Even as the student population has become increasingly diverse, the high incidence of suicide among Dalit students points to continuing discrimination, exclusion and humiliation.

There is a need to apply our minds in a calm manner to address the problems that Dalit students face in institutions of higher education and find a more durable solution, now that the University of Hyderabad has revoked the suspension of students in the context of Rohith Vemula’s death. However, given past experience, there is no guarantee that the Rohith Vemula story will not be repeated. While his suicide has caused great shock and resulted in outrage, similar sentiments were expressed when Senthil Kumar from Salem, another student from the University of Hyderabad, killed himself in 2008. There have been up to 11 cases of suicide by students, mostly Dalits, in various institutions in Hyderabad between 2007 and 2013. In north India, besides two cases of suicide by Dalit/Adivasi students at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, an additional 14 cases of suicide by Dalit students were reported between January 2007 and April 2011.

It is almost as if we have become immune to these frequent instances of suicide mainly by Dalit students. The student population on campuses of higher education has become increasingly diverse: according to 2008 data, of the total number of students in higher education in the country, 4 per cent were Scheduled Tribes, 13.5 per cent Scheduled Castes (SC), and 35 per cent Other Backward Classes (OBC). Hindus accounted for about 85 per cent of students, followed by Muslims (8 per cent) and Christians (3 per cent). And yet, 23 out of 25 were of Dalits.

Reasons for discrimination

What explains such a high incidence of suicide among Dalits? Research indicates that experiences of discrimination, exclusion and humiliation are the predominant reasons. After analysing some cases of suicide, academic Anoop Singh concluded that “there seems to be more than enough evidence to believe that caste discrimination played a significant role in driving these extraordinary individuals into committing suicide”, and that “elite professional institutions are the places where caste prejudice is so firmly entrenched that it has become normal”. A study in 2010 by Professor Mary Thornton and others of five higher educational institutions in India and the United Kingdom observed that “separation of groups on the higher education campus is pervasive and ubiquitous. While some such separation may be for supportive reasons, at other times it is due to overt discrimination on the grounds of race, region, nationality, caste, class, religion, or gender”. In 2013, Samson Ovichegan, in a study on the experience of Dalits in an elite university in India, observed that “this university is yet another arena in which the practice of caste division continues to exist. The university environment reinforces and maintains a divide between Dalit and non-Dalit. Dalit students do, indeed, experience overt and covert discrimination based on caste at this premier university”.

In the wake of a spate of cases of suicide by students in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh High Court, in April 2013, had taken suo motu cognisance of a newspaper report and directed the universities to take measures to address the possible causes. At that time, a group of 29 academicians, in a petition to the court, identified failure, fear of failure, administrative indifference, hostile regulations, insults, social and academic stigmatisation and rejection as some of the reasons for suicide by students from marginalised groups. Political scientist N. Sukumar’s research gives us an insight into the general milieu of stigmatisation and discrimination faced in particular by Dalit students in the context of Senthil Kumar’s suicide, and on how caste comes into play in interactions of Dalit students with upper caste students, teachers and administrators. It is this exclusionary social milieu that pushes Dalit students to the wall, and those who lack the capacity to deal with the psychological pressure of humiliation resort to suicide.

Also read: A series on Dalit unrest on campuses

There are solutions provided we accept the persistence of caste discrimination and stigmatisation as a problem bedevilling higher education campuses. There is constant denial and attempts are made to attribute the suicides to incident-specific situations with disregard for the links with the larger social milieu of exclusion. True, there are incident-specific reasons, but it cannot be a coincidence that out of 25 cases of suicide, 23 were of Dalits. Thus, the first thing for policymakers is to come out of denial mode.

Need for legal safeguards

It is not that the situation has not improved — indeed it has. But the legacy of caste continues in modified forms in many spheres, if not all, of relations Dalit students have with other students and teachers and administrators. In my view, steps are needed on four fronts to address the problems of Dalit/OBC and other marginalised students. These include legal safeguards against discrimination, civic education, academic assistance to students who need support, and participation of Dalits in all decision-making bodies of universities/colleges.

If we acknowledge the persistence of exclusionary practices associated with caste on higher education campuses, we need legal safeguards to act as a deterrent. Currently some legal provisions exist such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, and the University Grants Commission (UGC) regulations. However, the provisions related to education in the Act are limited. Similarly, UGC regulations fall short in terms of effectiveness. Therefore, we need a separate law against discrimination in colleges/universities, to treat an act of discrimination as a punishable crime, in specific spheres, with detailed administrative guidelines as in the case of gender discrimination and ragging. The legal route should help. For instance, when ragging was made a punishable offence, instances of ragging dropped dramatically. In fact, the near elimination of ragging is one of the most successful stories of the Ministry of Human Resource Development/UGC.

Importance of civic education

While legal safeguards are essential, they need to be supplemented by civic learning. Laws help to prevent, but not cure. Civic education in schools, colleges and universities can help students unlearn discriminatory and undemocratic values and behaviour that they pick up through socialisation and sensitise them to how the practice of discrimination associated with caste, ethnicity, gender, race, religion and other identities undermines the citizenship values of equity, freedom and brotherhood. Unfortunately our education system, with its curricula and pedagogy, has less to offer by way of civic learning that builds good citizens out of youth. “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future”, a 2013 report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, observed that “unlike liberty, civic knowledge, and capability are not bestowed at birth. They are hard won, though education at all levels. Democratic insights and competence are always in the making, always incomplete”. It went on to warn that “we dare not be passive about revitalizing civic capacity any more”.

Therefore, civic learning needs to be an integral component at every level of education. Many countries have proper civic education at school and in higher education. Some, like the United States, have special courses, while others have a civic learning component included in all courses with themes of diversity, inequality, racism, sexism, religious oppression, classism, anti-Semitism and heterosexism. To develop individual capabilities and skill, the U.S. developed new pedagogical methods, such as inter-group dialogue and mixed peer groups, where students from diverse groups come together and interact, thereby unlearning many prejudices and developing capacities to deal with diversity and difference. Given the widening diversity in schools and higher education campuses in India, we badly need a similar structure for education for citizenship.

Another initiative relates to academic assistance. In 2008, about 65 per cent of SCs entering higher education had a Hindi/regional language background, compared to 43 per cent of higher caste students; 52 per cent of SCs came from a rural background when compared to 34 per cent of higher castes. Obviously, SC students need more support in language improvement and core subjects. Remedial coaching schemes are in place, but a majority of institutions lack the will to implement them in full. They need to be modelled on the pattern of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s “personalised Academic Support System”, which has yielded good results.

The last suggestion is the provision to give representation to Dalit students and teachers on all bodies of the university and enable them to participate in governance. Effective participation by Dalits in governance is a much better safeguard against the policies and rules detrimental to their interest.

The government can make a beginning by sending out a strong message by removing two symbols of inequality and exclusion. One is a fresco on the wall of the waiting room of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), by a painter from Maharashtra in 1924, depicting the caste system. On the 125th birth anniversary of B.R. Ambedkar, the PMO should do something to replace it. The government must also shift the statue of Manu in front of the Rajasthan High Court to a museum. The fresco and the statue can hardly be presented as symbols of equality, fraternity, justice and democracy.

(Sukhadeo Thorat is Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research.)