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Unveiling The Tragic Link: Caste Discrimination And Suicides In Higher Education

In the higher education sector in India, a silent tragedy unfolds as caste discrimination takes a devastating toll on students' lives. Within the hallowed halls of universities and colleges, where knowledge and opportunity should flourish, the oppressive grip of discrimination stifles the aspirations of marginalised students.

By Prema Sridevi
New Update

IIT Suicide
Suicides in higher education | Representative Image | Photo courtesy: Special Arrangement

“In 2014, during my first round of fieldwork for my book on mapping discrimination in higher education in India, I had the opportunity to visit Hyderabad university, where Rohith Vemula became one of my respondents. Over the course of my research, I engaged with 600 students, aiming to understand the pervasive nature of discrimination. During our conversations, Rohith vividly described the discrimination faced by Dalit students, revealing that he had been denied a supervisor. I was shocked to learn of Rohith’s untimely demise by suicide. Recently, while conversing with one of Rohith’s close friends, he shared that Rohith had expressed the belief that the gravity of the discrimination issue would only be realised if someone made the ultimate sacrifice,” says N Sukumar, Professor of the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi.

Professor Sukumar is also the author of “Caste Discrimination And Exclusion In Indian Universities”, which details deep-rooted caste-based discrimination within Indian higher education system. Sukumar narrates the story behind the suicide of Senthil Kumar. Senthil, a Dalit research scholar from Tamil Nadu, chose the University of Hyderabad to pursue his PhD after obtaining an MPhil and an MSc. 

“Senthil hailed from a low-income family in Tamil Nadu that engaged in pig rearing. When he joined the university, the department raised concerns about his proficiency in the English language, prompting the introduction of an English language examination. Senthil was failed in the exam twice, leading to the termination of his fellowship. These fellowships hold immense significance for students like Senthil, as they not only support their own aspirations but also provide financial stability for their families. Senthil had urged his parents to cease their pig-rearing activities, assuring them his fellowship would sustain them. However, deprived of his fellowship and left without a research supervisor for an extended period, Senthil found himself cornered and ultimately succumbed to despair. Such tragic incidents transcend the label of “suicides” and reveal a deeper, more harrowing reality: they are nothing short of institutional murders,” states Prof Sukumar.

Professor Sukumar sheds light on the deeply entrenched caste-based discrimination prevalent within IITs. He highlights how these institutions often perceive the implementation of reservation policies as a dilution of their cherished standards, disregarding the need for inclusivity. One manifestation of this discrimination is observed in the language courses imposed on scheduled caste students, regardless of their linguistic proficiency. This assumption belittles their academic and linguistic abilities, relegating them to preparatory classes and earning them the derogatory label of “preppies”. Shockingly, even during simple introductions, students sometimes are asked to share their ranks and discrimination seeps in as their peers start categorising and treating them differently based on their rankings. 

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Prof Sukumar notes that the discriminatory practices extend to hostel allocations, with reserved category students systematically placed in specific wings, reflecting a troubling pattern of caste-based segregation. Furthermore, hostels categorised by food habits inadvertently perpetuate caste identities, while disciplinary discrimination further compounds the challenges reserved category students face, particularly in civil engineering. Within these disciplinary divisions, instances of caste-based discrimination also persist, further exacerbating the plight of marginalised students.

Speaking to The Probe, Devan, a member of ChintaBar - an independent student body recognised by IIT Madras - expresses deep concern over increasing suicides. “These suicides are alarming and have left our students in profound sadness and hopelessness. At IIT Chennai, between January and March, four students committed suicide. Three of them are from the reserved category,” says Devan. “During condolence meetings held after such tragic incidents, we have discovered more distressing details about our students’ challenges. While the IIT administration has taken some measures and initiated programs, we recently met with the Director to push for more reforms.”

Devan highlights a disconcerting observation: “We’ve noticed that official communications from the institute regarding these suicides avoid mentioning the term ‘suicide’. By sidestepping the gravity of this issue, the institute administration appears evasive, hindering the resolution of students’ academic and non-academic difficulties. The need to address this serious matter head-on is paramount.” 

Suicides are becoming the new normal in these institutions. Recently, the HRD Minister stated that over 19,000 students from SC, ST, and OBC categories dropped out from central universities, IITs and IIMs between 2018 and 2023. As many as 33 students at various IITs across India committed suicide since 2018, as per the government. Out of the three institutes of higher education - the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the National Institute of Technology (NIT), and the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) - the IITs accounted for the maximum number of student suicides. 

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“The IITs don’t value human life. They value only knowledge, but they don’t value the source of that knowledge: the human brain because when the brain dies, it is the death of knowledge too. It is time the IITs cultivate a culture of empathy and understand that discrimination is unacceptable,” asserts Professor Sukumar.

Speaking to The Probe, former UGC Chairman Prof SK Thorat explains the distressing problem of caste-based discrimination within higher education institutions. According to Thorat, this kind of discrimination is pervasive and does not depend on the economic background of SC/ST students. Instead, it is purely based on their caste, leading to their stigmatisation and subsequent isolation within campuses.

Despite the existence of reservation policies designed to provide opportunities for underprivileged communities, SC/ST students often find themselves at the receiving end of discrimination and prejudice. Being labelled as beneficiaries of affirmative action, they become targets of negative stereotypes and face marginalisation from their peers. This exclusionary behaviour extends beyond social interactions and pervades various aspects of campus life, including hostels and classrooms. Thorat highlights that SC/ST students are not only isolated within their peer groups but also face discrimination within the very classrooms where they seek knowledge. Teachers, who play a crucial role in shaping students’ educational experiences, contribute to this alarming pattern of mistreatment. 

“During my tenure as Chairman of UGC, I witnessed an unfortunate trend of suicides in IITs. Recognising the urgency of the situation, I tried to address this issue. Although my term ended in 2011, we did the groundwork and made significant progress, and in 2012 the equity regulations were introduced. These regulations aimed to tackle discrimination head-on, providing a framework for taking action against any instances of discrimination and establishing equal opportunities for all students across educational institutions,” says Prof Thorat.

Prof Thorat explains, “The primary objective of these regulations was to end discriminatory practices and ensure that educational institutions had mechanisms to prevent and address discrimination effectively. As part of this initiative, I advocated for the appointment of anti-discriminatory officers and encouraged colleges and universities to establish dedicated equal-opportunity cells. These cells would serve as vital resources, supporting students who faced discrimination and providing them with remedial coaching, particularly for SC/ST students”. 

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The Way Forward 

According to Professor Sukumar, addressing caste-based discrimination and its tragic consequences requires recognising caste as a stark reality. To combat this problem, he emphasises the need for comprehensive measures. Firstly, conducting an audit of all higher educational institutions is crucial to understand the extent and nature of caste-based discrimination prevalent within these settings. Additionally, strengthening SC/ST cells within these institutions would provide dedicated support systems for marginalised students, helping them navigate the challenges they face. Furthermore, the implementation of an anti-discrimination law specifically targeting caste-based discrimination is essential to establish legal protections and enforce accountability.

Professor Thorat, on the other hand, explains four key suggestions to address and curb discrimination within the IITs and higher educational institutions. 

  1. Enact an Act to Criminalise Caste Discrimination: Thorat proposes the implementation of legislation that would criminalise caste-based discrimination. Such an Act would serve as a strong deterrent and reinforce the commitment to equality and social justice.
  2. Offer Sensitisation Courses on Inequality and Discrimination: To foster awareness and empathy among students, it is imperative to introduce courses that delve into the complexities of various forms of discrimination, including caste, gender, race, and others. These courses would promote a deeper understanding of social inequalities and encourage students to actively work towards creating an inclusive society.
  3. Provide Remedial Coaching in Core Subjects and English: Recognising the disparities in educational opportunities, the provision of remedial coaching programs must be started for marginalised students. These programs would focus on core subjects and English language skills, helping bridge the academic gap and ensuring equal access to quality education.
  4. Establish Equal Opportunity Cells and Appoint Anti-Discriminatory Officers: Thorat proposes the establishment of Equal Opportunity Cells within educational institutions. These cells would serve as dedicated platforms to address discrimination instances, support affected students, and promote an inclusive campus environment. Additionally, appointing anti-discriminatory officers would ensure the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination measures and provide a recourse for students facing discriminatory practices.