Student Suicides – Why Do Numbers Disproportionately Tilt Towards Dalits?

What pushed Payal Tadvi towards suicide is no different from the experiences of Senthil Kumar or Rohith Vemula.

Family members of Payal Tadvi who ended her life after alleged casteist slurs. (Photograph: PTI)
Family members of Payal Tadvi who ended her life after alleged casteist slurs. (Photograph: PTI)

Why do people decide to end their lives, especially when they are in the prime of their youth? Suicide rates are highest in the age group 18-29 years as reported in a study published in The Lancet in 2012. The most frequently extended explanation is that of depression. The geographical distribution of suicides in India reflects on higher occurrence in southern states that are more developed with better education, social welfare and health care facilities. Ironically, better propensities and the desire to improve further have together contributed to the increased pressure on the youths.

Given the social disparities, its consequences have been more fatal on youth from marginalised groups like Scheduled Castes (or Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (or Adivasis). While economic opportunities have opened new vistas, social fragmentation designates differential access across populations.

Marginalised youth in institutions of higher education go through a lot of struggle to perform as compared to non-marginalised youth. In addition, they are constantly humiliated by the ‘others’ – colleagues, teachers, etc., all those who swear by ‘meritocracy’.

These ‘others’ believe that those who enter the institutions of higher learning under the affirmative action policies are incompetent and perhaps take a share of their pie. Such people need to be enlightened that these youngsters not only have to fight poverty but also have to overcome the humiliating acidic taunts of their fellow classmates. The marginalised youth have to be better than the ‘others’ to be able to prove themselves as ‘equal to’ and at par with them.

Biases and prejudices restrain the ‘others’ from accepting the Dalit and Adivasi youth as being at par with them. Such skepticism and divides have ghettoised the marginalised students further. In the absence of empathetic environment, isolation happens naturally. But in all these explanations, there is something missing and needs to be noted.

A Familiar Story

The number of student suicides in premier institutions is perturbing. It points towards flaws in our higher education system which is insensitive towards the diverse backgrounds of the students. The Death of Merit, a documentary film by the Insight Foundation, showcased humiliating experiences faced by three students in such institutions. Balmukund Bharti, a final year MBBS student in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, who hailed from Kundeshwar village of Madhya Pradesh, succumbed to such discrimination on March 3, 2010. IIT Roorkee’s Manish and another student from AIIMS Jaspeet also saw a similar ending.

It should be noted that even before Bharti’s story came to light, a series of complaints were reported by the media during 2005-06 regarding such discrimination in AIIMS. The Union Health and Family Welfare Ministry instituted a three-member committee headed by the then Chairperson of the University Grants Commission, Professor SK Thorat, to inquire into the matter. In May 2007, the committee reported that various forms of caste discrimination were practised against marginalised students both by ‘other’ students and faculty members. Also, the authorities did not have any mechanism to identify it.

Having declared to the world that India has banished untouchability (punishable by law), it was difficult for the authorities to own up the existence of the menace. Therefore, despite the Thorat Committee’s recommendations, the state chose to debunk it without providing any road map to address the issue.

A December 2007 Delhi High Court ruling ordered AIIMS to probe the allegations of caste discrimination. Had the government adhered to the recommendations of the report, suicides committed by 23 Dalit students in institutions of higher education between 2008 and 2016 could have been prevented. Reportedly, all these students experienced harrowing and lacerating caste-based discrimination.

Senthil Kumar, a student of University of Hyderabad, committed suicide in 2008. 22-year-old medical student Jaspreet Singh ended his life in the same year. He mentioned in his suicide note that a professor discriminated against him on the basis of caste. IIT Roorkee’s Manish Kumar Guddolian jumped to his death from the fifth floor of his hostel in 2011 after he faced caste-based bullying for months. Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad Central University too was pushed towards suicide in 2016. It was hoped that his story will not be repeated since it had stirred the government and people alike. But barely a few years later, Dr Payal Tadvi took similar steps.

What pushed the young and bright Tadvi towards this extreme step is no different from the experiences of Senthil or Rohith or Manish or Jaspreet.
The three doctors accused in the Payal Tadvi suicide case arrive at session court, in Mumbai. (Photographer: Shashank Parade/PTI)
The three doctors accused in the Payal Tadvi suicide case arrive at session court, in Mumbai. (Photographer: Shashank Parade/PTI)

Acknowledging The ‘Cause’

However, in all these cases, depression is cited as the ‘cause’ of suicide. This convenience absolves all other elements, very importantly, the social environment which could be actively involved in triggering it. The blame smoothly shifts on the individual person. While the medically-certified cause is important, its association to suicides is much beyond the simplistic cause and effect relationship. Mental condition is as much socio-genic as is physical health.

The socio-genic conditions allude to discrimination rooted deep in the caste-ridden mindset of the people of this country.

We seem to have become immune to such instances. The caste discrimination and stigmatisation can be exterminated only when the problem is recognised in its social reality and not in the over-simplified binary of poor and non-poor who are committed to end poverty, as the Prime Minister put it in his recent victory speech. Shying away from reality is not going to end the problem. Recognising and accepting it can be the only way to strategise its annihilation.

If these suicides were due to psychogenic conditions and other personal reasons, then, it cannot be a sheer fluke that out of 27 cases of suicide, 23 were Dalits. Thus, it is important for the state to work towards sensitisation of people who exhibit taste for discrimination.

The Role Of Educational Institutions

The affirmative action policy enabled the possibilities of achieving the dreams which had remained unfulfilled for generations. But this gradual transformation has been resented by the high-caste Hindus and has made institutions of higher education a hostile and discriminating space for most of the oppressed communities. The practice of discrimination has become a part of their cultural ecosystem.

The stark evidence is that while literacy has improved across social groups between 1961 and 2011, the gap between the SC and ST; and non-SC/ST has remained and even widened.

In 1961, as per the census data, 27.9 percent SC and 10.3 percent ST against 28 percent non-SC/ST were literate. The share of literates among SCs improved to 34.8 percent and that of STs to 47.1 percent in 2001. While the level of literacy improved, the gap between the SC and non-SC/ST increased from about 18 percent in 1961 to about 32 percent in 2001. Similarly, for STs, the gap increased from 8.4 percent in 1961 to 19.7 percent in 2001. The gap, however, shrunk to 10.1 for SCs and to 17.1 for STs in 2011. Nevertheless, the gaps remain and has widened since 1961.

The assertion among the SC and the ST students, largely attributable to education, is questioning the dominance of the others, especially when seen from the lens of social justice. The resentment towards affirmative action policy, though, is misplaced. The affirmative action policies are implemented only in the public sector. As per the Ministry of Human Resource and Development website, there were 539 public sector universities (49 central, 367 state and 123 deemed) against 340 private universities and 1,238 institutions by the end of 2018. Therefore, from the larger whole, a smaller segment comes under the purview of the affirmative action policy. And that too is only at the entry point without any support to navigate the hostile environment in the institutions. In contrast, the competence and merit of those getting admission through payment seats in these institutions of learning is never questioned. This only consolidates the social identity induce bias.

The need of the hour is to initiate a larger debate on these complex and sensitive issues of discriminatory practices at institutions of higher learning. The road map for the process of assimilation of the oppressed with the non-oppressed needs to be clear and smooth. Then only, in true sense the demographic dividend will be fully realised.

Sanghmitra S Acharya is a Professor in the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, SSS, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.