JNU student suicide: Subtle and overt discrimination haunting young Dalits in Indian colleges

On 12 March, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was jolted by the alleged suicide of 27-year-old Muthukrishnan Jeevanandham — a PhD student and a Dalit from Salem in Tamil Nadu — in the Centre for Historical Sciences (CHS) Department of the university. "We have registered a case of abetment to suicide and the relevant section of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs) (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The case has been registered against unknown persons," said a senior police officer in Delhi to PTI.

The Dalit research scholar’s body was taken for postmortem to Aiims on Tuesday and the hospital constituted a five-member board to conduct the autopsy and issued directions for a videography of the procedure carried out the next day. Muthukrishnan, known to his friends as 'Rajini Krish' was brought to Chennai late on Wednesday and the funeral is to be held on Thursday in Salem.

What Is Going On At CHS?

What is puzzling Krish’s friends and family though is the cause for death. In his last Facebook post, Krish wrote about inequality in JNU and specifically his department.

The department that he was in has now come under question for discriminatory practices. While a section of students allege discriminatory practices within the department, on the other hand, a signature petition has also been launched by another section of students to defend the teachers, who are likely to face scrutiny.

Praveen*, a student in the MPhil/PhD program in the Center for Historical Sciences resigned as joint secretary from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP) student’s wing last year after he vehemently disagreed with its views on Rohith Vemula. "They called him an anti-national and a terrorist and that was my breaking point. While the professors are not particularly aligned with the ABVP, the people who matter are — including the vice-chancellor," Praveen said, making clear his anger towards the VC. "I can’t say CHS alone is the culprit, there is a larger issue at play here. It’s not safe anymore to voice dissent, to be a dissenter. They (the administration) have to answer. We have lost another Dalit scholar."

Students say viva voces (oral tests) are a prime example of significant discrimination across the board. On a scale of one to 30, SC students with a low command over English are awarded marks in the one to five range. "We have asked the VC to go easy on them and reduce the total to 15. But no one listens to us," Praveen says.

What affected Vignesh*, a Dalit student who dropped out of the Masters programme, was when he was yelled at during his viva for English and told to go read Agatha Christie. "There is no one to provide help here, and it is shameful for our lack of language skills to be exposed here," he said.

At the beginning of every semester, English proficiency classes are held, but Neethi’s* friends, who belong to the Dalit and OBC communities, say they are hardly helpful. The departments also recently started an English improvement class for students, but no one attends them. "This could be because no one wants to be seen as knowing little English or being spotted by other students while entering or leaving the class. My friend dropped out of her Masters programme because her professor couldn’t understand her English and continued grading her so low that her self-esteem was hit," she said.

File image of JNU. News18

File image of JNU. News18

As a Dalit student, it was a struggle for Vignesh to engage with professors in class. "I once prepared an assignment for class on Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s communalism and anti-Dalit stance. My professor flew into a rage and asked me how I could submit such an assignment. I was also pulled up for using the word 'Babasaheb' to refer to Ambedkar and told never to use that word again. I got stares when I said 'Jai Bhim'," he recalled. "We have a young scholars seminar, which is open to only a close-knit set of ideas. There was a student who presented a paper on 'Gandhi’s views on Dalits'. But he was told that he shouldn’t pick topics like that and they sent him back," said Neha*, a Masters student.

While Neha, a day scholar in the Masters program, has interacted little with students, she’s observed much more. The elitism, she says, is evident from the tenets that uphold the department.

Nationalism was viewed in a classical sense, she said, and there was no space for views that fell out of the purview of it. "Muthukrishnan was aspirational, very excited and very hard working. But it’s not a piece of cake. Some professors throw your papers in your face if they don’t like your work," she said.

"He (Muthukrishnan) had an issue with changing supervisors," his close friend Vikram* said, "He was not happy with his previous supervisor and when he asked for a change in supervisors, he was turned down and asked to go back to the previous supervisor, but he wasn’t accepted back because the supervisor already had students by then."

"Supervisors can make or break you," Neha said, "That said, students of the SC or OBC category who receive criticism can sometimes attribute to their category and not to an actual problem with their work." The fluent English speakers are stereotypically projected as the achievers and the bright ones. But Neha said she found out about a Dalit student who was brighter than a majority of the English speakers after working with him.

There is a strong sense of alienation, Vignesh believes. "When you’re a Dalit in the CHS environment, it gets very lonely, especially when you’ve worked so hard to get to the top," he said. Students from lower economic and social backgrounds contend with graduates from the elite St Stephen’s and Presidency colleges in Delhi, even those from the US. "There is significant anger I can sense towards the SC and OBC castes," he added. Forward caste students are often friends with or know professors in some way beforehand, and some were already Masters students before they joined the MPhil course. "It’s evident that the professors look at students from Central universities differently."

"For a progressive and liberal department, I found it more Brahminical," said Vignesh, who is now pursuing his Masters in History at the Indira Gandhi National Open University.

There is a tussle between students and supervisors. Students who have done their Masters and progress to the MPhil or PhD program are acquainted with the faculty, while those who have directly entered the PhD program are thrown into the deep end. They socialise little with professors because the ones who’ve stayed on longer hold an advantage and of course, the workload is huge to even build proper relationships with them. "Sometimes, you don’t get the supervisor you want and some professors are much better to work with than other professors. There could be discrimination there," said Neethi.

"We have professors we can talk to, but who has time? Who has the energy to listen to complaints? Who wants to listen to someone who says his student should be like other students, who have graduated from colleges in the US?" asked Gagan, an MPhil-PhD student.

"I cannot comment," said Jyothi Atwal, an assistant professor at CHS. "We have currently been having condolence meetings to mourn the passing of Muthukrishnan. It is under investigation and it would be uncalled for me to say anything," she clarified.

Sukhadeo Thorat, professor at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development in JNU, who had recommended Krish to CHS, could not take questions citing legal advisory.

The CHS department head was reached for comment, but did not respond.

What emerges perhaps is a pattern of discrimination and its consequences on bright young and ambitious minds who are already wounded from prior discrimination on the basis of caste. JNU, one of the most progressive educational institutions in the country, would do well to take heed of this worrying trend. And educational institutions across the country need to be held to account for discriminatory practices, both subtle and overt. If not, young Dalits, especially, will continue to die. And that would be the biggest tragedy that India has ever witnessed.

*Names changed to protect identity

The author tweets @divya_krthk

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2017 11:08:41 IST

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