“My birth is my fatal accident”. Six words on a suicide note of a young Dalit student, 16 years into the new millennium has exposed the fault lines in the Indian socio-economic system, where even now, a modern-day version of DDT - the original contact poison that was later seen to have far more harmful effects on humans - in the form of Disparity, Discrimination and (in)tolerance, threatens to rip apart the very fabric of Indian civilisation and cultures.
The tragic suicide of Rohith Chakraverthi Vemula, a lifelong victim of this poisonous cocktail, on the prestigious University of Hyderabad campus has once again exposed modern day Indian society. Untouchability continues to be prevalent in Indian society and is even today admittedly practiced by at least 25% of the population (NCAER report, Maryland University, November 2014). The same report points out that even today, only 5% of Indian marriages are inter-caste marriages. Data generated by the socio-economic census have revealed fewer than 5% of SC and ST households have a main earner who makes more than Rs 10,000 per month. The deprivation, and resulting discrimination is not just social, but also economic, and release of additional data, so far held back by the Government would definitely clear the picture further. And even as poverty decline rates have been fastest in India over the last decade, high rates of economic growth breed further disparities, unprecedented levels of inequality and violence. Therefore, even as Rohith’s farewell letter sends shivers through the body; his death highlights the reality of 21st century India, wherein caste, class, region, religion and gender still dominate our socio-political discourse.
Nowhere is this further evident than in our higher education institutions, which expose the fault lines on discrimination at every level: student/student, student/teacher, teacher/teacher. A university policy in JNU to discuss on increasing affirmative action for those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds in 1999 during my days on campus got the entire campus on its feet, and polarised on the issue of identity and caste. Positive discrimination and reservation is seen as being casteist and appeasement tactics, instead of an issue of good governance and following constitutional responsibilities. An RTI query in 2011 found that 48.5% of teaching posts and around 92% of the professor posts reserved for SC/ST remained unfulfilled even as recently as 2010-11. Non-privileged students in elite institutes, particularly in South India have often stated how faculty members wear strong caste symbols such as ash on their forehead and favour students who wear similar caste marks. The Thorat committee report on AIIMS found that 76% of reserved category students said their papers were not examined properly, 84% felt discriminated against during practicals and viva. As many as 76% said they were asked about their caste while 85% said they got less time with examiners than higher caste students.
RTI data shows that even today approximately 84% of Class I employees in the government sector belong to the forward castes. Less than 12% of employees of central government ministries, departments and statutory bodies are from other backward classes (OBCs) as on January 1, 2015, while in corporate India, nearly 93% of board members [of the 1000 top Indian companies] have been found to be forward caste members (Source: D. Ajit, Han Donker and Ravi Saxena. ‘Corporate Boards in India: Blocked by Caste?’ Economic and Political Weekly, 11 August, 2012). Caste diversity is non-existent in the Indian corporate sector and that Indian corporate boards continue to be “old boys’ clubs” based more on caste affiliation. Even in the judiciary, there is negligible representation of the marginalised at the top levels. Dalit journalists working in the Indian media believe caste-based discrimination and antagonism against them is pervasive and more rampant in Hindi and other language media. 71% of media jobs in India are held by upper caste males and there are no Dalits recognised as among major identified ‘decision-makers’ in the media. Such data only exposes the dominant mind set among the privileged to keep the doors firmly closed and not allow entry of the ‘Other’ into these institutions.
Attempts to reduce schools, colleges, universities and other institutions across the country to factories promoting unidimensional, uncritical and homogeneous learning centres, that will produce clones instead of critical thinkers, rejecting any divergent and dissenting views point towards a dangerous future, and trample upon basic values and rights that are enshrined in the Constitution. Moreover, the autonomy of institutions should be protected at all costs, and there should be free circulation and debates on thoughts and ideas. Structural discriminations traditionally embedded into our societal systems - “upper” castes/” lower” castes, Hindu/non-Hindu, North Indians/Others, South Indians/Hindi speakers, North-East/Rest of India are reinforced - a world where an Eklavya is valued because of the unquestioning sacrifice he makes for his guru Dronacharya, without any questions asked of the guru. Ultimately, it is an idea of differing world views--one that is progressive, liberal, secular, promotes merit, scientific thinking and encourages empowerment of all sections of society, and especially all the marginalised sections, the other which is divisive, majoritarian and promotes age-old hierarchies in the name of culture and nationalism. While individual Brand Ambassadors may come and go, but it is important to maintain the idea of a secular, tolerant, and pluralistic Brand India.
The events at HCU that led to Rohith Vemula’s tragic suicide is a result of the terrible ends when disparity, discrimination and intolerance combine. It forces us to acknowledge that the battle for an egalitarian society is far from over. And till such time that we come close to achieving that goal, oftentimes, pushed to such a corner, death may seem the better alternative.
(Dr Chandan Yadav is general secretary of Indian National Congress’ Bihar unit and holds a Phd from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed by the author are personal.)