“What is understood as merit in India’s educational institutions is only another name for the accumulated cultural capital of India’s upper-caste elites.”
PhD scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide brings to the fore important questions regarding caste-based violence in institutions of higher education in India. While this tragic incident was triggered by the ongoing conflict between two student groups of Hyderabad University and the incompetent fashion in which it was handled by the university administration, there is a need to see Rohith’s death as part of a larger scheme of things in higher education institutions across the country.
Rohith’s suicide is not an isolated instance; nine students have taken their lives in the last seven years in the University of Hyderabad alone. All of them were from Dalit or backward castes. In all the cases, the inability of institutions to accommodate socially marginalised groups was the prime motivating factor.
Time and again it has been pointed out that educational spaces in India are conceived by design as exclusively upper-caste spaces characterised by an underlining hostility for the official reservation policy — spilling over as outright disgust and hatred for students from marginalised backgrounds, irrespective of their academic achievements or merit.
The findings of the Thorat Committee, instituted in 2006 to investigate allegations of discriminatory treatment meted out to SC/ST students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and the subsequent suicide of a student at that very institution, are a case in point. The report submitted by the then UGC chairman Sukhdeo Thorat noted the manner in which the professors at AIIMS tried to intimidate students and prevent them from deposing before the committee and goes on to trace the social isolation and oppression experienced by Dalit students at the premier educational institution.
The ‘Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in AIIMS, Delhi’ systematically detailed the way the aggressive anti-reservationists of the Mandal era occupied crucial positions at the helm and ensured that entry into the institution was strictly policed, leading to serious illegalities in the appointment of faculty members and implementation of the reservation policy at AIIMS. The report noted aggression against students from lower castes in every aspect of their daily lives – from the classroom to faculty interaction, from the hostel and mess to examinations – making their ostracisation from the community activities of the institute a bitter reality. The committee made many specific and pointed recommendations for the improvement of the administration of educational institutions, but even after a decade there has been no action on any of those pointed suggestions.
The University of Hyderabad too has constituted a number of committees to look into the spate of suicides by Dalit students on its campus. Report after report has pointed out the insensitive manner in which students from marginalised communities are treated by the entire university hierarchy, and delineated a clear link between caste-related aggression and suicides.
A committee chaired by sociologist Sasheej Hegde in 2014 pointed out that students from marginalised backgrounds experience a strong sense of alienation and disaffection within the university set-up, which needs to be addressed immediately. It is worth noting here that in a meeting of all the faculty members convened to discuss the findings of Prof. Hegde’s report, some faculty members from the natural sciences took strong objection to the committee’s arguments and demanded that ‘scientific proof’ be furnished to prove their casteism. The response of all university administrations to instances of suicide by Dalit students is to pathologise the individuals and blame their personal shortcomings. A typical response has been to psychologise the issue and provide for a psychiatrist on campus, thus demonstrating a reluctance to to acknowledge the social basis of caste-based aggression and violence.
In 2013, a significant work, Beyond Inclusion: The Practice of Equal Access in Indian Higher Education (2013), edited by sociologists Satish Deshpande and Usha Zacharias, flagged the crucial issues surrounding the issue of formal inclusion through a policy of reservation. For instance, political scientist N. Sukumar of Delhi University, who studied at the University of Hyderabad, points out how the university has continued to be a de facto Brahmanical space, evident from the manner in which a special well had to be dug for a professor who agreed to take up a position in the mathematics department only if arrangements were made for him to take a ritual bath. On the other hand, he describes with pain the taunts from upper-caste students who complained that the Dalit students were consuming too much food in the mess, which was resulting in increased mess bills.
In the same volume, activist Anoop Kumar of InSight Foundation, who has been spearheading a campaign to address caste-related violence in educational institutions for a decade, is of the view that it is important to realise the character of India’s educational institutions as natural extensions of a violent casteist culture. From this context arises the entire discourse of naturalising Dalit suicides by blaming the reservation policy and the students themselves for their inability to cope with the pressure of a premier institution. As Kumar’s documentation over the years reveals, the truth is just the opposite: a large number of students who take their lives have strong academic achievements, and it is their claim to equal treatment that upsets the academic establishment.
In fact as sociologist Satish Deshpande of the Delhi School of Economics argues, a kind of hyper-visibility of lower-caste identity was created in the wake of governments’ compensatory affirmative action, which intensified after the anti-Mandal agitations. Admission into educational institutions, he argues, makes ‘reserved category’ a de facto identity for lower caste students, while the upper-caste identity is subdued and referred to in secular terms as ‘general category’.
In another publication social anthropologist Ajantha Subramanian of Harvard University points out that what is understood as merit in India’s educational institutions is only another name for the accumulated cultural capital of India’s upper-caste elites.
It is in these circumstances that a young scholar has taken the irrevocable step of ending his life. The most depressing fact about the incident is the utterly callous manner in which our educational institutions have failed a bright youth whose desire to be “a writer of science, like Carl Sagan” could not be realised for as he wrote in his last letter, ‘The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity.’ Rohith’s death points to an alarming pattern: Senthil Kumar, yet another Dalit scholar who ended his life at the University of Hyderabad, wrote that he aspired to win a Nobel and was inspired by the life and work of former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. This is, in Amartya Sen’s words, an intolerable waste of talent.
Rohith Vemula was an exceptionally bright and politically vocal student. He was a Junior Research Fellow from two different disciplines and was a socially conscious and articulate scholar. The circumstances that drove him to take his life must make us pause and take cognisance of the violence implicit in India’s educational set-up, as we debate a new education policy for India.
Vikram Chukka is a doctoral candidate at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. He studied at the University of Hyderabad from 2006 to 2011