Eighteen Dalit students in premier institutes of higher education in India committed suicide in the past four years after they underwent traumatic experiences of being victims of caste-based discrimination.
The documentary film, ‘Death of Merit,' talks about suicides of Dalit students studying in reputed institutions of higher education across India. The film was screened at People's Watch here on Friday.
It portrayed three cases of student suicides; the first case was that of Bal Mukund, a Jatav (Chamar) Dalit from Kundeshwar in Uttar Pradesh, the first Dalit from the village in 50 years to enter an elite institute like All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi. The whole family, including his mother and sister, had toiled hard to pour all their earnings to support Mukund. Mukund, a topper all through his life, had scored 82 per cent in Class X; had won the International Mathematics Contest and cleared the IIT and AIIMS entrance examinations but chose AIIMS as he had the dream of becoming a doctor.
For Mukund, urban life and its myth of being caste-free space and questions of anonymity were mere terminology. He was taunted every now and then by the faculty and fellow students just because he was being born a Dalit. “How could Chamars become doctors? You have come here only because of quota, you cannot go ahead” were the usual comments that chased him in classrooms, hostels and canteen.
The film shows interviews of his parents and sisters, aunt and uncle. He tried to change his name as Srijan Kumar to escape caste. He repeatedly talked on phone about caste and settling down abroad but before that depression made him commit suicide in March 2010.
Jaspreet Singh, a Dalit by birth and a student from Chandigarh, ended his life unable to bear the insults and taunts thrown at him at the medical college library.
Unable to overcome the loss of her elder brother, his sister, a student of Bachelor of Computer Application, also committed suicide, heartbroken at the injustice done to him. The suicide note recovered from his coat pocket charged his head of the department with deliberately failing him and threatening to fail him over and over. Seven months later, after the National Commission of Scheduled Castes intervened; a three-member team of senior professors re-evaluated his answer sheet and found that he had in fact passed the examination. NCSC's intervention only made the police file the FIR under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
Jaspreet of Government Medical College, Chandigarh, was an excellent student throughout and had never failed in any subject until he reached the final year. His elder sister, father and mother that Dalit students in institutions like this should be given proper support system to tackle discrimination.
The last case in the documentary was that of Manish Kumar of Indian Institute of Technology, Roorke, who was alleged to have committed suicide jumping from the fifth floor of his hostel. He hailed from Muzaffar Nagar and was a bright student. Both his father and mother had found that their son was a victim of caste abuse by fellow students and complaints to the authorities went in vain. Even after he shifted out of hostel the taunts did not stop. He went into depression and finally was found dead after he allegedly committed suicide by jumping from a building.
The documentary filmmaker Anoop Kumar had a discussion with the viewers and explained that 80 per cent of the suicides in all the seven IITs were of Dalits and none of these institutes had a grievance redressal mechanism to address caste based discrimination.
R. Thirunavukkarasu, Assistant Director, Institute of Human Rights Education, said that caste-based discrimination in classrooms was very subtle and complex in nature. “It's a kind of an experience that many could not easily understand the intricacies and dynamics of how it functions, unless and until one faces it.” The Post-Mandal Commission agitation era did provide a lot of opportunities for the entry of Other Backward Classes in many spheres of higher institutions inviting large-scale protests and demonstrations.
Elite higher educational institutions had always been a hostile and discriminating space for most of the oppressed communities and the practice of discrimination had almost become part of their culture. Documentaries and short films like these could initiate a larger debate on these complex and sensitive issues of discriminatory practices at institutions of higher learning.
Pandian of Dalit Foundation said that the documentary was made by Insight Foundation, started in 2003 by Anoop Kumar of Uttar Pradesh and a group of Dalit and Adivasi students of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Anoop Kumar had to discontinue his engineering course in Kanpur due to caste discrimination by his professors.
He later completed his undergraduation through correspondence and joined JNU for higher studies.