IN November 2015, Huchangi Prasad, a 24-year-old postgraduate student of journalism and new media belonging to the Madiga caste, felt compelled to vacate his hostel in Davangere University, Karnataka. A few months earlier, he had published a compilation of 74 poems titled Odala Kicchu (which translates to inner pain). His work, drawing upon his experience of growing up as a Dalit, dwelt on the theme of caste atrocities. The book’s launch was an important moment for the young poet; it was released by K.S. Bhagwan, the Mysuru-based rationalist litterateur. But life was not easy for Prasad after this.
“Threats and abuses began to pour in after the publication of my book, but I did not pay much heed,” Prasad said in a telephonic conversation with Frontline . On October 21, Prasad was lured away from his hostel on the pretext of a family emergency and led to an isolated area of Davangere where eight men set upon him. “They beat me viciously until I started bleeding. They were drunk and they kept abusing me with caste slurs and accused me of being friendly with Muslims,” Prasad said. He did not know who the attackers were but filed a police complaint.
Sense of alienation When he returned to the university, he felt a sense of acute alienation. “I felt I did not fit in with the other students who belonged to the upper castes on the campus,” he said. He decided to move back to his village, Santhebennur, where his parents are agricultural workers. He commutes daily to the university from his village, which is at a distance of 40 kilometres. Prasad’s case demonstrates the impediments a Dalit student faces in his efforts to gain a respectable education. K.L. Chandrashekhar Aijoor, a lecturer in law at the University Law College, Bangalore University, and a research scholar, said such discrimination manifested itself in various ways. “The practice of untouchability is not visible in universities, but it is there,” he said. He cited the example of a prominent faculty member of Bangalore University, whose name he did not want to mention, as saying that he had got away with not supervising a single Dalit research scholar in his 35-year academic career. “The professor has the discretion to choose his students, and upper-caste faculty members behave like dictators when it comes to Dalit students,” he said.
Aijoor has been involved in various student organisations. “Dalit student associations are strong in Bangalore and Mysore universities. In the other universities in Karnataka, it is difficult for Dalit students to agitate for scholarship and hostel accommodation and on other issues as they are not a strong force,” he said. Dalit students of Bangalore University successfully campaigned against the setting up of a research centre in economics funded by the Jindal Group.
While several Dalit student groups are active in Karnataka, the most prominent one is the Bahujan Vidyarthi Sangha (BVS), which was founded in 2001. It claims to have a membership of over two lakh students. Hariram A., the BVS’ State coordinator and Assistant Professor of Political Science at NMKRV College for Women, said the organisation focussed on two issues: provision of soft skills for Dalit students as they generally come from rural backgrounds and demanding reservation in jobs in the private sector. “We are planning a massive rally during the Global Investors Meet [GIM] to press our demands,” Hariram said. The GIM is slated to be held between February 3 and 5 in Bengaluru.
Dalit students’ mobilisation began only in the 1990s. The delay in their consolidation can be attributed to the fact that they were active in Left-party-affiliated students organisations, such as the Students Federation of India) and the All India Students Federation. This has, however, reduced in the past decade. “The decline in Dalit students’ participation in Left-affiliated student bodies is partly because there is a perception that the Left parties are controlled by upper castes,” C.S. Dwarkanath, former Chairman of the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission, said.
Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed