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Why we must read these suicides as protest

May 23, 2011

By Malarvizhi Jayanth

Merit did not die. It kills. It lies in wait and takes the life of dalit students after they have entered the prestigious educational hellhole – by refusing to let them pass, by standing between them and the future. Merit is a murderer.

The deaths of young people, the hopes of their parents and their communities, has forced the festering casteism and anti-democracy of the ‘prestigious’ educational institution into the public realm.

Their deaths remind us again that Merit has blood on its hands, that bloody Merit is the offspring of generations of privilege and exploitation, that Merit was fed on blood.

This is why we must read these suicides as protest, why we must reclaim these lives within the struggle against caste.

Illustration by Dr. Harish Wankhede (JNU, New Delhi) Courtesy:Insight Magazine (Dec 2004)

When did the language surrounding an educational institution become so vicious – elimination, testing, selection, exclusion, prestigious, hallowed, competitive, meritorious, premier, leading? A little less prestige and little more democracy would be welcome.

The anti-democratic nature of educational institutions is never clearer than when they begin to talk with smug complacence about how prestigious they are.

Within their hallowed portals, learning is not a broadening of the mind but a restriction of it. Political engagement will be systematically strangled at birth.

Those who get in ‘exclusively’ on merit will be fed with love and care and passing marks. Those who get in inclusively with affirmative action will be told they are failures, that they have no right to be there. They will be poisoned with hatred, discrimination and discouragement.

Exclusivity is the hallmark of the prestigious educational hellhole. Exclusive – another weasel of a word, on par up there with Merit. An exclusive institution excludes, by the very nature of its being.

In these repressive institutions, students cannot organise, cannot form support systems. Their identities are criminalised – to have gained entry to this organisation despite belonging to the communities they come from, that is their crime. The rest of the student body is there because of their prestigious castes, no crime there.

Prejudices that governments takes ponderous steps to counter can be reinstated by practising exquisite cruelty, by refusing to grant one mark. Just one.

Sections of civil society work conscientiously to keep others beyond the pale of civil society. The educational institutions of prestige and Merit contribute towards this end, to stand guard at the gates, to police the boundaries of their power. They create products in their own image, they teach their students to talk the language of Merit, to pride themselves on their Meritorious achievements, to make them believe that Merit equals entitlement.

Merit is the cutting-edge conceptology deployed to cut off the right to entry. The sacred temples of learning protect their gates religiously with the guillotine at the threshold named Merit. Inside the sacred portals of learning, the guillotine is refashioned as sacrificial altar.

The high priests of higher education sacrifice aspirations at the altar of Merit unceasingly. When the gods of Status Quo grow hungry, they sacrifice lives as well. The high priests of learning grade inequality with exquisite skill, withholding one mark, one.point.five marks.

Note to prestigious educational hellholes:

For the record, yours is to create worth – not determining how much each student is worth to you. The refusal to pass students has been your principal tool of ‘disciplining’, of maintaining Status Quo – that was what you told Chuni Kotal and Jaspreet  Singh and so many others, that they did not deserve to be there, that they can never come up to the rarefied heights that you have attained.

How you tried everything in your power to push them down. Now they can never be pushed out, they will remain within your confines, illuminating the outlines of your tools of exclusion with a blinding, searing light, a scar on your conscience (assuming you have a conscience that is in working order) Their suicides a wound on the educational body that refused to allow them space to breathe.

No, you did not fail these students, you failed yourself.

You showed us that it is the prestigious educational institution that is the real, colossal, absymal failure. Not the brave intelligent students whom you crushed the lives out of.

The fat paychecks that your prestigious students of prestigious castes will get are only further proof of your failure, of how you have abandoned yourself to widening and deepening existing inequalities.

After a lifetime of trying to strangulate protest and instill the values of respectful hierarchy, you now have to face voices of disrespect, challenging your carefully-graded hierarchy.

The deaths of these young people who got past your vicious portals against all odds – their suicides are not acts of giving up. They are screams of defiance at the altar of Merit. After you have spent a lifetime of silencing dissent, fostering the values of respect for hierarchy and quiet submission, these acts of protest must be galling.

Not that you have stopped trying. Now you spread disinformation in an attempt to depoliticise discussion. Now you ignore the whole issue. Now you retain the HOD who was directly responsible for the death of a student. No, prestigious educational hellhole, we can’t give you marks for just trying. You have failed.

Here’s an assignment to make up for being a murderer. We doubt if you have the necessary calibre to answer them. But then we would hate to be unfair.

Describe the way forward in an appropriate vocabulary where inclusion has replaced Merit.

OR

A politicised education that can create citizens who are aware of the deep disparities that exist in this brutal country with a history of grotesque crimes against its own people [instead of uninformed individuals, divorced from the realities of the country they live in and blind to their own privilege] is the need of the hour. Discuss.

OR

What is a good educational institution? A prestigious educational haven of exclusivity and quality merit? Or an institution that educates its students?

You don’t have much time left.

[Malarvizhi Jayanth is a former journalist and editor who hopes to start research soon. She curates a blog of personal narratives of caste at http://writingcaste.wordpress.com/ ]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jaya permalink
    May 24, 2011 4:55 am

    Absolutely agree! The whole merit argument in India is just a fascist programe intended to shut out egalitarian world views and forces from power. As Malar rightly pointed out, it is merit with blood on its hands! Wish that Malar will get this published in international fora as well! We need to draw international attention to this racism that has been destroying the lives of our young people.

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