Campuses of bias

Socially discriminatory practices against students from marginalised communities in educational institutions are among the major factors that have led to a rise in the number of suicides on campuses.

Published : Aug 01, 2018 12:30 IST

Rohith Vemula.

Rohith Vemula.

Nearly 26,500 students committed suicidein India between 2014 and 2016, which roughly works out to 24 suicides a day and one suicide every hour. Discriminatory practices and institutional biases were among the reasons attributed to this phenomenon. It is no coincidence that most of the suicides were by students belonging to marginalised communities, especially Dalits.

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir shared the data on student suicides in the Rajya Sabha in March. He was responding to a query from the member from Tamil Nadu, Kanimozhi, who asked the government what steps it was taking to prevent student suicides. The Minister quoted from the National Crime Records Bureau to show that suicides among students were increasing every year. While 8,068 students committed suicide in 2014, the number was 8,934 in 2015 and 9,474 in 2016.

Maharashtra witnessed the highest number of student suicides in all three years. In 2016, a total of 1,350 students ended their lives in Maharashtra. In the same year, West Bengal witnessed the second highest number of student suicides (1,147), followed by Tamil Nadu (981) and Madhya Pradesh (838). In 2015, Maharashtra saw 1,230 student suicides, followed by Tamil Nadu (955), Chhattisgarh (730) and West Bengal (676). In 2014, Maharashtra saw 1,191 student suicides.

In January 2016, when Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar at the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide, it shook the conscience of the country. His articulate suicide note became the cynosure of all eyes. It clarified that his death was not a random occurrence but a conscious decision. It was out of despair at the institutional discrimination meted out to him and his fellow students Seshu Chemudugunta, Dontha Prashanth, Sunkanna Velpula and Vijay Kumar P. Sundar, who were suspended from the university and humiliated by its administration.

The events that followed his death—the snatching of his body by the police and the cremation being conducted in secrecy, the high-handedness of the administration in dealing with mourning students, and the police brutality against agitating students—fuelled a nationwide resentment in academia. It brought into sharp focus the institutional discrimination that exists in higher educational institutions against students on the basis of their caste identities. It exposed the apathy of upper-caste professors and administrators who refuse to treat students equally. And it brought out the BJP’s hypocrisy with regard to the welfare of Dalits. The apathy of BJP Ministers Smriti Irani, Bandaru Dattatreya and M. Venkaiah Naidu was also evident in the Rohith Vemula case. Appa Rao Podile, named in the complaint, continues to be the university’s Vice Chancellor. Despite a long struggle by Rohith Vemula’s mother, Radhika, his brother Raja and his friends and colleagues, the case drags on, with the perpetrators enjoying institutional protection. The case not only exposed the rot in the system but is also symbolic of Dalits’ long march in the struggle for justice.

In March 2017, J. Muthukrishnan, a Dalit student from Salem district in Tamil Nadu, was found hanging from a ceiling fan inside his friend’s house in Munirka Vihar, a residential colony in south-west Delhi. He was pursuing an MPhil programme in modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). His last post on Facebook said: “There is no equality in MPhil/Phd admission, there is no equality in viva-voce, there is only denial of equality, denying Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat recommendation, denying students protest places in the Ad block, denying the education of the Marginals. When equality is denied everything is denied.” He was only 29. Known to his friends as Krish, he was remembered by his friends as an enthusiastic Rajinikanth fan who liked to emulate the actor. He was stylish and was an extrovert and liked to have fun—an “atypical” Dalit in the eyes of casteist elements. Being a “proper” Dalit and “behaving like one” is a major burden on the shoulders of young people. Despite protests by students and political parties, the probe into Krish’s case went nowhere. Instead, the police and others on campus tried to absolve the institution of its responsibility for the suicide and blame it on personal reasons or love problems.

Victim of NEET

The next case of suicide that caused widespread outrage was that of S. Anitha, a 17-year-old Dalit student from Tamil Nadu, in September 2017. She was an aspirant medical student who had done well in the class 12 board examinations but failed in the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET), which would have allowed her to get admission into a medical college. Anitha was a petitioner in the Supreme Court against the implementation of the NEET for admissions to medical courses in Tamil Nadu. After the Central government refused to endorse Tamil Nadu’s draft ordinance seeking exemption from NEET for a year, the Supreme Court asked the State to conduct medical admissions on the basis of NEET. “Then Anitha became very depressed that she could not become a doctor. A few days after the verdict, she killed herself at our house. It was not just Anitha’s ambitions that were unfulfilled but also those of thousands of other students from rural areas and marginalised communities who will be affected by this exam,” said Rajarathinam, Anitha’s brother, articulating the anguish of scores of students. But the response of the government after each suicide has been disappointing.

Several cases of suicide have already come to light this year. In February, K. Sai Deepthi, a 14-year-old Dalit student of class 9 in Telangana, left a suicide note saying she had not been allowed to write an examination as her family had been unable to pay the school fees. Her father, K.S. Balakrishna, a painter, told reporters that the principal of Jyothi High School in Malkajgiri pressured her to pay dues of Rs.1,800, failing which she would not be allowed to write the test.

Quoting Deepthi, he said that the teacher insulted her in class, saying: “When you cannot pay the fees, S.C. [Scheduled Caste] students should not take admission in schools.” He said Deepthi came back from school at around 11 a.m. after being prevented from taking the test. “At 3:30 p.m., Latha, her sister, went to the bank to check her scholarship money. When she was leaving home, Deepthi asked her to get some fruits and curd. By the time Latha came back, Deepthi had hanged herself.”

In April, Bhim Singh, a Dalit student of Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, hanged himself in his hostel room. A Right to Information Act query regarding suicides between 2005 and 2010 revealed that no inquiry committee had been formed to probe the cases. In order to prevent suicides, the IIT panel suggested introduction of yoga classes, reduction in the speed of the Internet and replacement of ceiling fans with table fans. The recommendations displayed the administration’s utter inability to deal intelligently with the sensitive issue of suicides among students.

On July 19, S. Harshita, a 21-year-old second year MSc (Systems Biology) student at Hyderabad Central University (HCU), killed herself by jumping from the 15th floor of an apartment block near the campus. According to students on campus, the department failed her in two subjects and also in supplementary exams. She tried calling her mother multiple times before she jumped, and later her mother received a message from her that said: “Sorry Amma.” Zaibunnia, 14, a student of Navodaya Minority Residential School, hanged herself in her hostel room in Mysuru the day after she complained to her mother that a teacher, Ravi, had hit her on the head with a rod. Fed up with the constant harassment, she pleaded with her mother to take her away, but her mother asked her to put up with it for a little while longer for the sake of her education.

Sociological phenomenon

In most cases of suicide, the media, the university administration and well-meaning people are quick to blame depression or mental health issues for the deaths. Long ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim had explained that suicide was not just an individualistic act but a sociological phenomenon that varies from one social category to another. He dismissed the often repeated causes of suicides as being a sufficient explanation for them and that they occurred when there was a breakdown in social integration or solidarity or when a person felt isolated.

The government was either ignoring these aspects or was unaware of them. Its response to student suicides was to approve the implementation of the District Mental Health Programme in some districts of the country with the added components of suicide prevention services, workplace stress management, life skills training and counselling in schools and colleges. Ahir said that since health was a State subject, States were empowered to implement their own programmes as well. In each suicide case of Dalit students, from that of Aniket Ambhore (2014) and Shrikant Mallepula (2007) of IIT Bombay to Rohith Vemula, not just political leaders but media experts too have tried to brand them as having been caused by depression. At a speech in HCU, the noted journalist and Magsaysay awardee P. Sainath, amongst others, called out those who try to brand all farmer suicides and Dalit suicides in the country as products of depression. “Why are some classes and castes in society more depressed than everyone else? But, there is a more cruel and venomous insinuation in this: This is not emotional depression, they are treating it as a mental health issue… this is inborn.”

Even as institutions escape all accountability for student deaths, there is an urgent need to sensitise faculty members to the situation of students from marginalised communities not only to ensure justice now but also to prevent injustice in the future.

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