Dalits, comprising the lowest rung of India’s highly stratified society, can hardly reach professional colleges and the few who do are often harassed by “upper caste” professors and peers, a quandary that has forced many of them to either quit or commit suicide, as one activist has shown with a list of Dalit suicides.
Anoop Kumar, a Dalit advocate based in New Delhi, has documented at least 18 cases of Dalit students committing suicide due to caste-based discrimination in higher educational institutions since 2007. The actual number was much higher as more cases were being brought to notice following this month’s release of the list, Kumar told The Christian Post.
These Dalit suicides were reported from India’s premier professional colleges, including the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai and Kanpur, the Indian Institute of Sciences in Bengaluru, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the National Institute of Immunology in New Delhi.
Kumar’s list accompanies an amateur documentary film, “The Death of Merit,” also produced by his group, Insight Foundation, which runs Dalit and Adivasi (Tribal) Students’ Portal. The film is based on testimonies by the family of a Dalit student, Bal Mukund Bharti, who committed suicide on March 3, 2010. Bharti was in the final year of MBBS.
The principal of the institute had allegedly told Bharti that he could never become a doctor even if he worked hard. “No one from our village had ever gone to a medical college in 50 years,” Bharti’s father said, sitting on the floor of his thatched house in a small village in the north Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Kumar said neither the police nor the management of AIIMS took the allegation seriously and blamed the suicide on “personal reasons” without an investigation.
There is a “well-entrenched social mechanism” in Indian society to keep Dalits “distanced and demoralized,” said Dr. Ashish Alexander, editor at FORWARD Press, a bilingual, monthly magazine that speaks for marginalized people comprising Dalits, tribals and other backward communities.
“When a bright young student from the Dalit community makes it to an elite institution, against all odds, that mechanism only becomes more relentless, because the faultlines are now more sharply defined,” Alexander told The Christian Post.
An “upper-caste” student, he added, has to spend much more time with the Dalit student – in classroom, in laboratory, in hostel mess – “while prior to joining the institution, he or she could have easily avoided the Dalit counterpart. So the ancient prejudices are now resurfacing with a vengeance.”
Alexander was referring to mandatory reservation of seats for Dalit students in government-run or -aided educational institutions which forces upper caste students to sit with Dalits.
After India’s independence from British rule and following mass movement against the caste system led by activists and reformers such as Jyotirao Phule and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the country’s Constitution provided for a Dalit quota in government jobs, parliament and state assemblies, and educational institutions, as well as some other benefits for their upward mobility.
But over 60 years later, little has changed in social attitudes, activists say.
Formerly known as “untouchables,” Dalits have remained the poorest of the poor for over two millennia in India and some other South Asian nations.
It is believed that the caste system is sanctioned by one of the earliest Hindu scriptures, the Manusmriti.
According to the book, a perfect society should have four irreversibly hierarchical classes with the Brahmins (priests) at the top, the Kshatriyas (warriors) and the Vaishyas (traders) in the middle, and the Shudras (laborers) at the bottom. It says supreme creator Brahma gave birth to the Brahmins from his mouth, the Kshatriyas from his shoulders, the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet. And a fifth category was also deemed as existing, of those who were not considered worthy of any of the four categories. They were called the “untouchables.”
Of the more than 1.2 billion people in India, around 167 million (16 percent) are Dalit, according to the 2001 Census. It is estimated that around 50 percent of the population is Shudra, many of who are also seen as Dalits or lower castes.
Local newspapers routinely report on caste-based discrimination and atrocities, including rape, killings, violent attacks and expulsion from villages, from across the country.
Over the years, the caste system also spread through sections of other religious communities, including Christians, Muslims and Sikhs.
Kumar said while professional colleges were giving admissions to Dalit students under the quota, they were unable to provide them the assistance and support they need because of their unique background.
It’s not about the capability of Dalit students, Kumar stressed, saying it was a myth that the Dalits could not compete with others if given an opportunity. He added that it was a common, but false, notion that caste-based prejudice and atrocities existed only in rural parts of the country.
“In almost all the cases we documented, the students committing suicide were toppers when at school. They committed suicide at the far-end of their courses which shows they were not weak or escapists. Each of them struggled, tried everything possible to cope up with the hostilities they faced but ultimately realized that the system was too strong for them to take on and that they were alone,” Kumar said.
To fight the discrimination, the Dalit community should develop a support system for their students, “for example, formation of a Dalit students alumni,” Kumar proposed. “We are also seeking severe punishment for those who are found guilty [of discrimination]. I have yet to come across a case where a faculty member or student was punished or penalized for this.”
Kumar, who had to drop out of his college in 2001 due to discrimination, recently started a Dalit and Tribal Students’ Helpline, which receives around a dozen calls every day.
Alexander agreed with Kumar. “The question is not about merit. There are unspoken rules. The upper castes think they alone have the right to enter these premier institutions. It’s taken for granted that these belong to them. What is rather shocking is that in many cases, the ‘meritorious’ Dalit students who could have entered these institutions without needing any reservation also bear the brunt.”