January 31, 2016

Cast Away Caste Discrimination

R Arun Kumar

THE suicide of Rohith Vemula, a research scholar, has stirred an intense debate on the conditions of dalit students in Indian universities and educational institutions. Many new instances that were earlier sought to be hushed up, saw the light of the day, like the travails of Mahesh Balmiki, an IIT- BHU (Banaras Hindu University) student, who thought of selling his kidney to pay off his loans. He states that he could not find a buyer “because they ask for the caste of the donor”. A dalit kidney might not function similar to that of an upper-caste kidney! Heights of caste discrimination and obnoxiousness. To repay the loan, he dropped out from the IIT and worked as a sweeper for Rs 4000 a month! This in itself speaks volumes about the hardships a dalit student has to face in their pursuit of realising their dreams.

The angst generated by the death of Rohith forced various media houses to trace and report the varied practices of caste discrimination in our educational institutions. Discrimination is a reality in our country, which like a twin, takes birth along with every dalit, not to leave even in death. We find dalit students not allowed to sit along with students from other castes; upper-caste students not allowed to eat mid-day meals cooked by dalits; dalit students punished for touching the utensils of upper-caste students; segregation in hostels; barring dalits from accessing all the facilities; targeting them in marking their academic performances...and the list can go on and on. Caste prejudices increase as one climbs the ladder of higher education.

Instead of acknowledging these facts, there is a subtle attack on the protests, arguing – (i) it is the policy of reservations that led to the practice of caste discrimination in education institutes, so reservations have to be done away with; (ii) the existence of student organisations in campuses is a source of violence, the present suicide is a result of this violence and they should be banned and (iii) this is primarily a case of clinical depression and not a case of caste discrimination.




The upper-castes never let go an opportunity to question the need of caste based reservations. Host of people from Mohan Bhagawat to Chetan Bhagat including the speaker of Lok Sabha consist this bandwagon.

According to Prof Sukhadeo Thorat, chairman, Indian Council for Social Sciences Research (ICSSR), who quotes a 2008 study in his write-up in The Hindu: “of the total number of students in higher education in the country, 4 percent were Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 percent Scheduled Castes (SC)” (Emphasis added). As can be discerned from the data, the number of dalits and tribals in higher education is less than what is actually reserved for them. According to the 2011 census, the population of the dalits and adivasis in our country is little more than 16 and 8 percent respectively, which means, the proportion of dalits and tribals in higher education is well less than their population in the society.

Arguing that caste based reservations are responsible for caste divisions in the campus, is like putting the cart before the horse. It is because of the existence of caste based oppression in the society that reservations are provided in the first place. The existing social biases against dalits, adivasis and other backward castes are driven into the minds of the children right from the day one in their schools, directly through our conduct (as in the many examples that were discussed earlier) and indirectly through the syllabus, which completely ignores their contributions to the society. Dalits and other deprived sections are painted as 'parasites' living on State doles, while the reality is on the contrary. It is always on their toil that the entire society is surviving. These facts are hidden from our children. Instead, they are forced to see the walls of separation which we had constructed and are invisible to them till then. The dominant discourse implanted at such a young age, is nourished as they grow and is quite natural to fructify in the institutes of higher learning. Caste divisions are carried into the campuses not by reservations, but by this dominant discourse. Reservations are intended as a means for empowerment, whether they had indeed succeeded or not is a different issue.

As scores of dalit students have identified, there is forced 'ghettoisation' in many universities and other such institutions. They are forced to befriend members of the same community, move with them and live with them. And it is for this 'group solidarity', they are blamed for promoting casteism in the campuses. The weird logic is, the victims, not the culprits, are said to promote caste divisions in the campuses; hence, reservations, a mechanism intended to empower the weaker sections are targeted. So, the suggested solution is, put an end to them, just like stopping the treatment for a disease by blaming the patient, instead of identifying and eliminating the pathogens.

Democracy does not mean only the right to vote or participate in elections. Undeniably this is an important component of democracy, but nonetheless not its entirety. It is also about ensuring such conditions that empower the persons who have been given the option to choose, to exercise their right. Democracy after all means, not just ensuring choices for a 'consumer', but is about empowering the citizens to choose. The social and economic oppression prevalent in the society is preventing dalits and adivasis from accessing what is even officially reserved for them. The cases of both Rohith and Mahesh, illustrate this point. Both of them hail from poor families, which are not only economically deprived, but are also socially oppressed. It is the successive governments that have ruled our country since independence, which have failed these sections.




Students who are getting educated at the cost of the society (with the tax payers money) should have a responsibility towards the society. They should be sensitive to its problems, react using the knowledge they have access to and learn from real life experiences. Only this can ensure a vibrant democracy.

Ruling classes only want to be heard, not questioned. BJP understands that to ensure its hegemony over the society, it has to ideologically corrupt the minds of future citizens. This ensures the creation of a sympathetic mass for them and also reduces the chances of a possible challenge to their hegemony. Tampering with education is thus an attempt to snuff out questioning minds. In their view, what RSS and its sakhas, sishu sakhas do is apolitical, but what other student organisations do is political. Preaching religious bigotry, fanaticism and hatred is apolitical, while questioning them and standing for peace, harmony and unity is political.

Being in power, whatever they do, even assaulting individuals who express divergent opinions, is termed as 'development' – Muzaffarnagar is development, questioning that paradigm is 'anti-national'. According to their version of democracy, whatever they do is to be tolerated. Standing up against them is violence and should not be allowed! It is this intolerant attitude that snuffed out the voice of Rohith and led to his suicide.

The government wants no one to question its policies, like budgetary cuts to higher education (as of September 2015, there was a cut of 25 percent, of which 17 percent is cut from what is allocated to the UGC). The impact of this cut on scholarships and fellowships are not to be questioned. Dissent on such issues should not be expressed. All these come under the category of student politics and violence. One should never forget Lala Lajapat Rai who had stated that only 'dishonest brains' want to keep students away from politics to 'cover their selfish interests'.

It is nothing short of stupidity to will that students in universities, who are above 18 can vote in elections, but not take an active interest in politics. As Focault has stated: “The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves”. Advising students to keep away from politics, is thus denying them 'the essence of their lives'.

Another willful propaganda underway is that it is not discrimination but depression that led to the suicide of Rohith. Even giving the benefit of doubt to this argument, we should note that depression does not descend just like that. Discrimination is an obvious reason as Rohith himself had mentioned in his letters to the administration. Prof Thorat, in his article, quotes many studies that proved the existence of caste discrimination in universities and its impact on driving students towards suicides. It is the apathy of the government, its failure to address their concerns, that had forced them to commit suicides. Trying to wash away these facts and arguing that psychological illness led to these suicides is disgustingly inhuman. This is yet another attempt to exonerate the government from its responsibilities and should not be tolerated.

The way BJP and its pen-pushers have reacted to this entire episode exposes their upper-caste, communal, neo-liberal bias. Their upper-caste bias is exposed when they tried to deny the existence of discrimination in higher educational institutions. Their inability to tolerate divergent views exposes their refusal to accept diversity, while efforts to stifle democracy exposes their authoritarianism. All these serve the interests of the exploiters – economic and social. The struggle for justice for Rohith thus should amalgamate all these aspects and fought in unity.

Along with the demands that are being raised, which are all important and need to be met immediately, the struggle should also be to change the elitist character of the higher educational institutions. This can be ensured only through vibrant student politics and real democracy, where diversity is respected along with dissent.