The 'Death of Merit' and a debate on caste discrimination in educational institutions

[ A Round Table India report ]

Hyderabad, Aug, 07, 2011: The National Dalit Forum organized a screening of the 'Death of Merit' documentaries by the Insight Foundation, followed by a discussion on the suicides of Dalit students in institutions of higher education and on caste discrimination in campuses, today in the morning at Dr. Ambedkar Convention Centre, Samrat Complex, Hyderabad. Three documentaries, incorporating the testimonies of the parents, families etc of Bal Mukund Bharti of AIIIMS, Jaspreet Singh of Government Medical College, Chandigarh and Manish Kumar Guddolian of IIT-Roorkee were shown to a sizeable gathering which included many Dalit and human rights activists and students among others. [ Please watch the documentaries here ].

 There were not many dry eyes among the audience after the screening. A visibly moved R. Ravi Kumar of the National Dalit Forum initiated the discussion that followed the screening, recalling his own experiences as a victim of caste discrimination as a student in the nineties, in the University of Hyderabad and elsewhere. He also talked about the efforts made by activists to investigate the deaths of Senthil Kumar of University of Hyderabad, and Bandi Anusha of Villa Marie College, Hyderabad, a few years ago.

Bojja Tharakam, veteran human rights advocate and Dalit intellectual, echoed the feelings of the gathering when he said that he found the documentaries 'very disturbing',  and he found it difficult to offer a comprehensive analytical response to the documentaries at that moment. He stressed the need to build a national movement against caste discrimination in educational institutions. Thanking the laudable efforts of Anoop Kumar, Gurinder Singh and the young activists of Insight Foundation, he made the suggestion that efforts should be made to exhibit the documentaries at all educational institutions, particularly the IITs and other elite institutions. He also requested the young activists to try to document the reactions of the friends and classmates of the dead students in their future efforts.

Mr.Tharakam also pointed out the clear distinction between the responses of the educated middle class parents and the rural illiterate ones, as recorded in the documentaries. He interpreted this as a result of the educated Dalit sections' 'alienation' from the larger dalit community. He said the educated sections have been trying to seek an 'escape' from the everyday reality of caste discrimination against the Dalits. 

Mr. Bharat Bhushan, Hindi lecturer, also recalled his schooldays and the oppressive behaviour of his upper caste teachers, their constant humiliating taunts. This discrimination continued through his college days, he said, when upper caste lecturers tried to bar him from writing his exams on very flimsy grounds. He opined that the growth of the Hindutva elements in all public spheres can only be countered through the acceptance of Dr. Ambedkar's emancipatory philosophy and the path of Buddhism that he embraced. 

Anoop Kumar of the Insight Foundation  expressed the view that the Dalits students' suicides represented only the 'tip of the iceberg' of the systemic caste discrimination practised in educational institutions, especially in the elite ones like the IITs, AIIMS etc. He said while only half or thereabouts of seats reserved for the Dalits and Adivasis were usually filled in those institutions, another 25-30% of students drop out, a majority in the very first year itself, of those courses due to constant harassment and the environment of hostility created by the faculty and fellow students. The alienation of the students from the marginalized communities in these institutions was further strengthened by the absence of any institutional support system, and the lack of diversity in the faculty and administrative hierarchy of the institutions. He pointed out how seriously lopsided is the composition of the faculties in the central universities/institutes: 98.4% of the professors in 25 central institutions come from an upper caste background. 

Karthik Navayan of the National Dalit Forum, and other speakers, emphasized the need for educated Dalits to wholeheartedly imbibe Dr. Ambedkar's philosophy. He said 'without installing Babasaheb in their drawing rooms' and hearts, it would be difficult to forge the necessary solidarity in the community to fight oppression and discrimination. Mohd.Mustafa Quadri of the International Human Rights Association (I.H.R.A) talked about the constitutional safegaurds against discrimination, and offered free legal aid to students facing caste based harassment in educational institutions. Ravi Kumar of Shanti Chakra also spoke on the need for middle class Dalits to start building social networks for mutual support.