ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Punished for One's Aspirations

Why are dalit students in institutions of higher learning viewed only through the prism of caste?

On 4 March, 22-year-old Anil Meena became the 19th dalit student to have committed suicide in one of India’s premier institutions of higher learning in the last four years. Most dalit and tribal students who make it to these prestigious institutions – they are either first-generation graduates in their families, sometimes, even communities, or from very poor families – struggle to find their feet in unfamiliar surroundings. Added to this, since they invariably come from non-English medium institutions, following the instruction in English becomes an uphill task. Both these aspects can be dealt with, given an effective and sensitive student support structure. However, not only is such a structure lacking in most of these institutions, but these students are more often than not constantly reminded that they are “quota” students. The overt and covert hostility from sections of their upper caste peers and faculty is hardly likely to build up their confidence reserves to tackle what is undoubtedly a challenging course for all students. Meena’s case (he was a fi rst-year student at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, the AIIMS) follows the trajectory of almost all the 18 before him in most details, including the aftermath. He failed his fi rst-year exams due to his inability to cope with English; fellow students said he was “scared”. The institution’s authorities said that he had “psychiatric” problems. Since this is said in almost all cases of such suicides, it suggests that the student’s case had nothing to do with the strain imposed by extraneous factors.

There is another irony associated with Meena’s suicide. The chair of the University Grants Commission who had submitted a report in 2007 of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in AIIMS, Sukhdeo Thorat, has now been appointed to examine the extent of implementation of his own recommendations. Why did the AIIMS authorities not consider these recommendations for four years? For that matter, why did the government not find it important to consider them? The institution has also appointed a panel of senior faculty members to verify whether Meena’s results had been prepared as per the rules.

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