Dalits and Adivasi students committing suicides in Indian campuses is not a new phenomenon.
One of the earlier and relatively well-known case is of Chuni Kotal, a tribal woman, first woman graduate among her tribe of the Lodha Shavars, who committed suicide on August 16, 1992, due to continuous caste-based harassment and discrimination by one of her Professor, Falguni Chakarvarti, at Vidyasagar University, Medinapur, West Bengal. She was pursuing her MA in Anthropology.
Her death united the Lodha Shabar community in protest, and became the focal point of a movement spearheaded by the Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha questioning the liberal credentials of Bengali society. Mahasweta Devi wrote about her in Byadhkhanda (1994) and The Book of the Hunter (2002).
Given below are the excerpts from a commentary on Chuni Kotal’s suicide, ‘Story of Chuni Kotal‘, written by Mahasveta Devi that was published in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), August 29, 1992, just 13 days after her suicide.
The complete article can be accessed at http://www.cscsarchive.org
Story of Chuni Kotal
Chuni Kotal’s suicide has ripped the mask off the face of West Bengal under Left Front rule: the caste prejudice and persecution and the government callous indifference
Chuni Kotal, a girl of 27, from the denotified Lodha tribe, the first graduate woman among the Lodha Savara and Kheria Savara of West Bengal, hanged herself on August 16, at her husband’s one room residence in Kharagpur, a railway town.
The reasons that led Chuni, a unique woman, to take her own life, are palpable ones and she “became a victim of sheer injustice and callousness of the university authorities and the West Bengal government” (The Statesman, 23/08/1992)
Chuni was appointed a Lodha social worker in 1983 at Jhargram ITDP office. From childhood she had starved , worked in the fields, had had no money to purchase books, yet doggedly she continued to study.
This documentary is second in the series of our efforts to document caste-based discrimination prevalent in Indian higher education system resulting in large number of suicides of Dalit students in Indian campuses.
It is based on the testimonies of parents and family members of Dr Jaspreet Singh, 22 years, who was a student of Final Year, MBBS at Government Medical College, Chandigarh. He committed suicide on 27th January, 2008, by hanging himself on the 5th floor of his college’s library.
In next few days, we are coming up with few more documentaries to expose the kind of caste-based hostility and harassment Dalit and Adivasi students have to suffer from the faculties, fellow students and administration in some of the country’s premier educational institutions. These documentaries are part of our efforts to make Indian educational system inclusive in real sense and free from caste-discrimination.
About the Documentary
He used to clear all his papers without fail, in 4 years of his MBBS, till he met a professor whose criteria of merit was not Jaspreet’s performance but his ‘caste’.
After completing his MBBS from Government Medical College, Chandigarh, Dr Jaspreet wanted to become a surgeon. However his dreams were cut short by a professor who not only humiliated him on caste lines but failed him twice in the same paper and threatened to further keep failing him.
What can we learn from this documentary, ‘The Death of Merit’?
Bal Mukund Bharti was determined to become a doctor. And his teachers were also very determined: ‘you’ll never pass MBBS’, they told him.
Bal Mukund didn’t give up, nor did his family. Father, mother, married sister, uncle, aunt– they were all determined to support him in his ardent journey, which was steadily converted into an uphill struggle by AIIMS, to become a doctor. They scraped, pooled together whatever meagre resources they could to send him to AIIMS.
Uncle says they invested everything they earned in his education. Sister who made only 2,500 rupees a month helped whenever father, who worked in a job which sometimes made him wait 3 long months for wages, couldn’t. It wasn’t a small dream; if realized, it could have become a source of hope and pride for many more people outside the immediate family.
As Bal Mukund’s proud father says, ‘he was the first one from our community to become a doctor in fifty years!’. Bal Mukund’s intelligence and superior scholastic record instilled that kind of confidence in the family, stoked such high hopes.
Imagine: the first doctor from a community in fifty years, or in two millennia, possibly. Also imagine Rakesh Sharma or Kalpana Chawla, people of the ‘wrong’ race, being told by the Russians or the Americans: ‘you’ll never go into space’.
But AIIMS was determined it would see Bal Mukund only as a ‘harijan’, as a person from the ‘wrong’ caste. Imagine history being snuffed out in the womb. That shouldn’t be very difficult to imagine if you step two years back into history and think of Senthil Kumar of the University of Hyderabad.
[ From our magazine Insight Young Voices (Feb-Mar, 2009) issue]
The dismal representation of SC/ST students in IITs demands some serious questioning from all who believe in equal opportunities and social justice. Even after 40 years of their existence, most of the IITs have also singularly failed to recruit faculties from these communities.
On the top of it, there are various instances that indicate towards the prevalence of caste-based harassment of Dalit students.
Recently IIT Delhi was in news due to the termination of 12 Dalit students together with allegations of prevalance of caste-based discrimination. In the wake of this incident, the author here has tried to map the experiences of Dalit students within IIT Delhi structure.
On May 2008, 12 Dalit students (11SC & 1ST) were terminated by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, citing their ‘low academic performance’. Eleven of these students were from the first two years of their undergraduate courses.
After receiving the termination letter, some of these students filed a petition in the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes (NCSC), alleging caste-based harassment in IIT Delhi and demanded annulment of their terminations.
According to the students, many IIT Delhi faculty members harbour deep prejudices against students admitted through reservations and they receive very poor grading despite performing well in the exams. The NCSC immediately summoned the Director of IIT Delhi, and asked him to investigate into these allegations and also to review the terminations.
Later, in July first week, the IIT administration submitted a one-page report to the NCSC stating that, it has decided to revoke the expulsion of 2 Dalit students by giving some relaxations in their grade requirements.
It also informed the NCSC, about the IIT review committee, constituted in response to the summon issued by the NCSC, to inquire about the prevalence of caste based discrimination.
The report further stated that ‘no case of caste discrimination was brought out by the students in their meeting with the Review Committee’.
The last paragraph of the report reiterated that, “IIT Delhi is very sensitive to the special needs of SC/ST students and faculty members spare no efforts in helping them, and indeed all weak students, to come up to our higher academic standards”.
However, the Dalit students countered this report by claiming that the members of IIT review committee did not entertain issue of caste discrimination at all. The members only inquired about their academic performances and refused to take up questions related to the caste discrimination.
Later, the Dalit students took out two rallies, demanding the re-admission of remaining 10 Dalit students and also sent their representations to the HRD ministry.
As a last resort, some of these students also filed a case against IIT Delhi in Supreme Court. In the first week of this year, after six months of their continuous struggle against one of the country’s most powerful institutions, finally there was some good news.
The Supreme Court agreed to the demands of students and passed an interim order for readmission of the six Dalit students and one more Dalit students was readmitted by IIT administration itself in the same week. As for now, nine Dalit students have been readmitted in IIT Delhi.
[Senthil Kumar, PhD, Department of Physics, Hyderabad Central University committed suicide on 24th February, 2008. The poem was first posted at http://unbrokensilences.blogspot.com, a blog by Senthil’s friends, to fight against the injustice that led to his death]
I seem to know you so well after you have gone.
Did we not walk the same lonely paths?
Paths strewn with little hurtful insults,
some obvious most not-obvious humiliations
designed to erode our self worth,
with the power to shake our confidence in humanity,
in our thinking, in our love for life and our search for
Could we have talked about our shared bewildering experience,
of hearing a system stealthily tell us that
we are not good enough to seek knowledge?
Today, you have chosen to protest
in a way that only intensifies my pursuits more lonely,
or should I believe that you have instead
opened a channel for the rest of us?
To make public what until now,
is our private pain,
pain delivered to us
by systems meant to deliver knowledge
and uplift mankind
– By an HCU drop-out Dalit
This post courtesy the blog: Time and Us
Vaibahv Wasnik’s comment on this pic: “And these are going to be life givers. They hate 85 percent of the country, the sc/st/obcs so much that they cannot even tolerate people from these communities as co-doctors. How can these be expected to treat the illnesses of these same people.”
Kuffir, calls this picture “the ordinary faces of hate.”
I recently read an academic paper which was laboring to make a point about UN recognizing caste as a race issue and trying to decipher the relation and difference between race and caste. this is what this picture made me write “caste is not a sibling of race, it is not even the parent, it is the God of all forms of discriminations.”
Just look at those women’s faces, there is no hate, there is only a supreme conviction of righteousness, such pure dharmic expressions.
Who needs conical masks and nooses, who needs to disguise hate that is so pure that it does not even require the face to contort into a negative expression.
K. P. Girija
No suicide can perhaps be seen only as a result of personal frustrations , least of all, Dalit student suicides. It becomes important for all concerned to analyze whether these suicides are intrinsically connected to the power structure of the higher educational institutions and the entry of Dalits into it.
Rejani S. Anand, a Malayalee student of Institute of Human Resource Development (IHRD) Engineering College at Adoor in south Kerala committed suicide on 22nd July 2004.
Senthil Kumar, a Tamil student hailing from an interior region in the state, admitted for PhD in the School of Physics, University of Hyderabad, took his life on 24th February 2008.
Ajay Sree Chandra, a Telugu boy and an Integrated-PhD scholar at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, committed suicide the year before, on 27th August 2007.
If one were to look for similarities that bind these three disparate incidents, we find that all were doing courses in Sciences and admitted to prestigious institutions. They all were also in the peak of their youth. Rejani and Ajay were both just 21 years olds at the time of their death. Senthil was 27.
Their youth might have been mixed with hope and an equal measure of uncertainty about their future. However, the most striking feature, that binds all these deaths, would be the caste of the deceased. All the three students were Dalits.
No suicide can perhaps be seen only as a result of .personal frustrations, least of all, Dalit suicides. These personal frustrations have visible connections with the context around them. They are political, cultural and social and therefore need special attention. Hence it becomes important for all concerned to analyze whether these suicides were intrinsically connected to the power structure of the higher educational institutions and the entry of Dalits into it.
The Culprit behind Senthil’s Suicide
Senthil Kumar, Age 27, PhD Student
University of Hyderabad
In 2007, Senthil Kumar came all the way to University of Hyderabad, from a village of Salem district in Tamilnadu. He was admitted for his PhD in the School of Physics. He belonged to the panniandi caste, which is traditionally involved in pig rearing and is at the bottom of the caste-hierarchy.