FEATURE-Indian Students Struggle Against Caste Discrimination …

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* Dalit students face ‘everyday’ discrimination and bullying

* The hunger strike of a doctoral student encourages university action

* Demands for change raise hope in lower caste students

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India, November 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Intimidated by academic staff, excluded from the university lab and even deprived of a chair, Deepa P. Mohanan despaired of ever being able to complete her doctorate as a low-caste Indian . But then she decided to fight.

Mohanan, who researches nanomedicine, became a poster for tens of thousands of fellow Dalits when she went on a hunger strike to protest discrimination and succeeded in securing promises of reform from university officials.

“I desperately want to finish my PhD and realized it wouldn’t be possible until I publicly spoke out against the discrimination I had faced on campus for years,” said Mohanan, 36, in a telephone interview from his home in Kottayam, southern India.

Mohanan ended his 11-day hunger strike earlier this month after the director of the International and Interuniversity Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Mahatma Gandhi University was fired over his complaints.

The university has also set up a committee under the leadership of the Vice-Chancellor to examine his accusations, which human rights activists say reflect widespread discrimination against low-caste students on campuses of 1, 3 billion inhabitants of the country.

India’s 200 million Dalits, who sit at the lowest rung of an ancient caste hierarchy, still struggle to access education and employment six decades after India outlawed discrimination on the basis of caste and introduced minimum quotas to increase their representation.

“Caste discrimination is very prevalent on campuses… classrooms have become terrible spaces,” said Jenny Rowena, professor of English at the University of Delhi.

Rowena, who contributes to a YouTube channel documenting the experiences of Dalits and other marginalized communities, said many Dalit students skip classes to avoid being humiliated or dropping out altogether, exacerbating their under-representation.

Government data on higher education shows that enrollment of students from marginalized communities or lower castes – known as fixed-time castes – in 2019-2020 represented 14.7% of all students aged 18 to 23 years old, missing the mandatory 15% quota in many subjects.

‘DAILY FIGHT’

Mohanan, who researches building healing scaffolds using nanoparticles, was the only Dalit student in her batch of 100 when she joined her postgraduate program.

A single mother, she is the first person in her family to attend university and pursue postgraduate research.

“Really, I didn’t expect so much discrimination,” said Mohanan, who before his hunger strike had filed numerous complaints with the university and filed a legal complaint.

“It was finally made clear in a conversation that if a Dalit student is favored, it will affect the discipline of the institution. I felt defeated at first, but then decided to fight,” she said. declared.

For many Dalit students, campus life is a daily struggle, said Anuraji PR, national vice president of the Bhim Army student body, which supported Mohanan’s protest.

Many fail internal assessments and supervisors often refuse to be their guides for postdoctoral studies or question their abilities, said a graduate student, requesting anonymity as he prepared to take exams .

Admission quotas for students from under-represented groups, including lower caste Indians, have fueled discrimination, said C. Lakshmanan, professor of political science and also national head of the Dalit Intellectual Collective.

“Students who arrive by reservation are seen as unworthy by their urban upper-class peers and teachers, who largely come from the same elite space. It is very unfortunate that a hunger strike is necessary to accomplish an academic pursuit. “

The University Grants Commission, which oversees higher education in India, wrote to institutions in September urging them to strictly prevent caste discrimination on campus.

He called on universities to ensure that complaint registers and websites are available to students and said a committee should be set up to review them.

The Chairman and Secretary of the Commission were not available for comment.

GAS LIGHTING

Abeda Salim Tadvi, whose 26-year-old daughter Payal committed suicide in her hostel room in May 2019, accuses caste discrimination and intimidation of being behind her death.

A resident doctor in a Mumbai hospital, Payal was doing a master’s degree in obstetrics and gynecology, but faced daily abuse – name-calling and roommates asking him to sleep on the floor to being banned from attending major surgeries.

“The grief is still in my heart… I can’t get rid of it,” Tadvi said, recalling many conversations with her daughter about how she was harassed by more experienced medical students.

“We tried to ignore her, to complain about it but in the end she couldn’t handle it. There was no mechanism on campus to reassure or support her.”

Tadvi, along with Radhika Vemula – whose son Rohith, a doctoral student at Hyderabad University, committed suicide in 2016 and alluded to caste discrimination in a suicide note – filed a petition with the most high Indian court to request action.

In their petition in the ongoing case, the two women said all universities and higher education institutions should establish equality units to ensure that complaints about caste discrimination are dealt with.

Currently, there are rarely consequences for university officials if a case of caste discrimination is reported on their campus, said women’s lawyer Disha Wadekar.

“The most common response to complaints is gas lighting, where students are told it’s all in the head,” she said.

But Tadvi is hoping his case will bring changes.

“Students and parents should keep complaining because this is the only way to record the prevalence and highlight our struggle,” she said from her home in Jalgaon, Maharashtra state. .

Mohanan said she also hopes her fight will help make student life easier for other Dalits.

“So many students from all over India called me after my strike ended saying they had hope,” she said.

“For them and for my daughter, I’m glad I spoke.” (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; edited by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: // news .trust.org)

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