It is the time to break the shackles that undermine our educational institutions
The educational sector in India is seemed to be far more an elitist domain as the recent clamour on equality in education is brought into the spotlight. Though the constitution ensures the fundamental right to education for each and every one of its Indian citizens, caste-based discrimination that grips the society at the grass roots denies equal access owing to the hierarchic order undercurrent in the community. Even the primer institutes of the country which claim to have broken the caste barriers tend to adopt an anti-Dalit approach in the façade of lifting the lesser privileged.
“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living…All the while, some people, for them, life itself is the curse. My birth is my fatal accident…” The terminal words of Rohit Vemula, a Ph.D. scholar at the University of Hyderabad who committed suicide following his suspension over the quarrel with the student wing of the elite ruling party points to the casteism that grabs India’s finest Central University. Further, the death of five Dalit students who killed themselves between the period of 2005 and 2015 at the same institute tell yet another tale of oppression. This is not the case of Hyderabad University alone. The suicide of two Dalit students at the Osmania University and the silencing of students associated with Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle at IIT Madras reminds the fact that the age-old Chaturvarna system still exists in our society.
Nothing has changed much since independence in the matter of mindset regarding Indians. Though appears to be liberal and tolerant, the caste system is engraved in our mind in such a way that we still have temples where Dalits are not permitted to enter. The whole notion of “purity”, pollution and the practices of “untouchability” that began centuries ago based on the caste system still finds a place in modern India. The inability of so-called “upper class” to acknowledge and respect people of other classes has resulted in a series of issues ranging from their denial of basic rights to ill-treatment at the hands of “feudal” lords.
Education is meant for social revival. It is always through the light of the wisdom that darkness evaporates. The educational institutions which are supposed to be the centres of impartial, unbiased learning turn out to be prejudiced and one-sided in its approach, through the alliance with elitism. As a result, Dalits who are downtrodden in the society are plunged further into an abyss as the system which upholds social equality itself paves the way for alienation and social exclusion.
The discrimination against Dalits has led to the increased number of dropouts in schools and colleges. A survey conducted by the local newspaper shows that about 44.27% of Dalit students leaves school at the primary level. The reasons for this farthermost step include corporal punishment, denial of access to school water and segregation in classrooms. The prejudiced attitude of teachers coupled with their dual mentality towards haves and have-nots aggravates the scenario causing depression and sense of insecurity among Dalit students and thus leading to irregular attendance in the classroom, less concentration in studies, lower performance and ultimately become drop outs!
The plight of Dalit students at a remote village on the Madurai-Virundhunagar border is tragic as the government school had “systematically” kept the Dalit students away. A. Kathir, founder of Evidence, an NGO working against caste discrimination says that “We found through the RTI act that segregation has been going on for decades though the state administration had failed to identify it. The Dalit students of the village study at a missionary-run school”. Monisha, a final year commerce student of a local city college recounts her school days where she was forced to use the outside lavatory meant for workers and was also pulled up when something was stolen in her class.
The number of Dalit students opt for higher education is remarkably less compared to students belonging to other communities. The recent survey by Times of India shows that northern parts of India have frugal Dalit representation in the matter of higher education compared to the higher castes. Though a number of reasons can be point out including extreme poverty and migratory labour, the “ostracisation” of students belonging to marginalised sections can be regarded a central issue in dragging the students out of the college. As Stalin Rajangam, Dalit writer points out, “explicit untouchability does not exist on campuses these days. But caste has evolved and exhibits itself in subtle ways in terms of access to facilities and equality among students”. Apart from these, there are many social and physical factors which contribute to the lesser number of Dalits in higher education centres.
Many times, a Dalit student was considered the “other” in the institution. Anpumani, a third-year engineering student at a local college in Chennai thinks that people always looked down whenever he told his caste. Even though he got admission through merit, fellow students have a feeling that he was “lucky enough” to get a reservation. Further, he was teased for his “Tanglish” and he was compelled to write senior’s records.
V. Krishna, a Dalit faculty member at the University of Hyderabad, speaks about the “type of ghettoization” he and his fellow Dalit students went through while he was a student there; “There was no choice, but to be in the company of each other”. Quite often, institutional bias towards Dalits led students to kill themselves. Venkesh, a Dalit research scholar committed suicide as the university refused to provide a research supervisor or guide for him despite his repeated requests. Another Dalit student P. Raja took his life as the faculty denied to publish his mark. Mr Krishna confirms the unfriendly environment in primer institutes as he says; “Dalit students find it difficult to get past the biases that surface in all modern academic spaces as teachers, staffs and administrators are not concerned about this”. Moreover, the recent resignation of fourteen Dalit faculty members at the Central University also shows the gravity of the matter. The ill-crafted cut down of budget allocated for the scholarship of Dalit students along with the erratic decisions of the government further pours oil to the fire.
The economic condition of Dalits often acts as a curb to the dreams and aspirations of students. Though the parents wish to provide education to their children, financial position compels them to encourage their children to take up odd jobs. The inadequate basic amenities coupled with the lack of proper guidance hinder Dalit students to carve a path for themselves. Though the reservation system offers better representation in primer institutes, it isn’t sufficient to bring forth deserved people. Further, reservation itself creates a feeling of incapability as the “general category” tends to look them as “less qualified”. Satish Deshpande, a professor at Delhi school of Economics, thinks that admission to educational institution makes “reserved category a de facto identity for lower caste students, where the upper caste identity is subdued and referred to in secular terms as “general category””.
Activist Anoop Kumar notes that majority of students who commits suicide has strong academic achievements and he believes that it is their claim to equal treatment that which upsets the academic establishments. Though claims to be the space for open and liberal discussion, it is the hard time we need to realise the hostility lurking behind smiley faces in our educational institutions.
(With inputs from The Hindu, Times of India)