'Discrimination, Exclusion Continue to Plague Dalit Students'

One of the primary forms by which Dalit students are discriminated against is their lack of fluency in English, say activists and scholars.

New Delhi: The death of Dalit scholar, Muthukrishanan who went by the name Rajini Krish on March 13, has once again brought into focus questions of social exclusion and institutional discrimination suffered by Dalit students in universities across India. While Krish’s death has been treated by the Delhi police as a suicide, his father has questioned this conclusion and demanded a probe.

JNUSU president Mohit Pandey told The Wire that as of now, an FIR has been lodged and the details of the case remain unclear. While the investigation is still at a preliminary stage, Dalit activists – and especially the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA) at JNU – have been vocal in their demand for justice. Reminiscent of Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula’s suicide 14 months ago, Krish’s death has seen the term ‘institutional murder’ being used once again.

At a press conference here on Wednesday, a number of activists addressed the media about continuing systemic discrimination that Dalits face in pursuing higher education. Delhi University professor Hans Raj Suman drew attention to how incidents of violence and discrimination against Dalit and Adivasi students are commonplace within campuses but become visible only when students become research scholars. He argued that the space for backward castes in universities has been gradually shrinking, especially with a 45% budget cut over two years.

Suman and others strongly emphasised the role of language in perpetuating discrimination. Dalit writer Anita Bharti spoke of her own experience in Delhi University – of how students who prefer to study subjects in Hindi are automatically discriminated against. Such students, Bharti alleged, are given lower grades and repeatedly failed. The ‘Hindi medium’ students are largely from Dalit or socially underprivileged backgrounds.

Ratan Lal, who teaches history in Delhi University’s Hindu College, pointed out that the problem was in how the ability to read and write in English has come to represent knowledge itself, and this linguistic hegemony has become the basis of systemic discrimination in higher education leading to the exclusion of those who cannot express themselves in the language. This inability however, he argued, does not mean that the student lacks merit – because merit is after all socially construed. What was needed, he said, was for universities to provide a space where minds can question freely and grow, irrespective of linguistic proficiency.

Bharti also drew attention to the inability of professors who come from elite backgrounds to comprehend, empathetically, the struggle behind each of these ‘Hindi medium’ students finding their way into universities. Suman spoke about how these students are often intimidated and made to live in fear or under immense pressure. Hailing from remote villages where they usually perform well, in university they often find themselves either failing or getting drastically lower grades, struggling to cope in the absence of institutional support.

The panellists stressed the need for sensitisation and demanded that Dalit grievance redressal committees be established in universities. Furthermore, they said that a helpline should be instituted to assist Dalit students who feel victimised.

Alleging that institutions of higher education lack the social responsibility to address blatant casteism, they said that a change in the prevalent mindset was needed to ensure that Dalit students are not excluded from education and social mobility.