Gatecrashing the gurukuls
By N Sukumar
12 February 2016
The struggles of Dalit students in India’s college campuses.
On 17 January 2016, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at Hyderabad Central University (HCU), hanged himself in his friend’s hostel room. The university administration had suspended him, along with four other students, ordering them to evacuate their hostel rooms two weeks earlier. He had already stopped receiving his monthly stipend of INR 25,000 (USD 365) since July 2015. His involvement with the Ambedkar Student Association (ASA), particularly in protesting the death penalty and judicial execution of Yakub Menon and condemning the attacks by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) during the screening of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai on campus had caused a university backlash, leading to the eviction of the five students from their hostel room.
The Hyderabad Central University is an institution that has been awarded an A Grade by the National Accreditation and Assessment Council, which denotes an institution of excellence as per academic indicators. However, this university has the dubious distinction of repeatedly rusticating students predominantly from marginalised groups. Eleven students in Hyderabad have taken their own lives in the past eight years. Rohith Vemula, who wanted to be “a writer of science, like Carl Sagan”, has now been added to this statistic.
Education is supposed to be the instrument with which to usher in radical social transformation and liberation, enabling oppressed communities to overthrow centuries old social-cultural burdens. However, any avenue for social transformation is met with deep resistance from a brahmanical social system unwilling to relinquish its reins on power. In this context, Ambedkar’s slogan to “educate, organize and agitate” is extremely relevant as it is an important means for marginalised groups to overthrow their slavery. Needless to say, the Ambedkarite Constitution reflected these values when the provision of affirmative action was legally legitimised so as to enable an opportunity of representation to the hewers of wood and the drawers of water in Indian society.
“I used to proudly tell everyone in my village that my son was doing PhD at Hyderabad University. Today, I have come to collect his dead body” Rohith’s mother said on the day after his death. In a Facebook photo album, Rohith had put up a picture of his mother’s sewing machine, acknowledging the labour with which she had supported the family till he started receiving the junior research fellowship. Any individual who attempts to thwart the social hierarchy has a long history of struggle to gain access to resources like education and employment. This journey is very cruel, the path strewn with humiliation. Often at its end is an unexplained death like that of Senthil Kumar whose parents rue the day their son went to study at HCU. Or Pulayela Raju, also from HCU, whose death is dismissed as a suicide over a failed love affair. Mudassir Kamran, a student at the English and Foreign Languages University at Hyderabad also committed suicide after he was arrested by the police. An interpersonal issue was allowed to fester and the administration failed to settle the grievances or ask both the parties to go for counseling. Humiliated by the police treatment, Mudassir killed himself.
The starry-eyed Dalit and minority youth who enter the portals of the institutions of higher learning realise that in India, one can never be liberated from the shackles of caste and religious exclusion
What links these cases is the desire for education, the hope to escape the drudgery of caste discrimination, and hopefully, to live a more meaningful life. The past two decades, post-Mandal has witnessed a social churning in Indian society that has resulted in increased diversity in the academic institutions. The academic elites view the newcomers as interlopers who have gate-crashed into their gurukuls. In the public universities, the faculty is dominated by the upper caste and a majority of the students are from marginalised groups because they lack the resources to attend fancy private institutions. The increasing privatisation of education has further entrenched the struggle of the youth from oppressed communities, many of whom are the first in their families to receive higher education. These students are unwilling to abide by casteist feudal norms and struggle visibly for their constitutional rights. The starry-eyed Dalit and minority youth who enter the portals of the institutions of higher learning realise that in India, one can never be liberated from the shackles of caste and religious exclusion.
This is reflected in the suspension order of Rohith and his friends in HCU which, while allowing them to attend classes, explicitly forbid the students from accessing the administration, being part of any political or cultural activities, or contesting student union elections on campus. Hence, they named the area in which they set up camp after they were told to evict their hostel rooms as ‘velivaada’ or ostracised space. In villages, this is the space for excommunicated people who are forced to stay bereft of social, political and economic contacts.
Evolution of ASA
I was a student at HCU from 1991-2001 and then again from 2004-2006. As a founding member of the ASA, we set up the organisation in 1993. The implementation of the Mandal commission in the early 1990s – a system of reservation and quotas for backward castes – had polarised the campus into pro- and anti-Mandal groups, in the form of the Progressive Students Forum (PSF) and Anti Mandal Commission Force, respectively. In 1991, the Tsundur caste atrocity in Andhra Pradesh and Ambedkar birth centenary celebrations galvanised Dalit students to interrogate their ideological commitments. Gradually, a shift occurred in 1993 in the PSF as it was dominated by upper-caste leftists and many Dalit members felt that their voices were not being heard.
The ASA was envisioned as a platform to provide an assertive ‘voice’ to the Dalit students on campus. Their first success was to get the administration to rename an auditorium the Ambedkar Lecture Hall Complex. Before this, no other building on HCU campus was named after Ambedkar. Within a span of five years, Ambedkar’s portrait adorned all the hostels and the central library. The change in iconography reflected the confidence and courage of the Dalits on campus. Progressively, the ASA focused on filling up the reserved seats in admissions and hostels, the disbursal of scholarships and preventing ragging of students. They also worked to ensure that there was no caste discrimination while marking papers and interviews during viva sessions.
In 2002, ten Dalit students, who also happened to be the leaders of ASA, were expelled from the campus. In one stroke, the administration succeeded in muzzling the voice of ASA for almost a decade. It took enormous effort on the part of committed students to revitalise the organisation from 2011 onwards. On a field visit in HCU in November 2014, I noticed that the entire campus was painted in blue with posters and pamphlets: ASA had won the student union elections.
First generation Dalit students have often sought the support of their peers in student organisations to negotiate campus life. Organisations like the ASA offer assistance in many ways – for admissions, hostel life, with English which is a major issue for Dalit students, cultural celebrations and generally giving them a sense of community. After Rohith Vemula joined ASA, his felicity with the English language had helped the ASA in its mobilisation strategy. Student organisations can continue to be a major facilitator for Dalit consciousness and representation of marginalised voices.
Caste biases in university departments
In 2008, Senthil Kumar, a doctoral science student at HCU killed himself in the hostel where I spent most of my life as a researcher. The body was discovered after two days, exemplifying the extreme isolation and humiliation he faced from the ‘intellectual’ community around him. The HCU campus, like other Indian universities, is divided on the basis of caste and language. This is evident on campus, in class rooms and in hostels.
The skewed majoritarian nature of conversations on caste in the classrooms makes Dalits and other marginalised students more vulnerable
Rajan (name changed), a PhD student at the History department took Senthil’s body to the hospital and is part of the group which has been on indefinite hunger strike protesting Rohith’s death. He describes the state of caste biases in university departments: “science teachers are inherently biased and use derogatory language against the Dalit students, for whom classrooms become very hostile. The teacher’s body language is also very intimidating. In department like Mathematics, hardly any Dalit students are able to finish their Masters… Also they have been traditionally apolitical often leaving students at the mercy of the faculty without the support of the peer group to help them out in cases of discrimination”.
Indeed, the ratio of Dalit and non-Dalit students is extremely skewed in the sciences. They find it difficult to protest as the teachers are able to influence their careers even after they graduate with a university degree. Even getting a letter of recommendation is difficult for Dalit students. I still possess the copy of the recommendation written by a Maharashtrian Brahmin professor who made it a point to comment on my English language skills. Years later, after I joined Delhi University as faculty, I met another HCU upper-caste professor from my own Political Science department. He was on a visit to Delhi, and I invited him home for dinner. As he had joined the department after I had left the campus he was unsure of my caste and accepted the invitation. When he arrived at my place, he saw Ambedkar’s portrait. He repeatedly asked my partner what her last name was. After a reluctant cup of tea, he abruptly left without any dinner.
Dalit students tend to be most easily accommodated into social science courses, colloquially often called ‘food courses’. The logic for this disparaging term seems to be that Dalit students are confined to social sciences as all upper-caste students have moved on to professional market-oriented courses which offer lucrative jobs. Since these courses are financially out of reach for Dalit students they make do with ‘leftover’ courses. These ensure that a Dalit student will at least get food, hostel facilities, and a stipend so that their everyday survival can be assured.
The skewed majoritarian nature of conversations on caste in the classrooms makes Dalits and other marginalised students more vulnerable. Their silence is often taken to be acquiescence to this worldview, even as they know it to be dehumanising to their life-worlds. Rajan says, “I cringed when during a classroom discussion the argument was given that Dalit women are loose in character and thus invite rape. I remained silent as I wanted to be ‘accepted’ by my classmates.” According to him, speaking and interacting in English is a major source of insecurity as many Dalit students attend schools where the medium of instruction was in their vernacular language. “The administrative apparatus was another conundrum whose language was also a mystery for me and my fellow marginalised students.”
Rohith had written a desperate and sarcastic letter to the vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile in December 2015 requesting for “10 mg of Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at time of admission” and “a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students”.
The HCU campus has witnessed several student suicides in the last eight years. Most of these students, such as P Raju and Swaran Singh, were from SC/ST backgrounds and were first generation learners. Many tried to frame the death of P Raju as strictly the outcome of a failed romance. Rajan told me “P Raju had some relationship issues but what caused anxiety was the fact that his result was withheld the entire semester and the administration never responded to his requests. Swaran Singh committed suicide at his place but he was also having academic troubles. The then Students Union President [from ASA] took initiative to demand a professional counsellor to deal with such issues. This was also made mandatory by the UGC and the Supreme Court.”
The campus now has a counsellor and mental health specialists but as Rohith’s case reflects, these professionals are never taken seriously by the people in power. Rohith had written a desperate and sarcastic letter to the vice chancellor Appa Rao Podile in December 2015 requesting for “10 mg of Sodium Azide to all the Dalit students at time of admission” and “a nice rope to the rooms of all Dalit students”. Yet the VC simply kept silent about it. If the letter had been sent to the psychiatrist or counsellor instead, it may have been possible to address these issues seriously. The entire drama reflects the callous attitude of the administration and the deliberate disregard of students’ well-being.
Another PhD scholar from the History Department, Kamla (name changed) pointed out, “even after nine years I have been unable to submit my thesis, which I completed within four years of my enrolment. I am grateful to my family and friends who offered emotional support. My supervisor would never clarify as to what is the actual problem.” Her acrimony was apparent when she narrated her hostel experiences. “An upper caste girl was very friendly with me and we used to eat together but the moment she got to know my Dalit identity she started avoiding my company. I went to invite her to my wedding only to be told that ‘they do not go to SC weddings”. The external examiner of her M.Phil thesis gave Kamla good marks but knowing this, her own supervisor gave her fewer marks. If a Dalit student secures high marks in the internal exam, then it’s ensured that the upper caste student will overtake them. As she observed, “the village brahmanical system is reproduced in the campus with the Dalit students feeling like enslaved communities in the campus”.
Pravin, another student who was suspended along with Rohith, is also pursuing a PhD in the Department of Economics. For him, the classroom is divided on the basis of income and caste and this makes him feel secluded. He lacked confidence to speak in the class but says this got better once he joined ASA, going on to become the student association president. “In order to control my activism, the authorities used my supervisor and department to arm twist me. When I informed my supervisor that I have cleared the UGC fellowship, his comment was that, ‘now the exams and evaluation has become so easy that people like you are easily getting fellowship’.”
HCU can be credited with innovative thinking to safeguard its standards of ‘merit’. When S K Thorat as Chairperson of the University Grants Commission – a statutory body that monitors higher educational institutions – introduced the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF), an equivalent to the Junior Research Fellowship, for students from Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), most upper-caste HCU teachers felt that the standards of ‘merit’ in the university had been diluted.
Madari Venkatesh was not allotted a supervisor for two years even though all who took admission with him and even his juniors got supervisors. This was not for the lack of research skills, for he had published two papers in international journals all on his own. The final straw, however, came when he approached another faculty member of a different specialisation who suggested to him to drop his current topic and start from scratch. He committed suicide on 24 November 2013.
Is there a greater irony than reducing someone to being ‘castiest’ when he bitterly expostulated that “his birth is a fatal accident”?
Pravin told me, “When a student enquired from his department as to why he was not allotted a supervisor, the professor replied that we are saving the country’s finances by not taking you”. It was a veiled criticism against the RGNF for SC/ST students that according to the authorities weakened the ‘merit’ system. The science departments in HCU are more interested in safeguarding the ‘purity’ of their academic spaces, even in labs where daily interactions occur between ‘pure’ teachers and ‘impure’ students. In the late 1980s, Professor Kannan of the Mathematics department had a separate well dug in his quarters because he found the municipal water supply ‘impure’ for his ritual purposes. The ‘Brahmin Well’ still exists in the HCU campus as a symbol of discriminatory practices so ingrained in university life. It is easy to imagine how terrified Dalit students feel when they have to approach teachers like Kannan for academic work. Many such Kannans abound in the campus till date.
Devising courses or articulating research ideas is a major challenge for many Dalit teachers. Many professors point out that if they supervise Dalit students, they are considered soft academics, not ‘intellectual’ enough to understand the nuances of research. The most common tactic a teacher employs to avoid supervising a Dalit student is to argue that the student lacks proper English language writing and comprehension skills and is not fit to undertake research. This after the Dalit student has enrolled for research and is about to finish his/her work. At least, in the social sciences there are a few teachers both Dalit and non-dalit, who are very sensitive and behave humanely to students from the vulnerable groups. They help the students financially and in many cases, when the other upper-caste teachers disown these students while they are nearing the completion of their thesis, these concerned teachers take on a supervisory role and help them complete their degrees.
Many reports will be compiled after Rohith’s death; there will be endless arguments about the role of caste, the amount of compensation, etc. The who’s who of Indian politics went to the HCU campus, met the protesting students and assured them of help. The chief ministers of Telangana where HCU is located and Andhra Pradesh where Rohith’s original home is situated, however, did not find this an appropriate time as municipal elections will be held in Greater Hyderabad. The party fortunes are more significant than a human life. As for the ruling party, it is caught up in the flip flop between branding Rohith and his friends as either ‘anti-national’ and ‘casteist’ or a ‘son of mother India’. This begs the question: Is there a greater irony than reducing someone to being ‘castiest’ when he bitterly expostulated that “his birth is a fatal accident”. In India, cow slaughter is an unforgivable crime but Dalits can be hung from the nearest lamppost.
~ N Sukumar teaches Political Science at Delhi University. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
~ N Sukumar acknowledges ICSSR for generously funding this research, respondents and the research team who helped with the field work, in particular, Dr. Shailaja Menon (Ambedkar University, Delhi) for her assistance and encouragement to work on this issue.