Rohith Vemula’s death anniversary: Education still a Dalit dream
Hindustan Times talks to a few Dalit students to understand what is ailing the government’s higher education schemes especially designed for the community.india Updated: Jan 17, 2018 20:37 IST
Rohith Vemula (R) and Sheikh Riyaz during their BSc days in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. On January 17, 2016, Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad and author of the book ‘Caste is Not a Rumour’ took his own life following a controversy in 2015 that led to his expulsion from the hostel along with 5 other scholars. His death triggered countrywide protests and a debate over the alleged harassment of the Dalit community in the world of academia. (Courtesy Sudipto Mandal)
My birth is my fatal accident, wrote Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in a moving letter before he committed suicide exactly two years ago at the University of Hyderabad.
While this sentence explained the exacting toll of being a Dalit in India, and forced the nation to take notice that there was discrimination across fields, the last part of the letter spoke about how administrative red tape had made it harder for him to pursue the education he aspired for.
Vemula ended the letter saying that his fellowship money of ₹1.75 lakh, which he wanted for his family, had been pending for seven months.
Vemula’s death triggered countrywide protests and a political debate over the alleged harassment of the community in the world of academia.
The incident also brought into sharp focus holes in the functioning of the government’s higher education schemes especially designed for the community.
As thousands of Dalit students continue to face the same problems even today, Hindustan Times talks to a few of them to understand what is ailing the system.
Name: Nitish Kumar, 23
Village /State: Etora village, Bihar Sharif, Bihar
Parent’s education: Father 10th pass, mother is illiterate
Parent’s profession: Labourer/ Housewife
When a village headman told Nitish that the government had a scheme where they paid for Scheduled Caste (SC) students to complete higher education in a field of their choice, he thought it would be the ticket to a private job which no one in his family had had. In 2012, he enrolled for a BTech degree at a college in Rajasthan along with several others from across Bihar. In the second year, the college informed him that his scholarship money had not been received and asked him to plead with the district welfare office (DWO) in his home state. At the DWO, he was told thrice that he just had to be patient and scholarships come late. But the college ran out of patience and told him to pay if he wanted to continue. Nitish did not have the money. “I was depressed when I had to drop out and would stay up many nights thinking about it,” he says. To console his heartbroken father, Nitish graduated from a local college and is hoping to apply for a Master’s in the coming session. “After that I should be able to find a job, right? Any job will do.”
Current status: Unemployed
Name: Suman Kumari, 20
Village/State: Chatarpur village, Palamu, Jharkhand
Parent’s education: Inter-pass
Parent’s profession: NGO workers
Suman Kumari’s parents had distributed sweets among neighbours when she enrolled in a diploma in electronics in 2014. She was one step closer to her dream of becoming an engineer someday — first the diploma, then a BTech degree, which would lead to a comfortable government job.
But in the first year itself, she did not receive her scholarship. The year-long wait began to turn into a nightmare when she realised that she may not be allowed to sit for the exams if the fee is still due. Finally, Suman was forced to take a loan from a local moneylender as banks refused to give loans to a diploma student. Through the second year, after numerous rounds of the DWO and the bank, she received her due. But the nightmare recurred and continues as she has not received her third-year scholarship despite passing out a year ago. “There is no engineer in my family, so I wanted to make my parents proud. But now with a loan and pending scholarship, that may have to wait some more,” she says.
Current status: Preparing for BTech entrance exam
Name: A Prabhakaran, 28
Village /State: Ariyalur, Perambalur, Tamil Nadu
Parent’s education: Illiterate
Parent’s profession: Vegetable sellers
A first-generation learner, A Prabhakaran enrolled in a structural engineering programme to escape the hard life of his unlettered parents, thanks to a post-matric scholarship. But in the first semester itself, his determination was put to test. The college did not allow him to sit for the exams as the scholarship money had not reached. Left with no choice, Prabhakaran took a loan of Rs 1.4 lakh to pay his way forward. But the injustice rankled him, Prabhakaran says.
According to the state government rule, a college cannot force students to pay fees in case of delays in disbursal. He complained to the National Commission of Scheduled Castes. After that, while he completed the course, the college held back his marksheets and degree, Prabhakaran claims. He passed out in 2015 but has been unable to find a job without certificates, hasn’t received a full refund from the college, and is also saddled with a loan. “I don’t like that wherever I go — college, job, government — my caste follows. My whole life is about my caste,” he says.
Current status: Sells insurance
Name: Satish Kumar, 22
Village/State: Sirsa Dogadi, Jalaun, UP
Parent’s education: Father is 8th pass, mother illiterate
Parent’s profession: Landless farmers
Satish Kumar has been doing odd jobs as a labourer to help his family financially since a teenager in school. He knew this would be his life even if he went to college. Though he wasn’t sure of what job he could get but he hoped he didn’t have to do ‘mazdoori’ (manual labour) if he acquired a college degree. In 2014, he enrolled into BSc(H) programme in a Jalaun college with the help of a post-matric scholarship. But in the second year when he applied for renewal of the scholarship, his application was rejected. The reason listed on the application portal read – caste certificate not genuine. He was befuddled as the certificate was issued by the district block authority. He borrowed money to complete his degree but has not been able to find a steady job. “I have two young children to support so I take up whatever work I can find,” he says.
Current status: Working as a labourer
Name: Jeetendra Suna, 27
Village /State: Porkela, Kalahandi, Odisha
Parent’s education: Illiterate
Parent’s profession: Landless labourer
Last year, when Jeetendra’s name figured on the National Fellowship list issued for MPhil/PhD students, he heaved a sigh of relief. He had completed his MPhil and had been admitted to PhD at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion. But a few months later, the UGC cancelled the earlier list and came out with another list, which left him out. The new list had minimum cut-off marks for each state at the post-graduate level. For Odisha, the cut-off was 70% while Jeetendra had scored 47%. For the first-generation learner from a district once known for starvation deaths, this was a huge “psychological setback”. Now he is making do with a Rs 5000 stipend open to all students. “What can you do with Rs 5000 in Delhi. The cost of books is particularly high. For me, it is harder as I need to save and send money home as well,” he says.