Dalit Students and India’s Hostile Higher Education Sector

Is the issue of Dalit student suicides in India not being given due attention?

Updated
India
4 min read
There is no government data available on Dalit student suicides in India. (Photo: Reuters)

The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

These are Rohith Vemula’s last words from his suicide note before he hanged himself to death on 17 January. Rohith, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH), was expelled from his hostel, along with four other researchers, two weeks ago.

Rohith’s suicide note hints at both discrimination and injustice, triggering yet another debate on the fate of Dalits in higher education in India. Social media is already witnessing a war between the pro-Dalit and anti-quota brigades.

This is not the first time a Dalit student has committed suicide in India. Neither is this our first encounter with discrimination realities in India. The issue of discrimination against Dalits usually gets caught up in the debate of merit vs reservation, lack of competency, the emergence of a creamy layer and victims of the quota regime. But a look at the facts and reports on Dalits in higher education in India tell a story of consistent injustice.

Dalit Student Suicides in India

Incidents of Dalit students committing suicide in India are far more frequent than we thought. Amidst allegations of injustice from universities and administrative staff, there are many who have ended their lives leaving questions behind.

There is no government data on the number of suicides by Dalit students in India. First-hand media reports and journalistic investigations are usually the only source. In light of this, a group of Dalit activists under the aegis of Insight Foundation decided to document such cases and came out with a list in 2011.

The document published on their blog The Death of the Merit in India, highlighted that more than 18 Dalit students committed suicide in a short span of 2007 to 2011. Three more cases have been registered since then. The list only includes incidents that made news and saw follow up by parents or activist groups. There is no account of the ones that could not make headlines.

The Thorat Committee Report in 2007

All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) was rocked by reports of harassment and suicides of Dalit students after OBC quota was introduced in 2006. Soon after the cases made headlines, the Government of India set up a committee to inquire into allegations of discrimination towards Dalit students. It was probably the first effort in independent India to probe caste discrimination in one of India’s best institutes.

The report compiled by then University Grants Commission Chairperson S K Thorat gave scathing evidence about rampant caste discrimination suffered at every level, not just by the students but also by the SC and ST faculties in the institute. The report was submitted in 2007 but none of the recommendations were ever acted upon.

In 2012, despite huge criticism, AIIMS decided to scrap the report altogether.

The Curious Case of Vardhaman College

The college turned a deaf ear to students’ grievances one after the other. (Photo: iStockphoto)
The college turned a deaf ear to students’ grievances one after the other. (Photo: iStockphoto)

In 2010, thirty-five medical students, all Scheduled Caste candidates, failed en-masse in Physiology at Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College. The college turned a deaf ear to Dalit students’ grievances one after the other.

After the matter came to the media, a single-member committee appointed by the National Scheduled Caste Commission examined every aspect of the case. Rajya Sabha MP Bhalchandra Mungekar’s report highlighted that the said department “resorted to caste-based discrimination and neglected the duties assigned to them. Not only did the students lose years because of this apathy, shockingly, the same authorities were guilty of showing leniency towards general category students.”

Another probe regarding a similar but previous incident highlighted that the Dalit students consistently failed with ‘one mark’ and students who failed in ‘physiology’ had performed quite well in other subjects. Vardhaman college rejected both the reports.

Dominance of Upper-Caste Hindus

The latest All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) conducted by the government of India, portrays the ‘age old, as told’ image of social justice in India. Despite numerous reforms and reservation the society remain divided both by caste and religion.

The survey that covered 633 universities (public and private), 24,120 colleges and 6,772 standalone institutions shows that Muslims, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes are highly under-represented in higher education teaching jobs relative to their population.

Upper-caste Hindus dominate the teaching profession at an all-India level and reflect a non-inclusive higher education sector in India.

The list of studies and reports is vast, and almost all of them identify discrimination as the DNA of the problem and issues like stress and competency peripheral to that.

Sadly, though, more than often it’s the latter that occupies the discourse on social networks and popular media.

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