Rohit Vemula has become a symbol of protest against Dalit persecution. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

Rohit Vemula has become a symbol of protest against Dalit persecution. (Photo: Bismillah Geelani)

The recent suicide of a student from India’s Dalit caste at a university in southern India has evoked nation-wide protests. And reinvigorated discussion about the plight of the long oppressed Dalit community.

As Bismillah Geelani reports, discrimination and atrocities against Dalits are widespread in India but often remain unrecognized. Calls are now growing louder for immediate reforms to end the persecution of the community.

“For some people life itself is a curse. My birth is my fatal accident.” 

These two sentences were included in the suicide note Vemula Rohit left behind before hanging himself. 

Undertaking his doctorate at the Central University in Hyderabad, Rohit would have turned 27 this week.

He wanted to be a science writer, like Carl Sagan but suddenly decided to end his life. 

Shocked fellow students, like Radhika, believe he was forced to take the extreme step.

“He didn’t just commit suicide, there was something that pushed him over the edge and we need to find out that,” says Radhika, “We want the culprits to face the punishment they deserve and that’s why we are here trying to protest against the system that clearly doesn’t protect us anymore.”

Rohit belonged to a Dalit family and was expelled from the university along with 5 other Dalit students after an alleged scuffle with another student group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Praishad, or ABVP. 

The ABVP is the student wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP. 

The BJP leaders, including some ministers in the central government, are accused of putting pressure on the university authorities to take action against the Dalit group.

Krishna Kumar is a Dalit Activist.

“These are first generation Dalit students who are coming to theses campuses with a great effort to show the society that this is our society and everybody is part of it,” he explains, “but this attack which has come majorly from the BJP because Rohit was a Dalit has led him to end his life. This is not a suicide; we will call it an institutionalized murder.”

Students and members of the Dalit community from across the country have taken to the streets demanding accountability. 

Following the widespread protests, the government has ordered an enquiry into the matter, but the BJP insists that it should not be seen as a caste-driven conflict.

But this is not an isolated incident.

At least 20 Dalit students have committed suicide in Indian universities in the last few years. 

Sukhdev Thorat, a former chairman of the University Grants Commission, says there is a deep-rooted prejudice against Dalits in educational institutions.

“Why are so many Dalits committing suicide? The fact is Dalit students go through various forms of discrimination in the universities and colleges,” explains Thorat, “It is between the students, between the student and the teacher, in the classroom, in the cultural functions and all this is leading to deep divisions…. And when politics enters the arena it becomes even worse.”

Dalits, earlier known as untouchables, have been the subject of oppression in Indian society for thousands of years.  

Though there is a law criminalizing discrimination against Dalits, the situation on the ground hasn’t changed much in the nearly 7 decades following India’s independence.

Apoorvanand is professor of sociology at Delhi University.

He led a study on the social behaviors towards Dalits and found the results rather depressing.

“You see the biases and prejudices manifest themselves at the very basic level. Even the children have internalized all these prejudices,” he says, “In schools where the Dalit women cook mid-day meals the children refuse to eat it and the entire villages have boycotted those schools.” 

Apoorvanand says this mentality intensifies as you go upwards. 

“They [the Dalits] are perceived as a threat and become the subject of scorn and jealousy because they are now occupying positions where the upper caste people had a monopoly as a birth right,” he says. 

After a long and violent movement Dalits were provided a quota in education and government jobs in the 1990s. 

While it increased their representation, it did little to lift their social status.  

Thorat, from the University Grants Commission, says a much more serious and practical approach is needed.

Something along the lines of what America did to address racism, through the implementation of civil rights education. 

“They devised courses that addressed the problems of racism, sexism and colour and made those almost compulsory for all undergraduate students in order to sensitize them,” says Thorat, “That’s how we can make students value the pluralism and diversity in the country and respect it.”

Until then, it seems clear it will be a tough road achieving dignity and respect for India’s 200 million Dalits. 

 

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