"My birth is my fatal accident... I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life... I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That's pathetic. And that's why I am doing this" — these were the last words written by Dalit PhD student Rohith Vemula before he committed suicide, alleging discrimination by hostel authorities at Hyderabad Central University.
Vemula's death in 2016 brought to the mainstream a grave concern that has plagued India's educational institutes. The death of Dr Payal Tadvi, a 26-year-old resident doctor at Mumbai's BYL Nair Hospital, brings back unpleasant memories of the events that followed after Vemula's suicide as well as into spotlight the dirty state of casteism that continues to have a tight hold on educational institutes in India.
Tadvi, found hanging on the premises of the hospital on 22 May, is believed to have committed suicide after facing months of harassment by seniors who levelled casteist slurs at her. Her family, including her mother and husband, alleged that hospital authorities took no action against the three seniors since before December 2018, when she finally confided in her family about the harassment. The three seniors in question have been booked under sections of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, IT Act and an anti-ragging Act, along with Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code (abetment of suicide).
However, this goes beyond ragging.
Like #JusticeForRohithVemula, the hashtag #JusticeForDrPayal began to trend on Twitter as news of her death — with the focus on what forced her to take her life — began to spread on social media. Her death brought to the fore, once again, the worry of how students in India continue to be treated at educational institutes on the basis of which tribe or caste they were born into, on which section of society they "belong to", not their achievements.
In 2011, an investigation at AIIMS, Delhi, found that most Dalit and tribal students "did not receive the kind of support other students received from their teachers". They also alleged that examiners questioned them about their caste, they weren't given the marks they deserved in exams and were also often humiliated by examiners.
What makes things more difficult for students from non-upper caste backgrounds is when word spreads that they got admission to a particular institute on the basis of reservation for students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
A 2009 study by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in association with UNICEF found,"Diverse spheres of school life where social relations and pedagogic processes fail to ensure full participation of Dalit children, and they are in fact subjected to discriminatory and unequal treatment in relation to their peers."
It further says, "While on the one hand, these experiences are detrimental to children’s self esteem and self worth, on the other hand they are likely to have serious implications for their interest and motivation in studies."
It doesn't help that politicians have resorted to using Dalits and other groups from what are considered lower castes as a vote bank, reaching out to them when elections are round the corner and their support becomes vital.
A more recent study from March 2018 by EPW Engage found that students from lower caste categories "are likely to face humiliation and harassing attitudes from others in their daily lives", concluding that "negative attitudes, perceptions and stereotypes about the ability of students belonging to the SC/ST groups are a major hurdle, and that policy "should recognise how such perceptions hold back individuals and groups".
Even today, in the 21st Century, we hear news of a section of school students boycotting meals cooked by Dalits or parents protesting against a Dalit teacher being appointed to a class. One could say that the situation has "improved" from the ostracisation they faced in earlier times. However, the caste bias students face today — wherein harassment continues behind the closed doors of hostels or is cleverly hidden from clueless authorities — could be considered even more dangerous, considering how they are concealed by the perpetrators or dismissed as banter by others.
The subtle ways of caste discrimination in India today underscore the need for not-so-subtle action to be taken against those behind such discrimination. However, one reads more about instances of inaction in such cases. Instead of reports or warnings or suspensions, it's news of authorities ignoring complaints that we read more about.
While the resident doctor's suicide in Mumbai following alleged harassment by seniors is a grim reminder of how classrooms are not free from the grip of the social evil, it is also an indicator of the sorry state of the education system in India, where even educated minds cannot set aside their prejudices against caste.
Untouchability may have been abolished formally in India and reservations may have been brought in, but the socio-economic divide stands. The fear stands. The discrimination stands.
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Updated Date: May 27, 2019 19:29:30 IST