By Sudarshan Kasbe
As per the India census of 2011, India has 423 million youth population between the age of 15-34 years accounting to nearly 17.8 % of the global population. It is projected to grow to 17.97% by 2030. A country with such a large youth population has a potential to become a superpower, leveraging its prowess especially in the field of information technology (IT), food self-sufficiency, historically diverse cultural heritage, working proximity with the majority of other superpowers. However, in pursuit of becoming a developed nation, India’s social structure hampers the growth and development of a considerable section of youth who could potentially contribute to nation-building. Many social evils rooted in its social structures continue to hobble its youth and deprive them of an opportunity of realising its immense potential. On the one hand, it hosts enthusiastic, innovative, vibrant and dynamic youth population but on the other, it has unemployed, frustrated, broken and angry youth whose energies could be, but are not, channelized in productive ways. Especially, the institutional structures do not seem to create enabling conditions for youth from historically disadvantaged communities.
This is manifested when youth from these social groups face institutional discrimination and harassment and chose to end their lives; lives which could have been a potential asset (if nurtured properly) to the nation. In one of the instances, when a research scholar Muthukrishan committed suicide at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on 13 March 2017, one of the oldest and premier institutes in India, it shocked the academic fraternity as well as the entire country. It was not a single incident which should be seen in isolation but constitutes a part in the series of suicides committed by youth at different educational institutions, over the last few years. The battle against is not by a single person, but by a larger movement to assert and reclaim their equal status and dignified existence in the university spaces. In the above context, this essay examines the life and role of the marginalised youth, especially from the Dalit community, and an attempt has been made to analyse different strategies used by them to claim dignity and equality.
Status of Dalits in India
In the 21st century, where the world is rapidly changing with technological advancements and connecting people through the internet and turning us into one big family, the older social structures of domination and discrimination based on class, caste, creed, language, race, region etc. are still prevalent in many parts of the world. Specifically, in the Indian context, caste plays a divisive role across rural and urban areas. The caste-based discrimination has worked in many forms from centuries in the Indian subcontinent and there have been many movements against it, however, it continues to occur in many instances. There are daily instances of caste violence and atrocities happening across the country. A Dalit man was shot for fetching water from government water well; a Dalit youth was burned alive for an alleged love affair with an upper-caste girl; seven Dalit family members were assaulted for skinning dead cow allegedly slaughtering a cow a Dalit man was mercilessly beaten up for asking a raise in salary; a Dalit man was killed by villagers after he bought a horse. There are thousands of such news stories coming out every day.
The caste system is not just anti-individual, but it is also deeply anti-social. The psychological impact of the caste system on the lower classes within the caste system is the mutilation of their personhood and destruction of their individuality. That is why the full reclamation of humanity in the form of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar principles liberates them from the oppression by the inhumane caste system. Ancient Indian scriptures divide Hindus into four varnas and four main categories which are further broken down into almost 3000 castes and 25000 sub-castes. The Dalits and Maha Dalits at the bottom-most of this caste pyramid, and they bear the brunt of all the caste above them. While caste-based discrimination has been made a punishable offence under the constitution, it has taken new forms in the rural and urban social relations, where it is used to control and restrict mobility and choices.
Dalits and Higher Education in India
In India, higher education is still a distant dream for a large section of the society. Out of total students enrolled for higher education, Scheduled Caste (SC) students are accounted at 14.89 per cent, whereas Schedule Tribe (ST) students accounted for only 5.53 per cent. Dalit students constituted 11 per cent of the undergraduate and post-graduate enrollment in the academic year 2018-19. They made up fewer than 10 percent of PhD students and 16 percent of M.Phil students. When it came to non-degree certification, Dalit students comprised about 14 per cent of diploma-holders and 13 per cent of certificate-holders. With persistent underrepresentation in college or higher education institutions, students’ struggle gets intensified with each passing day of college due to the immense cultural power that an academic aristocracy rooted in India’s oldest caste structure. Its continual influence and exercise over students’ life render them invisibilized and makes living difficult. There are many cases reported against on-campus discrimination in premier institutes of India. Many institutes have failed to maintain a reserved quota of 22.5 per cent (15%+ 7.5%) to the historically marginalized sections like Dalits and tribals in India. As per India’s census 2011, the SCs form 16.6 per cent of the total population and STs form 8.6 per cent of the total population. The situation inside the campus, as well as the outside campus, is not much different where the feeling of alienation remains deep-seated among the students from marginalized communities like SCs and STs.“Dalits are feeling alienated and betrayed” said Ghanshyam Shah, an author of Dalit Studies.
The perrenial discrimination and humiliation experienced by Dalits in their everyday social life also enter with them in spaces which are seen as spaces for learning i.e. a university. In university spaces, they face prejudices, differential and discriminatory treatment at the hands of the university administration as well as the student community who predominantly belong to the upper caste. This is evident from one of the student narratives and experiences at Ambedkar University in Mhow, where a student named Sarita (name changed) mentioned that she felt that discrimination was over until she began her academic research. There are many incidents which are not visible and not captured in existing data sets. For example, discussing who is coming from quota and whispering about it, refusing to rent out a house if a tenant is found to be a Dalit, not letting a daughter or son marry down, ganging up against a Dalit student in universities and hostels, using caste-based slurs and partaking in caste-based ragging: all of these are newer forms of subtle humiliation and discrimination for these students. Also, there are many groups created on social media platforms with malicious intent to spread hatred against Dalits. Caste seems to be deeply-seated and unencumbered reality even in the 21st century.
The anti-caste struggle by Dalits in India was seen as one of the radical and transformative movements given its democratic and universal claims for equality and justice. But these movements were largely driven by socio-political leaders than youth. It was after the series of suicides such as Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student at the University of Hyderabad; Muthukrishana, a PhD student in Jawaharlal Nehru University; Kotal, tribal women in who studied in Vidyasagar University, Dr Payal Tadvi, a Mumbai based medical student, the youth from these communities have expressed their resentment and mobilised students, organised protests and took charge of the movement. They were mute spectators for a long time, only occasionally participating. The memoirs left by the students who were forced to commit suicide instilled a sense of unrest and resentment among them, and developed a spirit of fighting for justice to claim equal treatment in universities and institutions of higher learning.
It is their dead bodies, their suicide notes and trauma carried forward by the parents, combined with the material breakdown of their households that infuriated these youth and made them aware of the immediate oppression around them. Many students started to voice out grievances and unveil their stories of discrimination and unfair treatment by their academic counterparts and began organising at universities as well as out the university spaces demanding justice for the students who lost their lives as a result of institutional oppression and prejudices stemming from the caste practice in India. The formation of BAPSA (Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association) and ASA (Ambedkar Students’ Association) has been a good example of organising in university spaces. The formation of Ambedkarite student organisations in central universities and state universities campuses in India created a sense of ‘identity’ and ‘belongingness’ culminating into the articulation of their agency and claim for a shared sense of justice. It also contributed towards creating spaces that allow for learning and cultivation of minds. It manifests the growing assertion-based politics of Dalit and marginalized youth in Indian university spaces.
Discrimination and differential treatment to students from the particular background has been evident in India from a very long time. It came to the limelight only multiple on-campus suicide cases. There was a call for attention towards denial of quality education to Dalits and enabling environment to the young generation of Dalits. The caste-based discrimination in Indian universities has been an open secret for many years. The examples where Dalits students have been treated with extreme prejudice culminating into social exclusion and total ignorance towards their plight is common in Indian universities. Derogatory taunts, differential treatment, exclusionary behaviour and indifference of administration towards issues of scholarships have forced many to commit suicide. The presence of anti-discriminatory measures are ineffective and as a result of insensitive administration, students suffer in the process, sometimes even forcing themselves to quit their lives.
Recent instances of suicide due to caste-based discrimination raised awareness about such cases, but there are many cases which go unreported and distant from primetime headlines. Many cases of direct and indirect systemic discrimination have suffocated countless Dalit students and continue to do so. On-campus discrimination is exclusionary is very subtle. Denial of entitlement is so seemingly natural that it adversely affects Dalit students. In 2013, twenty-eight professors from universities in Hyderabad impleaded themselves during a writ petition associated with caste-based discrimination before the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Their letter noted, “Students from marginalised groups are also troubled by lack of clarity and sometimes contradictions within the examination and administrative procedures.” Discretionary rules which fail to consider the struggles and difficulties of marginalised students are biased and work against their interests. It affects students’ mental health and forces them to belittle themselves. ‘don’t waste my time’, ‘go away’, ‘come tomorrow’, ‘I am busy now’, ‘your presence irritates me’ etc. are some of the frequent words uttered against Dalits in university spaces. It is very difficult to prove whether a lecturer makes a student invisible by not providing enough time, or not letting them speak, being dismissive in a way, or by not letting them use instruments or labs, limiting their access to him and so on.
Figure 1. No of Vice Chancellors in Indian university
Source- Responses given by University grants commission to RTI filed in 2018
In figure (1) the data implies that the key positions in university spaces are highly dominated by upper-caste individuals who decide admission policy and student’s intake process. This data reflects a lack of representation from SC and ST groups in policy implementation at the university level which determines the support provided by the administration to the incoming students from marginalised backgrounds.
In 2007, a committee was constituted by the central government to investigate allegations of harassment of SC and ST students in All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, which is one of the premier institutes in the country. The committee was headed by Sukhdeo Thorat, former chair of University Grants Commission (UGC) of India. In the survey half, the SC/ST students at AIIMS were found to be discriminated against. In another instance, an investigation was conducted by the National Campaign on Dalits Human Rights (NCDHR) at IIT Roorkee where seventy-three first-year students from B.Tech, IMT and M.Sc courses were expelled. Among them, three quarters were SC and ST students. The NCDHR observed few instances where teachers enquired about the student’s category or entrance examination ranks. Eighty-four per cent of SC and ST students surveyed said that examiners have asked them about their caste directly or indirectly during their evaluations. The report noted that they found lack of support from the institution to support these students coming from diverse backgrounds, lack of infrastructure addressing their needs, remedial programs, English support classes, summer coaching classes and so on. They have noted the dysfunctional status of SC and ST cells which students are not aware of.
Table 1: Dropout and Non-Enrolment in Percentage (Age group 18-21 year old)
Source: NSSO 71st Round MPCE- Marginal Per Capita Income (Monthly Income Earned by Household)
There are huge dropout rates found in SC and ST groups owing to many factors and prominent among them are discriminatory practices based on their socio-economic background. In figure (1) you can see the dropout rate in the first row which displays around eighty-two (82) percent dropout rate among STs and around seventy-nine per cent of SCs. In total, the intensity of dropouts found in SC and ST groups is much higher compared to forward caste (FC).
Assertion of Dalit Students
Indian youth are carving their future in the spaces of higher learning. University spaces should enable these youth to get a sense of justice and upward social mobility to realise material and human well-being. Education is instrumental in this process and higher education should supplement it. Now with the active participation from youth and technological advancement, Dalits youth are fighting this battle more fiercely. They have put technology to good use. Social media appears to be turning out to be an instrumental tool in mobilising and uniting students around burning issues and therefore strengthening the efficacy of the movement. One of the students claimed that:
“Through social media, we reached Rohith. And Rohith reached us even after his death. Today, if there’s a caste atrocity in Rajasthan, a Dalit in Lucknow can visit the Ambedkar statue, and protest with a banner and a flag.”
The access to information and the internet has led to the empowerment of Dalit youth in terms of sharing resources and being involved for a large cause. The battle is not limiting it to any particular locality but placing it in the larger interest of the nation. All these efforts are channelised to make the upper caste shed their superiority and Dalits come out of so-called inferiority. This battle is fought with the help of various social groups such as minorities and other backward classes (OBCs) where they assist each other in this fight against discrimination. A new politics of inclusion and togetherness has been initiated. The economic shift has also opened new doors. Chandrabhan Prasad, one of the leading advocates of Dalit capitalism, observes that learning English and embracing urbanisation and capitalism will liberate them from shackles of the oppressive structure of caste. There is a brand new Dalit youth movement in making: aware, self-critical, inclusive, connected, assertive and beyond party politics.
Reclamation of Educational Spaces
The battle for liberation and reclamation of dignity to destroy the inhuman structure of the caste system created personalities like Rohith Vemula, a representative of Ambedkarite Student Association (ASA) in the University of Hyderabad. He was subjected to multiple expulsions allegedly for speaking against the university administration and raising issues which affected the welfare of marginalised students. He was an active member in campus politics.. At the age of 26, he committed suicide on the university campus owing to the injustice he faced since birth. It was not the first case of ‘institutionalised murder’ and neither the last. His memoir, however, divided the time into pre-Rohith Vemula and post-Rohith Vemula periods. What did he write in the suicide letter which changed the discourse of youth politics in India?
“For some people, life itself may be a curse. My birth is my casualty. I can never get over my childhood loneliness. I’m not hurt at this moment. Not sad, just empty. That’s pathetic. That’s why I’m doing this.”
– Rohith Vemula(1)
These lines not merely state the pain and negligence he was subjected to by the society for seeking a dignified life. He points out how ‘unappreciated’ society is towards the achievement of Dalit youth and how they feel neglected even though they have an immense potential to excel.
After the death of Rohith Vemula, many student-led organizations came out on the streets and protested against oppressive practices happening in the universities. New Ambedkarite youth groups were created in universities across India. Those campuses which have significant SC and ST youth wings had seen massive protests. The youth-led organisations like ASA and BAPSA turned into agencies of assertion on campus. These organisations started to actively engage in dialogue with the administration and ask pertinent questions to the entire academia to secure their dignity on campus.
Many of these organizations organised membership drives aiming to support the students coming from remotest parts of the country. These organisations listened to their views, supported them with remedial lectures and English speaking guidance. They also advocated for institutional support and so on. By following democratic and inclusive decision making in these organisations, they garnered huge support among students. Not only in the central universities, but many premier and private universities now have Dalit youth-led organisations which play a decisive role. Ambedkarite Student Association, an organisation in Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and the University of Hyderabad (UOH) has been successfully winning a majority of student union seats in the last few years. The candidates also come from very diverse backgrounds. For instance, Sneha Magar, a vice president of the students union, comes from a SC background hailing from Vidarbha region which is considered as one of the backward regions in the state of Maharashtra. Her narrative was eye-opening to everyone who was trying to appropriate Dalit movement. Her lived experiences are the tools of the assertion of identity politics on campus.
Generating agency for self and writing their narratives has led to a discussion among Dalit youth. Pathways were created to pool opportunities with immense potential to bring social change. Many individuals are disgusted with the brutal treatment meted out towards Dalits and they are committed to change it. Such energy and commitment are rare in world history. With Dalits spread across the country who are aware of surroundings and active on social media, the boldness, the knowledge, the confidence, and therefore the ability to speak among Ambedkarites, is evident.
Dalit youth are articulating their politics in their language which is newly created and not in consonance with the mainstream student politics. It creates affirmative possibilities of independent and autonomous politics which is more emancipatory and transformative. That language of assertion is derived from the heterodox tradition of social reformers in India. They opposed the oppressive caste system and advocated for a social arrangement based on equality of humans not determined by birth.
Despite the unfavourable circumstances and negligence from state institutions, Dalit youth are increasingly entering universities and institutes of higher learning investing all the resources they have on the quest of social mobility. However, they confront multifold struggles where they negotiate and fight within the confines of these spaces for their growth. They face collective discrimination and prejudicial treatment from their peers as well as their academic mentors. Under such circumstances, it is forcing them to formulate and articulate their way of politics. This has grown in the last ten years and it has garnered attention from all across socio-political groups. It is also contributing to the larger Dalit movement. The formation of Bhim Army and participation of youth in it has instilled confidence in youth across India. Youth are engaging themselves in active search of their emancipation and political power to increase their representation and voice.
Similarly, while the movement appears to be strong and effective, the participation of women at the helm of the youth movement is not adequately represented and needs further attention. The movement requires a more inclusive strategy to confront the historical injustice inflicted upon them. It will make the Dalit youth movement coherent and emancipatory, and also prudent in handling the immediate issues of concern such as ‘caste’ and ‘class’ questions.
There is no college, no university, no educational institute, no company, and no institution of the government where the people are not asserting their identity and for what belongs to them: their dignity and self-respect. It is also increasingly evident that these youth are ready to break any regional, linguistic, caste, and gender barriers. The frozen barriers of the caste system are thawing to produce the harmonious rivers of transformation. Once that social power is built by breaking the barriers between the people, the caste system will see its death. The unity and solidarity within the community and a ‘sense of belongingness’ to each other in this great stride against the inhuman caste system is the ultimate enemy of the caste system. The caste system divides; the community unites.
This is what Rohith taught us, to think beyond and live beyond the reductionist caste structure, inhuman systems of segregation that try to confine our universal and unique existence to serve the interests of a few. In thinking like him, in being like him, one realises that they belong to the universe, and not to any caste, creed, religion, and place. And for that one needs to understand it is a battle between the upper caste (haves) and SC, ST, OBC & minorities (have-nots). We welcome this fight. Because it is only through this battle, caste can be destroyed.
- Excerpts from suicide note written by Rohith Vemula.
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Photograph by Ramesh Khade
About the Author
Sudarshan Kasbe is the Founder-Director of Parmi Foundation which advocates for quality education, quality health and quality life for marginalized people.
He has been working in education and skill training arena for few years now and holds a Master in Development Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.