February 5, 2016
by Divya Trivedi.
A study of the responses to suicides by Dalit and other marginalised students in higher educational institutions in India throws up a disturbing picture of a deeply casteist society. Not just the government, but the college administrations, the police, the health system and non-State players such as the media and the civil society, have reacted in prejudicial and problematic ways to the 25-30 suicide cases reported in the past decade.
While in the immediate aftermath of a suicide the attempt had been to hush up the matters, once the college admits that there was one, what then follows is a long drawn painful battle for the family of the deceased to bring out the truth behind it. Wherever enquiry committees were set up by college administrations to probe the cause of death, it was only after constant follow up and pressure from the family or friends. Many of these reports are yet to be filed or made public, even several years after more suicides were reported from the same institutions. The parents and family members of these students, still await closure.
A case in point is that of Indian Institution of Technology (IIT) Bombay. In September 2014, Aniket Ambhore, 22 was found dead below a six-storey hostel building. At first, the institution tried to hush up the matter as a freak accident and were hesitating to term it ‘suicide’. In their quest for an explanation for his death, his parents wrote to the Human Resource Development (HRD) Ministry and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) but got no response. Only after they managed to get their Member of Parliament to raise the issue in Rajya Sabha, a probe committee was set up. The larger campus community was not informed that the committee had been set up and people close to him were not interviewed to judge the veracity of the caste slurs he suffered, says Kranthi Kumar, member of the Dalit student’s body on campus, Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle(i). Students themselves had to approach the authorities to submit their statements.
Explaining the kind of institutionalised discrimination on campus, Kranthi says, “Students who have a work backlog are sent to counsellors and enrolled in Academic Rehabilitation Program(ARP) where some of them are treated for depression and made to have anti-depressants. Most in ARP are Dalits who are made to feel they don’t deserve to be in IIT.” Aniket was made to enrol in ARP and was worried about his academic performance as is known through the letters he wrote to his supervisor. His parents, Sunita and Sanjay, went to meet Prof Narayanan, who was heading the ARP in April 2012 to inquire about Aniket’s position. In their testimony, the parents said, “In that meeting, Narayanan asked Aniket his JEE rank (which was 7242, and his category rank was 92) and then spoke to him in a humiliating manner, “How did you get admission here, do you know? Because of reservation. You will have to work harder since you are from a category. This is not a chocolate that everybody can have.” He also mentioned in that meeting that any JEE rank beyond 3000 is useless. Then he told us in a harsh tone, in front of Aniket, “You take him away from here. He will not be able to cope here. He will be happy in other normal engineering colleges….” and in a discouraging manner he simply told us to take Aniket away from IITB. Hearing these statements we told Prof Narayanan that his comments were demotivating and that he was being unfair to Aniket by dismissing him as a weak student. He then remarked, “These people take 7-8 years to clear the course and waste whole lives here. “These comments were disturbing for us since such a senior faculty member was making such casteist remarks about Aniket’s academic ability.”
The report submitted by psychiatrist Dr Rajendra Barve, of Parivartan in April 2015, based on his sessions with Aniket during 2014 also states that Aniket felt discriminated at the institution. “Apart from his difficulties as a person during the course of therapy he expressed that he was experiencing casteist feelings about belonging to a particular caste. He also mentioned that he found interacting with some professors at IIT painful. He expressed his desire to earn his success on his own merits and not based on caste and socioeconomic circumstances. He recalled comments and felt humiliated when a professor suggested that he should drop out.” That no action has taken place based on these testimonies, or nobody has been asked to explain themselves publicly, exposes how lightly the institution takes accountability. This also exposes an acute lack of will to course correct within the teaching community in IIT, despite multiple suicides. Or simply that casteism is so entrenched amongst them that they refuse to admit guilt by one of their own. The students say that the committee report on Ambhore has been submitted and that the institution is reluctant to make it public but the same could not be verified as the committee members were unavailable for comment. Aniket’s mother, Sunita wrote a moving letter to Rohith Vemula’s family and friends highlighting the direct as well as “hidden casteism” that took the lives of both these promising young men.
Victims of Systemic Casteism
In July 2015, a B.Tech student from Haryana committed suicide by consuming chemicals. He was a victim of a case of backlogs, ARP and depression. In Nov 2008, two videographers Nitin Kamble and Narendra Divekar, attempted suicide over caste slurs allegedly hurled at them over several months by the Centre for Distance Engineering Education Program’s web director Rahul Deshmukh. And afterwards, in May and June 2015, a third-year chemical engineering student and a 23-year-old pursuing MTech in Earth Sciences attempted suicides, respectively. There have been several students, who after experiencing systemic forms of caste discrimination on campus, leave the place and the course itself.
The commonality in these deaths is the urge to brand the deceased to be suffering from depression. They tried to say Aniket was depressed, Shrikant Malepula, who committed suicide in 2007 in IIT Bombay was depressed. Not just college administration but media experts are also quick to brand Dalit suicides as cases of depression. Manu Joseph, a columnist in a leading newspaper came under severe flak for insinuating that Rohith Vemula had died of depression and not oppression. Noted journalist and Magsaysay awardee P Sainath, amongst others, at a speech in HCU, called him out for trying to brand all farmer suicides and Dalit suicides in this country as products of depression. “why are some classes and castes in society more depressed than everyone else? But, there is a more cruel and venomous insinuation in this: This is not emotional depression, they are treating it as a mental health issue…this is inborn.”Soon after, the social media was abound with hashtags of ManuSmriti (combining Manu Joseph’s first name and the first name of Smriti Irani the current HRD minister, thus a convenient combination of Manusmriti the code of law which dehumanizes women and members of oppressed sections of the society was made.
Most of these deaths have been of students in the science or technical streams and particularly the IITs and National Institute of Technologies (NITs). We spoke to students across these campuses and found that the incidence of casual taunts and caste slurs towards students who get into these institutions via reservation, by professors and fellow students is phenomenally high. To begin with, there is tremendous work pressure on students who make it to these institutions and the accompanied discrimination, is what may lead to some students feeling anxious or depressed but that does not mean they are all going to commit suicide. “It is not because professors are bad or anything, but they are ignorant about how to deal with students from different backgrounds. They have such little knowledge outside of their research sphere. What is needed is a sensitisation program to educate professors across campuses on how to deal with SC/ST /OBC, religious minority, queer and other students,” says Phanendra Srikanth, student IIT Bombay.
Amongst the IITs, Kanpur is by far the most notorious for suicides. Eight were recorded between 2005-10 and an RTI query revealed that no enquiry committee was formed to probe these cases. Instead, a fact finding team was put in place to find the reason for the suicides but none was found. The institute said, in its reply to the RTI query, that they can’t reveal the findings of the committee to media or public as it was an internal matter. As preventive measures, the IIT panel suggested yoga classes, to replace ceiling fans with table fans and reduce the speed of the internet! How this will help students from feeling better and not committing suicide is beyond logical comprehension.
Not always are the recommendations of committees so bizarre and completely off the mark. Noteworthy is the Vinod Pavarala committee that was set up after the death of Senthil Kumar, PHD student in School of Physics, HCU in 2008 and gave several recommendations for admissions, allotment of supervisors and actual process of supervision. It said, “Overall, there is a need for all faculty members to internalize greater sensitivity about students belonging to the reserved categories, including those from other socially and educationally backward classes. Rather than being impervious to caste and other markers of inequality in our society, it is important to be pro-active in mentoring and advising of students who come from less privileged backgrounds, both in the classroom and outside. At a time when ‘access and equity’ in higher education are the watchwords of the government and the UGC, it is imperative that a top-ranking central institution such as ours takes a lead in nurturing and promoting a corps of scientists from among the marginalized sections of our society.” In the wake of Rohith Vemula’s death, how many of these recommendations were taken seriously by the teachers, remains a pertinent question.
The role of the media is the most questionable amongst all other institutions. Most of these deaths did not find enough column space in mainstream dailies and faded from public memory precisely because the media did not follow up on further actions. The media has always functioned as a watchdog of afflicted tragedies and seldom as an accountable estate as far as these deaths go. On other matters of Dalits, they are laden with suspicion. A recent report in a leading newspaper on the amendments to the SC/ST POA Act, read like an alarm bell, insisting that the Act was bound to be misused. Such biased depiction does not help the cause of correctly informing the public about the real situation of marginalised people in the country. A political commentator remarked caustically that most laws in this country are misused, especially traffic laws, so should we do away with all of them? Whatever legal provisions are put in place first, one has to accept that caste discrimination thrives in society and thereby also exists in our higher educational institutions. Only then, the safeguards put in place can work.
In stark contrast to these responses, the response of international academics, in one instance led by Rupa Viswanath, Professor of Indian Religions, University of Göttingen, Germany restores some hope in the role larger society can effectively play. In an open letter to the Vice Chancellor of University of Hyderabad, 275 from the global scholarly community without mincing any words demanded that “the authorities at the University of Hyderabad to immediately reinstate Rohith Vemula’s four peers, to provide support to his family, and to launch a police investigation into his passing. But that is not enough. The University of Hyderabad must ensure not only that justice be done now, but that further injustice be rigorously prevented.”
Divya is a New Delhi based journalist covering social issues among other things.