Senthil Kumar

A suicide retold

Print edition : February 19, 2016

Senthil Kumar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Senthil Kumar's parents with his books. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

The scholar belonged to the Panniyandi community, whose traditional livelihood is pig-rearing. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

In the wake of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, it is time to revisit the 2008 death of a scholar from Tamil Nadu at the University of Hyderabad, which is a telling reminder that casteism has been rampant there for years.

LIKE Rohith Vemula, Palanisamy Senthil Kumar too had a dream, of becoming a renowned technologist like the former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. That is why Senthil Kumar, a Dalit research scholar from Salem district in Tamil Nadu, chose the University of Hyderabad, also known as Hyderabad Central University (HCU), to pursue his PhD in physics, after obtaining an MPhil from Pondicherry University and an MSc from American College in Madurai, both formidable institutions. He strongly believed that the hallowed precincts of HCU would help him realise his dreams. But that was not to be. He was found dead in his hostel room on February 24, 2008, with blood in his nose. The post-mortem report from the Gandhi Medical College and Hospital, Secunderabad, concluded that it was “death due to poisoning”. Thus, the dream of a Dalit who wanted to become a renowned physicist came to an end. He was just 27.

The death did not create nationwide ripples, nor did it stoke the collective conscience of society as is the case with Rohith Vemula. There were only a few feeble and isolated voices of protest. He did not leave behind any suicide note. The media in Tamil Nadu did not give it the coverage it deserved. “My boy had no such support, which Rohith’s mother receives today. He was a Dalit from Tamil Nadu. We were alone there,” recalled Senthil Kumar’s 60-year-old father, Palanisamy, a pig rearer by profession.

Palanisamy said the university systematically disoriented his son from his studies, which he had been passionate about since his schooldays. He wrote to Prof. Seyed E. Hasnain, the then Vice-Chancellor of HCU, demanding a detailed inquiry into his son’s death, alleging that “Senthil had been under tremendous pressure from the faculty because of their caste bias—delay in assigning a guide, approval of topic, etc. We learnt that he was never encouraged by the faculty at any point of time as he was a Dalit.” A few Dalit outfits and individual activists in Tamil Nadu took on HCU and forced it to conduct a probe into the scholar’s death and look into the allegations of caste-based discrimination against Dalit students and research scholars in science streams on its premises. Senthil Kumar’s parents claimed he was harassed and humiliated because he was a Dalit and that drove him to suicide. They also said he was apprehensive of losing his monthly stipend because he failed in one subject. The Dalit intellectual and writer D. Ravikumar told Frontline that immediately after Senthil’s suicide a “Senthil Kumar Solidarity Committee” was formed with university teachers, students and independent researchers based in Hyderabad. He met Senthil’s parents and afterwards submitted a memorandum to K. Ponmudi, the then Tamil Nadu Minister for Higher Education, asking the State to intervene. He also submitted a memorandum to Prof. Hasnain. Human rights activists such as K. Balagopal and Kancha Ilaiah and HCU students expressed solidarity. These sustained efforts prompted the university to make an ex gratia payment of Rs.5 lakh to Senthil Kumar’s parents. “I took an initiative at that time to form a committee to support Dalit research scholars in India, probably in the ratio of one or two scholars in a lakh at the national level, but failed to get enough support from academics,” Ravikumar said.

This correspondent, while reporting on Senthil Kumar’s death for The Hindu in its edition dated March 8, 2008, quoted his friend S. Thennarasu, also a research scholar, on the plight of Dalit research scholars in the university. He claimed that no guide would come forward to accept Dalit students as their wards, their submissions would not be evaluated in time, and the minimum pass marks for coursework examinations would be raised to a stiff 60 for Dalit students to make them fail and discontinue their studies. (Thennarasu could not be contacted now.)

Senthil Kumar, who was by nature “active and good-humoured” and was into the second year of his research when he died, was preparing to clear his backlog of subjects at the time of his death. A. Kadir, a Madurai-based social activist who assisted the family then, said that if the university authorities had taken serious note of Palanisamy’s letter accusing the university administration of encouraging caste discrimination against Dalit students in the research streams of science departments, research scholars like Rohith Vemula would be alive today.

“The Tamil Nadu government washed its hands of the matter,” Palanisamy told Frontline. “The debts we incurred for his studies have virtually rendered us beggars. The university is yet to give us his personal belongings since his hostel room remains under lock and key till date. My family died with Senthil,” he added, tearfully. Poverty and hunger are now at their doorstep. The family is looking to the State government today for its survival.

The university instituted an inquiry, which, it claimed, had found no evidence in any of the schools of HCU of “systematic and deliberate discrimination” against students on the basis of caste, though problems in administering the PhD programmes had given rise to “apprehension among students”. Most of the students affected by the inconsistencies and ambiguities in procedures were students belonging to the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts).

It did not elaborate on what these problems were but found that there was a lack of transparency in the administration of the PhD coursework for the 2006 batch in the School of Physics and noted that it was unacceptable. The report concluded, saying that “there has been inconsistency and subjectivity in the standards applied for coursework and for allocation of supervisors and that it has led to an understandable perception among S.C./S.T. students that they are being discriminated against on the basis of their caste”.

Even this report, which pointed to the prevalence of serious caste-based prejudices on the premises of a higher education institution, was ignored. Senthil Kumar was the first research scholar from the Panniyandi caste, one of the lowest groups in the caste hierarchy in the State, with pig-rearing as its livelihood. But for his passion for higher education, this first-generation graduate would not have been able to liberate himself from the traditional occupation. “His death has, in fact, sowed the seeds of fear and hatred among youngsters from our caste for higher education,” said Senthil Kumar’s younger brother, Saravanan.

Born in the nondescript weavers’ town of Jalakandapuram near Salem, Senthil Kumar grew up in extreme poverty, but his unlettered parents inspired him and supported him “to study as he wished”. His entire community was proud when he entered HCU. “Our whole family toiled all through the year to fund his higher education. We borrowed heavily. But all was lost with his death,” he said. The eldest son in the family, he used to tell his parents that once he completed his PhD, they should leave their menial jobs. “He told us he would take care of the family,” Palanisamy said. is All that his unfortunate family have left to remember him by is a briefcase containing the medals and certificates Senthil Kumar got during his schooldays.

“Birth-based discrimination in higher education is not new to Tamil Nadu,” said Ravikumar. “In fact, it begins at the primary level itself. Though Dalits are not facing explicit hostility in urban centres, where their anonymity provides them some feeling of security from any discrimination, it is rampant in semi-urban and rural areas.”

In Tirunelveli, a Tier-II town, schoolchildren allegedly wear wrist bands of different colours that supposedly denote their castes, while in some villages in Salem district, parents have refused to send their wards to schools where Dalit women cook the noon meal. There have been recurring incidents of Dalit students being forced to clean toilets. All these discriminatory practices are reported chiefly in State government-run institutions. In 2002, two elite schools, one in Tiruchi and the other in Coimbatore, identified by the Tamil Nadu government for the Central government’s ambitious “Merit Upgradation Scheme”, a programme to enhance all-round development of Dalits and tribal students, opted out of it simply because the scheme supported the disadvantaged.

The privatisation of education, primarily higher education, has helped the State abdicate its responsibility to provide quality education to its people. “How many Dalits, all first-generation youths, can afford costly education and if they can, how many of them will be successful?” Ravikumar asked.

The recent row over the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle in IIT Madras is one among many recent episodes that had exposed the attempts of intolerant casteist forces to institutionalise caste bias on campuses. For that matter, no educational institution seems to be caste-neutral in Tamil Nadu since many of them are run by groups belonging to Other Backward Classes.

A Dalit woman recently narrated on Facebook her harrowing experience when she was a student of engineering in a prestigious Central institution of technology in Tiruchi in the 1990s. “The last two digits of my six-digit registration number would reveal my Dalit identity, leading to bias and prejudice on the campus,” she said. She also said that the disadvantaged would be forced into the “year back system”, which would extend the course duration from the regular four years to five or six years. “And invariably, students of disadvantaged groups would be the sufferers,” she pointed out.

There is no space for Dalit students in classrooms. “When you are entering an elite educational institution such as HCU from a caste-ridden rural environment, Dalit students would never ever dream of facing any discriminatory practices. But in reality, when they face such intolerable acts, they are numb with shock,” Ravikumar said. “The pain of getting discriminated against when you are innocent is more painful than death itself,” he added.

A few years ago the National Advisory Council headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi formulated a subgroup to suggest ways to achieve equality in classrooms. A report was prepared and submitted to the Central government, but nothing came of it. “Pressuring the government to ensure equality in educational institutions is necessary. I have instituted an annual award called NIKARI [equal] to recognise non-Dalit teachers who fight against discrimination in classrooms,” Ravikumar said.

Dalits are burdened with birth-based discrimination from the cradle to the grave, he said. This is true in Tamil Nadu, which is often touted as a progressive State.