Vikas Kumar Moola has been troubled by two questions ever since his best friend Muthu Krishnan, a postgraduate history student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), killed himself on 13 March. “What could I have done to stop it? Should I have done more to help him make friends?”
Theirs was an old and close friendship based on caste (both are Dalits, the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system), poverty, missed meals, penny pinching and dreams. “I knew he was unhappy, he was lonely, but what else did I miss?” asks Moola, a PhD sociology student at JNU.
List typical characteristics of Dalit students across India, and you can tick them all off against Krishnan’s name. They are first-generation school-goers; they come from rural homes with no toilets or electricity; their command of English is often weak; and their poor, rural origins imply a lack of social sophistication.
On top of this, their self-esteem and confidence already bears the weals of daily brandings: being seated separately at school, served food in different utensils, having to wear wristbands that mark them as Dalits, being singled out to sweep classrooms and toilets, and seeing classmates refuse to eat meals prepared by Dalit cooks.
Jitendra Suna, a Dalit former student from the same department as Krishnan, describes the level of segregation that he encountered as soon as he started at JNU. “When I was allotted my hostel room, I walked in and the boy I was going to share with asked me my caste immediately – then said I had to get out. There is ghettoisation there.”
“The structural violence leaves invisible marks on a Dalit student’s body and psyche that no autopsy can reveal,” wrote Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee, who teaches poetry at New Delhi’s Ambedkar University. “More than anything else, it is this burden of accumulated structural inequity that Krish’s suicide has exposed.”
‘Saving money like an ant’
The caste system has been entrenched in Indian society for centuries. Based on their occupations, people belong to one of four main castes. The first and highest are the Brahmins, who are mainly teachers and priests; the next group are the Kshatriyas, mainly military and administrators; the third are the Vaishyas, traders; and the last and lowest are the Shudras, the people who do menial work. Outside this system altogether are the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, who form about 16% of the Indian population.
When Krishnan announced the news of his acceptance by JNU last July on Facebook, he was deluged with praise from friends. He was a hard-working Dalit student from the poor rural village of Salem in Tamil Nadu province; many described his determination as an inspiration.
He was the first-generation learner in his family. According to his multitude of Facebook posts, he had skipped many meals in order to afford his earlier degree at Hyderabad University, working menial jobs and drinking countless cups of heavily sweetened tea to kill the hunger pangs. He described “saving money like [an] ant … and begging people to get money” to reach JNU, one of India’s premier universities.
Krishnan was so determined to achieve his dream that he apparently wrote his proposal 38 times before making it to JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies, for an MPhil programme in modern history. He had struggled for years to get a grip on the unruly English language; in an earlier interview for JNU, Krishnan said he had been criticised for speaking “simple language”.
English is a monumental mountain for Dalit students to climb: “Even the best Dalit students are not judged to be any good because of their weak English,” says Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a public intellectual who has added ‘Shepherd’ to his caste name as a snub to upper-caste Hindus (he comes from a goat shepherding family).
“No matter how creative a Dalit can be with English, they are judged not on merit, nor depth, nor originality – but on their accent and fluency in English,” Shepherd adds. “The same intellectuals who damn English as a colonial, imperial legacy are the first to penalise Dalit students for not speaking it.”
Sitting in his small study, working on an article about the entrenched discrimination faced by Dalit students in institutions of higher education, JNU’s emeritus professor Dr Sukhadeo Thorat recalls meeting Krishnan just before his untimely death.
Thorat, who is honorary chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, remembers this “tall and striking” student walking over to him after a lecture to shake his hand and ask the origin of a particular quote he had referenced: “When equality is denied, everything is denied.”
“I told him it was from Dr BR Ambedkar [India’s most famous Dalit, who renounced Hinduism to escape the caste system and converted to Buddhism]. He knew his works well, but hadn’t come across this quotation.” Krishnan repeated it in his final Facebook post.
In 2007, Thorat had authored a government-commissioned report, the first of its kind, into caste discrimination at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in the Indian capital. The report found that 72% of students (primarily Dalits) complained of discrimination, and more than 90% said they were humiliated in practical and oral examinations. Hostels were segregated, and Dalit students were socially isolated and excluded from sporting and cultural events.
The report offered a number of recommendations, including remedial coaching in English and guarding the examination system against caste bias. Yet 10 years on, little appears to have changed in India’s higher education system. Indeed Thorat’s son Amit, an assistant professor at JNU, is now working on a pilot study for University College, London, to understand why universities become places of social defeat for so many Dalits.
The early findings of this study – entitled Discrimination, Distress and Higher Education in India – suggest deep and complex pressures. Amit Thorat says it is hard to understand the emotional stresses these students go through concerning their identity: how they look, the clothes they wear and how they speak. “They are made to feel a lack of identity,” he says, “and are disabled through structural and institutional mechanisms.”
Anisa Rao, an upper-caste history student at Hyderabad University, says the differential treatment in university classrooms jumped out at her immediately: “Lecturers are just nicer, friendlier, more interested and more supportive towards us than towards Dalits.”
‘Dalits stick together’
Krishnan’s interest in Dalit history was something he shared with his friend Rahul Sonpimple, a second-year MPhil student at JNU. On the day Krishnan ended his life, they had met for breakfast at Jhelum Hostel.
Sonpimple says his friend seemed in good spirits, putting on sunglasses and mimicking the Tamil film actor Rajnikanth’s dialogue (he was said to look a bit like him). But their discussion soon turned to the pressure they both felt to do well, to help their families escape extreme poverty.
“We sat outside to enjoy the winter sunshine and have poha [savoury puffed rice] and milk,” Sonpimple recalls. “Then Krish said he had to go to the library; he was always breaking off to go and study. He said it had taken him five years to get into JNU, and now he had to prove himself.”
Owing to the heatwave outside, we are talking inside the cavernous dining hall of the Brahmaputra Hostel for male students. The male kitchen staff, some wearing only vests under black aprons, fling steel plates, thalis and serving dishes on to shabby trestle tables in preparation for lunch. Huge mounds of boiled rice are placed more carefully on the tables. The clatter of steel adds to the din of the whirring fans.
“Dalit students stick together,” Sonpimple says over the noise. “Upper-caste faculty and students don’t socialise with us. Krish and I weren’t close friends, but we shared the same ideas over Dalit ideology.”
Even the food Dalits eat has caused them to be singled out for unfair treatment. Dalits have traditionally eaten beef because it is their job to remove dead cows; hence it was, and continues to be, the cheapest source of protein for them. Yet high-caste groups in Hyderabad and other campuses have tried to stop Dalit students eating beef on campus, by getting it removed from the refectory menu and stopping Dalits cooking it in hostels.
Krishnan’s Facebook posts were full of stories of his excitement whenever his family were cooking maana (the word for beef in his Tamil dialect). But he also relayed one anecdote about boarding a bus carrying five kilos of beef in a black plastic bag and spotting an old school friend, then thinking he would be able to pass the journey talking to him. The friend ignored him, and looked for an alternative bus.
Krishnan’s posts offer a chronicle of how being a Dalit shaped his life – even once he had reached the supposedly enlightened surroundings of India’s higher education system.
According to Sonpimple, he was particularly upset by the decision of the national University Grants Commission (UGC) last year to give more weight to the viva voce (verbal discussion) than the written exam in admissions to postgraduate courses. This, Krishnan believed, was a ruse to reduce Dalit applicants, who would lack the English skills of their upper-caste counterparts.
“He told me that when he walked into one interview, the look on the faces of the panel said, ‘Oh, how on earth did you manage to get this far?’” Sonpimple recalls.
In his last Facebook post, Krishnan referred to this new rule: “There is no equality in MPhil/PhD admission, there is no equality in viva voce – there is only denial of equality.”
‘Question their assumptions’
In a recent survey of four Indian states, almost half the upper-caste people polled by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies said the reason Dalits lag behind other groups in life was not due to “unfair treatment”, but a “lack of effort”. This belief flies in the face of the statistics, however: according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 47,064 crimes against Dalits registered in 2014, up 40% from 33,655 in 2012.
“Upper-caste students change the subject when we question their assumptions or challenge their caste privileges,” says Krishnan’s friend Moola. “They don’t even accept we have suffered injustice. This creates a barrier.”
As in most important Indian institutions, the vast majority of lecturers in higher education are from upper-caste backgrounds (62.85%). But 16% of student places are now reserved for Dalits in all federally run universities, and many state governments have given an even larger allocation (JNU reserves 15%).
The larger Dalit student presence is largely the result of India’s policy of “reservations”: affirmative action to make reparations for centuries of inequality. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of Dalits attending college rose by 187%.
Yet these “quota students” are often treated with scorn. Dubbed “uncles” for supposedly being older than the norm (because they may take longer than three years to complete their degrees), Dalit students can be regarded with hostility because the quotas mean there is stiffer competition for everyone else.
Though the UGC issued a regulation in 2012 banning any form of caste discrimination on campuses, Moola says there are no posters or signs at JNU to make students aware of the ban – unlike gender discrimination, which seems to be taken more seriously.
Sukhadeo Thorat believes it is time to introduce a law making caste discrimination in universities a criminal offence. He says this approach worked with “ragging” (the victimisation of new students), which had been a huge problem on campuses. Once ragging was made a criminal offence, universities introduced strict processes to prevent and address it.
Moola agrees – but adds wistfully that, while you can prove violence or abuse, how do you prove something as insidious as exclusion, contempt or denigration? “No matter what I do or Krish could have achieved, in India we will always just be Dalits,” he says.
‘My birth is my accident’
In January 2016, many Indians were plunged into introspection when Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Dalit scholar at Hyderabad University, killed himself. Unlike Krishnan, Vemula left a note linking his desire for death to his experience of prejudice. He wrote: “My birth is my fatal accident.”
Vemula’s death sparked countrywide campus protests, amid accusations of caste-related discrimination. He was one of five Dalit students suspended by the university after they were accused of assaulting the head of a right-wing student political group – a charge they all denied and which was not proved.
They were expelled from their university residence and told they were not allowed to enter any campus buildings, eat at the mess or vote in student elections. The exclusion was likened by supporters to the old practice of veli wada, in which Dalits were forced out of their villages into ghettoes.
According to Professor Shepherd, university administrations ignore widespread caste discrimination. “Education in a situation of inequality and humiliation – with no consolement of any kind – is a source of suicide among Dalit students.”
Sukhadeo Thorat agrees: “My research indicates that experiences of discrimination, exclusion and humiliation are the predominant reasons for Dalit student suicides.” While the statistics are sketchy, one estimate suggests that between 2007 and 2011, 18 Dalit students killed themselves.
JNU has begun an internal inquiry into Krishnan’s death – which, according to Dr Rajesh Kharat, the head of its anti-discrimination cell, was the university’s first Dalit suicide. It has further agreed that if students are not happy with the outcome of this inquiry, it will set up an independent one.
Kharat says that having spent 30 years at the university, he believes caste discrimination is confined to very small pockets – adding that the anti-discrimination cell had received no complaints in its first two years. “However, since Krishnan’s death, we have had six or seven complaints of caste discrimination, which we are looking into.
“JNU is known for providing access to opportunities for poor communities,” Kharat says. “They have gone to join the civil service and academia. But we mustn’t be complacent; the inquiry has to act fast so this young man’s death does not discourage other students.”
Former JNU student Jitendra Suna describes the anti-discrimination cell as “non-functional”, however. “Have they done a single thing to sensitise faculty and students to the need for equal treatment? No. If they were serious, they could have implemented the  Thorat committee’s recommendations.”
“Suicide is usually the result of multiple factors, not just one,” Kharat adds. “I don’t know why Krishnan didn’t approach any of our Dalit faculty. I myself am from the same community, but he didn’t come to me.”
A friend of Krishnan, who asked not to be named, says it is not a cover-up that he fears, but indifference: “We want an independent inquiry, not an internal one. At the condolence meeting, some faculty were already putting the suicide down to ‘personal issues’, so that’s how they might gloss over it.”
Such fears may not be unfounded. An inquiry into Vemula’s death in 2016 – based mainly on interviews with faculty members – concluded he had killed himself out of “personal frustration”, rather than caste discrimination.
And yet, in a letter dated 18 December 2015 that was made public after his death, Vemula wrote to the vice-chancellor of Hyderabad University to raise the issue of discrimination. In the letter, he warns that university authorities should “make preparations for the facility of EUTHANASIA for students like me”.
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