JNU student suicide: Polarised school system alienates Dalits from English speaking middle class

In the midst of the debate over Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula's suicide last year, Sukhadeo Thorat, former University Grants Commission chairperson, made some prescient observations about the continued distress of Dalit students in colleges and universities. "There is a need to apply our minds in a calm manner to address the problems that Dalit students face in institutions of higher education and find a more durable solution, now that the University of Hyderabad has revoked the suspension of students in the context of Rohith Vemula’s death," Thorat wrote in The Hindu.

Expressing a deep sense of foreboding, he went on to say: "However, given past experience there is no guarantee that the Rohith Vemula story will not be repeated. While his suicide has caused great shock and resulted in outrage, similar sentiments were expressed when Senthil Kumar from Salem, another student from the University of Hyderabad, killed himself in 2008." In his article, Thorat referred to 11 cases of suicides by Dalit students in higher educational institutions between 2007 and 2013.

 JNU student suicide: Polarised school system alienates Dalits from English speaking middle class

Representational image. AFP

A little over a year after Rohith’s death, we are now faced with the death of another Dalit student, who has taken his own life — this time from Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). J Muthukrishnan, 28-year-old PhD student at JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies (CHS,) was found hanging from a ceiling fan at his friend’s house this Monday. His friends said that Krishnan had been among the students leading the movement to demand justice for Rohith. Agitated by continued discrimination and the denial of equality for Dalits, much of Krishnan’s academic struggles had to do with his uneasiness with the English language; a frailty he shared with many other students from similar social and educational backgrounds.

The reality is that even while crossing the threshold of higher education in numbers larger than ever before, academic and social challenges continue to stand in the way of Dalit aspirations. Recalling the discourse catalysed by Rohith’s death is important in this context. The commentariat then drew our attention to the strikingly different composition of students in colleges and universities across the country. According to 2008 data, the total number of students in higher education included 4 percent Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 percent Scheduled Castes, and 35 percent Other Backward Classes.

As more and more Dalit students entered universities, one major challenge dogging their efforts was their lack of proficiency with the English language, in turn alienating them from the English speaking middle class students. This is not a new development; but it is one which politicians and policymakers have ignored. While rousing speeches about the dawn of a New India have swirled about us, no substantive political talk is heard on how this New India will be created. Surely, classrooms are fundamental sites for the production of citizens who have equal opportunities in life.

The fallout of not having proper command over English serves as a telling comment on our polarised school system, and how it fosters discrimination.

Krishnan’s suicide once again hammers home our basic lack of commitment to anything more than platitudes when it comes to these matters. A report in The Indian Express quotes Krishnan’s friend saying: “His English was poor, which was one reason why he could not get into JNU earlier. He was so committed and hardworking that he worked on his English for nearly a year, spending hours together in the UoH library.’’

Time and again, Dalit intellectuals have stressed the need for an education system which can equip students to cope with the academic pressures of an English-centric higher education system. In an article in Hindustan Times this January, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, made a strong pitch for Dalits to gain proficiency in English. Citing the examples of several prominent writers, he wrote: “ Writers in the English language are easily the best known in Karnataka today,” going on to ask “Why are no Other Backward Class (OBC) and Dalit writers from Karnataka known outside their state?” Devanoor Mahadeva, for instance, a Dalit author writing in Kannada, is known only within his state. And even then, largely within Dalit circles.

“The reason,” he concludes, “is that they are not projected by the English intellectuals of the state or national-level intellectuals who write in English.” Other Dalit intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad – who even celebrates English as a Goddess – have long made similar arguments. At a time of rising cultural nationalism where the idea of India is being redefined every day, we need to pay close attention to these voices.

Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 08:41:57 IST