlines for voicing 'anti-national slogans' by students of left wing organizations. This time the campus turns out to be a boiling pot for a nationwide debate on the institutional murder of a poor, first generation dalit student, Muthukrishnan of Tamil Nadu.
Muthukrishnan, according to his friend's testimony, died unnaturally as well as suspiciously. Media reports suggests he was forced to commit suicide at his friend's room in Delhi, in a depressive state of mind as a consequence of discriminatory attitudes in the campus while pursuing research. Muthukrishnan was an active member of Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) and raised his voice against Rohith Vemula's social death and other related issues at Hyderabad Central University. He had been a hard working learner who considered education as a tool for social change. He, therefore, repeatedly attempted to get an admission at JNU from his days of doing masters. He never gave up the struggle to join JNU since it was one of his cherished dreams. Eventually he reached there happily.
Not only Muthukrishnan as a 'boy' in his family tried to move upward in the social hierarchy, but all his three sisters also secured M.Phil, B.Sc and BA degrees, one of whom is working as a school teacher, and another as a nurse. Thus the family put an effort collectively in order to grow independently though they are economically backward.
Indian educational institutions killed, even in the previous years, countless Senthil Kumars, Vemulas and Muthukrishnans in the name of research, eminence and merit. All the three young promising scholars, who experienced much pain in their lives and just before their deaths, have many things in common. They are all Dalits, socially oppressed, hard working, socially committed, coming from remote villages but scholarly thinkers. More than all these things they had their own dreams of striving to transform society with egalitarian ideas and contributed to it with intensity.
Senthil Kumar, who died in 2008, wanted to be a physicist. Vemula, who died last year, wanted to be a scientist like Carl Sagan and Muthukrishnan wanted to be an IAS officer.
They encountered social and economic discrimination in their respective villages, nonetheless were determined to conquer such discriminations by attaining higher education. Dalits and other marginalized sections chose resolutely such 'prestigious' institutions of India, for which they have historical reasons and conditions, to broaden their thoughts as 'other' young scholars to succeed in the hierarchical society. But the cruel educational system, which is hegemonised by the dominant ideology of the privileged, has killed their dreams without showing any clemency. These institutional deaths evidently show that higher education is still definitely not the right place for the oppressed or marginalized but the exclusive preserve of the children of privileged class and caste.
Despite numerous instances where dalits have been denied quality education, the entry of the Dalits and other marginalized sections into government schools and colleges with inadequate infrastructure and other learning facilities in the recent years, according to the census report of 2011, has increased 90 percentage relatively to the last two decades.
The entry of the underprivileged often makes the privileged nervous. On the other hand, it would also be a challenge, which makes them deny the rights and opportunities to the opposed section. Their entry has not been seen as healthy competition, rather as an act of reverse discrimination, stealing the entitlements of the privileged to positions in the elite institutions. Hence, the privileged try to stop them at the boundaries of their villages or at the iron gate of higher educational institutions in the name of 'quality education' without contamination by the marginalized. The recent incidents have blown the whistle on discrimination. It is clear that nobody is equal and cannot be equal until Dalits are not considered as fellow humans in society. But they are not to be cared for, but instead have to surrender before the caste society for the benefit of others.
We can raise a question to the teaching community - whether they ever think of the significance of providing education to the underprivileged? For them it is unnecessary. How do supervisors help the students who eagerly come from rural areas to pursue his or her higher education? Is there any platform to facilitate, encourage, develop and nurture their confidence or fitness? Are they really accepting the personal skills of the students? A teacher from a dominant community with dominant ideology may not always express verbally or act overtly discriminatory towards the students of marginalized section. But even a word, even a look, even a small act may hurt the inner feelings of those students.
Can any teacher genuinely say that they could notice a researcher inside the student's psyche? Even in the so called research institutes students could not freely choose their research topics. Until now the terms such as 'Ambedkar', Dalits, reservation and caste would be an aversion for many professors as a research topic, which I have personally experienced.
More often, the supervisors act as Bosses: each student will be a slave for the stipulated time. Of course, the length of the research time is in the hands of the Boss not the student. Mostly supervisors try to silence the student's voice without giving a space for interaction. There is only monologue and no dialogue. Nearly all of the students are forced to do the paperwork for their supervisors who are supposed to complete them. Some of the professors openly command the students not to publish any papers without mentioning his or her name and without the consent of the respective supervisor.
The biggest hurdle is the student sometimes cannot find a suitable professor for their research, despite having as the necessary potential and eligibility. Senthil Kumar of Hyderabad Central University, who died nine years earlier, and Muthukrishnan in JNU, coincidentally, were not able to find a supervisor as they preferred. Why couldn't the university allocate a supervisor of their choice? This problem exists not only in the university but also in small institutes.
Muthukrishnan's death is not an isolated episode happening somewhere else in India. This is the country where every day, every hour, every minute, a fellow human is being killed, harassed, humiliated, tortured, molested and raped only because of the caste they are born into. Dalits have got to face discrimination at every step in their advancement.
Where is the organization which is fully committed to work for Dalits to attain higher education? It is a crucial time to think over this important issue.
Still there is hope; the future is for us, for the young scholars from the entire oppressed group. Once Ambedkar said, ours is a battle for regaining humanity. Muthukrishnan would remain as a martyr to reinstate humanity for Dalits.