Icarus goes to flying school


Why are Dalit students in India’s best educational institutions committing suicide? Yamini Deenadayalan tells their side of the story

Illustrations: Samia Singh

IN THE impossibly snobbish 20th century French fashion world, Coco Chanel denied having grown up in an orphanage. To remain the icon she had become, she needed the world to believe she came from better circumstances.

Twenty-year-old Gopal would understand Chanel’s impulse. He is from a village in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and studies horticulture at a local college. No one knows he is a Dalit. Gopal has learnt to hide his identity the hard way. His elder brother Bal Mukund Bharti was exceptionally bright. He had cleared the IIT entrance and was ranked eighth in the country, but he was determined to become a doctor. His father and older sister (a gram sevak and primary school teacher respectively) had taken loans to put him through five years at AIIMS in Delhi. Professors repeatedly mocked Bharti for being a ‘category student’. While studying at AIIMS, Bharti said often that he wished he could change his name to an anodyne ‘Srijan Kumar’. In his final year, the pressure became unbearable and Bharti committed suicide in 2010.

Last month, Linesh Mohan Gawle, a PhD student at the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi, committed suicide in his hostel room. Like Bharti, he came from a poor Dalit family who lived in Dindori tehsil near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

In the past four years, 18 Dalit students have committed suicide in 16 institutes of higher education, including the IITs, Indian Institute of Science and AIIMS. The numbers that go unreported are probably higher. Living inside a cauldron of resentment, contempt, forced political correctness, self-doubt and thwarted ambition can’t be conducive to well-being.

Things have not changed much since Anoop Kumar’s first day at a Kanpur engineering college in 1995 when his professor said, “I’ll be marking your papers, not Mayawati.” Now a Delhi based Dalit activist and PhD student, Kumar’s organisation, Insight Foundation, has been running a helpline for Dalit and Adivasi students for the past nine months. Most of the 40 calls Insight receives daily are from poor ‘category students’ who face administrative hassles and discrimination. Kumar says the suicide rates for Dalit students in institutes of higher education have been disproportionately high.

THE FIRST battle a ‘category student’ faces is one of low expectations. The well-documented Pygmalion Effect suggests that expectation is directly proportional to achievement. In experiment after experiment at the beginning of a term at US schools, elementary school teachers were falsely told that certain students had higher IQs than the rest. The performance of these students mysteriously improved. The researchers concluded that teachers unconsciously behave in ways that encourage success for ‘smart’ students. In the never-ending conversations about ‘merit’, there is little reflection that aptitude is not innate — that it might have a great deal to do with families and schools creating an environment conducive to learning and achievement for children.

The drums that marked Arun as a ‘paraian’ have been adapted by Tamil diaspora for rap and hip-hop. It is a ‘cool quotient’ that Arun can’t access

Rahul Bhargava (name changed), a psychiatrist at an IIT, firmly believes that the IIT JEE tests “raw talent” and only those who clear it with the requisite cut-off mark can survive in IIT. “Logically speaking,” he says, “students who enter through reservation are not cut out for such a course and will fare better in government colleges.” Bhargava’s attitude is not uncommon. It is also dangerous, considering his key position in ensuring the well-being of students.

In 1992, Chuni Kotal, the first female graduate from the Lodha tribe in West Bengal, committed suicide. She was 27 and had faced years of harassment, including professors who called Lodhas thieves and accused them of promiscuity. Three days before she hung herself, she told a classmate, “I am a Lodha. So I shouldn’t have dreamt of higher studies.”

A second challenge for Dalit students is to be able to imagine themselves as achievers, which is an important element for success. A recent US study showed that the gap between white and black students’ test scores narrowed after Barack Obama’s presidency. Getting a ‘seat’ in college is not enough. You need an environment in which you can be inspired by mentor figures.

Raju, an MSc student at Pondicherry University, agrees. It made a huge difference that one of his main professors, Anthony Lingam (name changed), is a Dalit. “My parents and relatives never went to school. My father is a compounder. Anthony sir is an example for Dalit students coming up in life.” When asked about facing discrimination himself, Anthony proudly and rather problematically says they have been limited — because of his fair skin. “No one realises I am a Dalit,” he says. Anthony has also picked invisibility as his survival strategy.

The third pressure on Dalit students is to forgo their local cultural symbols so that they cannot be identified. Until Anoop Kumar rebelled and dropped out of his engineering college in Kanpur, he had been a ‘good’ student. To stay invisible, he had not just faked caste, but also faked gotra and manufactured a whole new identity. Arun Kumar (name changed), a masters student in social work in Chennai, has hidden his Dalit origins. He shares a rented room with a friend, a world different from his native village near Tirupattur, Tamil Nadu, where his mother is a cook at a government school and father, a farm labourer. Like them, most Dalit students have ‘covers’ of varying elaborateness to get through college, knowing they can never drop their guard.

Arun played the parai drums one year at the college festival. In Tamil Nadu, the drums are played at funerals. His classmates — hypersensitive to caste markers — began to whisper that he is a paraian (the caste that plays these drums). Arun felt some students began to distance themselves from him. A few months later, his professor suggested in front of the whole class that a Dalit rights researcher would be interested in interviewing him. Arun felt humiliated that all the hard work to hide his identity had proved futile, and feared the incident would affect his job prospects.

IF CULTURE capital is the cultural information that can be traded by someone as social currency, one big problem is that in India, the only culture capital is of being English-educated and urban. There is no cache in being rural or Oriya-speaking. And there is certainly no Dalit cool.

Presently, there are a few significant political or social movements to help young Dalits like Arun reclaim their culture with pride. The same parai drums that marked Arun for ostracisation have been adapted by the Tamil diaspora into the ‘cool quotient’ of rap and hip hop. Arun plays and replays English movies on his laptop, frustrated that he can’t understand them. He keeps quiet when the conversation turns to movies or books and remembers sitting through the film Kites laughing at all the right times but not understanding a thing. “When it comes to Tamil movies, I always play a major role in the conversation,” he says.

Kamal is a 22-year old student from a village near Salem, Tamil Nadu. His father works in a local shop and his mother is a housewife. Students in Kamal’s elite college in Chennai giggled politely when he pronounced parents as pay-rents. “Sometimes, I think so many times before saying something in English or don’t answer a question in class because I am scared to speak,” says Kamal. Over the semester, his self-confidence plunged and so did his academic performance. “In Salem, I had many friends. Here I can’t recognise myself and don’t know about English music and films, so there is not much I can talk about,” says Kamal. He now spends his evenings alone in his hostel room.

Reservation may never achieve its goals if there is no genuine attempt by institutions to be inclusive. Dalit rights activist V Geetha says all campuses should have an independent civil accountability body to which students can make themselves heard. “However horrid Women’s Day turns out, it still works by keeping certain issues alive. Similarly, there should be a Dalit Rights Week involving students and teachers. In the humanities courses, there is, at some level, awareness of these issues. But those in science and engineering courses think they are above these social realities,” says Geetha.

It is understandable that Dalit students might be suspicious of burnt offerings from their ‘liberal’ peers. Godavari (name changed) is a 25-year old Dalit teaching associate in the English department at Pune University. She recalls her MA days when her largely Brahmin classmates initially isolated her not because of caste, but class. Her semi-literate parents own a grocery shop in Nashik. However, when the same classmates decided to make a film on Dalit literature, they asked her to quote Ambedkar on camera. “I was offended they approached me out of the blue. They either say caste is invisible or are filled with guilt and insist their generation is different,” she says.

But can such overt discrimination be fought with covert political correctness? The signs are not encouraging. Akanksha Mehta (name changed) is a 23-year-old masters student in social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is not a Dalit but is interested in minority issues. While taking a walk on campus she only said, “I cannot talk about ‘X’ community in public,” fearing that it will be politically incorrect. This is a college with an inclusive policy and a dedicated SC/ST student cell. In a quieter place far from other students, she offers, “Dalit and Tribal Social Work is offered as an elective subject. The Dalit and tribal students feel that we can never understand their issues and the animosity is palpable, so I won’t take it up,” she says.

A professor at Pondicherry University, Anthony Lingam says with some pride that he’s not had to deal with any discrimination because of his fair skin

SOMETIMES, THE cauldron boils over in unexpected circumstances. Former Bangalore University professor Ramdas Rao is among a group of professors who believed that along with studying Chaucer and Shakespeare, students should be able to engage with texts from their own cultures. They initiated a course on Dalit Literature as part of the MA English programme in 2005. The course was popular and much admired for its inspiring faculty. In 2006, a professor discussed the use of the word ‘holaya’ (a term for Dalit that was once, centuries ago, merely descriptive and now derogatory) in a contemporary Dalit text they were studying. Rumour ran riot on the campus that she had insulted Dalits and it became a pretext to air past grievances about poor results. A group of Dalit students attacked their classmates and were taken to court in 2006. In retaliation, the Dalit students slapped a caste atrocity case on the university. The course was eventually discontinued. Today, Rao describes the series of events as “a churning of things, distortions that are inevitable”. Did engaging with issues of oppression make caste identity more pronounced in the classroom and hence more sensitive? Rao disagrees but states that it is important to address both “oppression and assertion” in equal measure.

One solution might be to extend affirmative action beyond just entrance to educational institutes. In addition to equal employment and admissions policies, American affirmative action programmes also encourage minority students in universities to organise into groups and seek mentors.

It’s often harder for Dalit students to stay on than to get into the Indian education system. It’s all attributed to politics and economics, but it is more often psychology that influences Dalit students and their lives. The silent games that force them to feel they are flying dangerously close to the sun.

Yamini Deendayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.


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