Sukhadeo Thorat is counted among the country’s most accomplished Dalits. The economist is currently the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and was previously the chairman of the University Grants Commission. At the end of December, five Dalit students had reached out to Thorat after being expelled from the University of Hyderabad for their political activism. On Sunday, one of those students – Rohith Vemula – committed suicide.

In this interview with, Thorat discusses the significance of Rohith Vemula’s suicide. He also examines whether discrimination against Dalits has increased on campuses, whether academic institutions continue to be divided on caste and religious lines and traces his own rise through the ranks of Indian academia. Excerpts:

What meaning does Rohith Vemula’s suicide hold for you?
To me, Rohith Vemula’s suicide is the result of the social milieu which persists in the university system or, rather, on the higher education campuses. One of the things that has happened since the early 1950s, but more so in the 1980s, is that there has been a switch from the Brahmin urban male being the principal entity, to a greater social diversity on the campuses. Girls, Dalits, Adivasis, and religious minorities – in fact students from just about every social strata – have started opting for higher education. All these groups come to the campuses with their own norms, values and, at times, ideologies which they have picked up from their families and the society.

Unfortunately, with time, these ideologies, in terms of caste, gender and even religion, have become antagonistic to each other. While students become aware and learn about the beautiful aspects of social diversity under one state, there have also emerged issues which we have either ignored or to which we have not paid adequate attention.

Since high-caste students are the repository of caste values, it generally happens that a social or peer group is formed is based on identity. In the case of Dalit students – and I am saying this because Rohith Vemula was one – discrimination and exclusion become a part [of their peer group formation]. In the case of women, religious minorities or tribals, it is more a case of separation or isolation.

What is difference between isolation and exclusion?
In the case of isolation, a person could be non-social and does not establish relationships, say, with a Muslim or Parsi, or anyone who is not a part of the person’s group. But for Dalits, they not only face isolation, but also discrimination. This means others not only isolate the Dalit, but also deny him the opportunity for equal participation on the campus.

How are the aspects of isolation and discrimination present in Rohith Vemula’s case?
There has been a history of suicide by students in Hyderabad Central University as well as in other educational institutes of the city. Between 2007 and 2013, nine suicides had occurred. In the Central University itself, there were two suicides, both by Dalits. The Times of India reported these nine cases of suicide, and the Andhra Pradesh High Court suo motu directed the institutes to take necessary action. That direction was based on the recommendations of a committee, I think, of 30 academicians. They provided the reasons why students commit suicide and what should be done.

The High Court passed the recommendations to the institutes to take the necessary steps. This committee, importantly, brought out the reasons behind the suicides. These were fear of failure, failure itself, very differential treatment, stigmatisation, hatred, hurt, humiliation, etc. These were cited as specific to the students committing suicide.

Since Dalit students have come through reservations, they are looked down upon, as does the administration. Therefore, the Dalit student develops an inferiority complex and becomes an introvert. If this leads to academic failure and the administration does not provide support, then it potentially creates a situation in which a student who cannot handle psychological pressure commits suicide. Rohith was one of the five students who had been penalised [for political activism], but it was he who couldn’t handle the emotional distress.

Given the observations of the 30 academicians, it can be said that Rohith’s suicide is a result of exclusionary, humiliating and stigmatising culture which prevails on the Hyderabad campuses.

Do you think the decision to stop the fellowship to Rohith must have played an important role in his decision to commit suicide?
Obviously, it did. In fact, the 30 academicians also pointed out, and it has been my observation as well, that the students who commit suicide come from an economically poor background. For them, there is nothing to fall back on at home. They are the hope of the family. So any failure is a disaster for them.

I guess it is not only a crashing of the hope of the individual but also of the family.
Yes, and it implies such individuals feel they don’t want to return home as a failure. Imagine Rohith’s plight – he was expelled from the hostel, was deprived of his fellowship, what resource did he have to fall back on? Rohith’s father is a security guard, his mother is a tailor. What was he to tell them? Some can stand up to situation, some cannot. Rohith seems to have been an emotionally fragile person.

But the university authorities are implicated in his suicide, aren’t they?
The shocking aspect of Rohith’s suicide is the attitude of the Vice Chancellor. Rohith wrote a letter to the VC that when Dalit students are admitted to the University, they must be supplied with poison. He wrote this letter when he was living in the open. The VC failed to understand the gravity of the situation. It tells you about the quality of VCs we have. He did not visit the protesting boys, he did not see the body of Rohith, he did not meet the parents nor did he attend his condolence meeting. I do understand the atmosphere is surcharged. But he could have found a way of dealing with the situation.

What do you think could have been a way out?
I will give you an example. In my university, Jawaharlal Nehru University [where Thorat is Professor Emeritus], which is known for its radical culture, students once went on a hunger strike. Then Vice Chancellor YK Alagh thought their demand was not reasonable. He could have expelled them or called the police, given that JNU had been paralysed.

What did he do? He asked his staff to erect a tent near where the students were camping, and he went on a hunger strike against the decision of students. Both teachers and students went to Alagh and requested him not to continue with the fast. Alagh told them that since he did not have a solution [to the students’ demand], he remembered Gandhi, who was from his state of Gujarat, and therefore decided to emulate him. Professor Alagh had a moral solution to the problem. That is the kind of moral authority – the vision – a VC should have.

Students are not commodities. They come to the university to learn, to build a career, and to disrupt their studies, well, that is not acceptable. I am not saying that there can’t be a situation which doesn’t demand an extreme step. But the episode involving Rohith was a very simple one – it involved two sets of students having differences.

This is why the nine suicides tell you a lot about the social milieu on the campuses of Hyderabad. Two out of the nine suicides had occurred in the Hyderabad Central University. The High Court order was for all institutes in the city, but the Central University, obviously, did not do anything.

You were in high school in the 1960s. What kind of discrimination did you encounter?
I encountered discrimination in the village school.

Where was this village?
It was in Mahimapur village in Daryapur taluka of Amravati district [Maharashtra]. It was a small village of 70-80 households. Since there was no school building, my school functioned from a Hindu temple. I belonged to an untouchable caste. Others of Dalit castes and I would sit at a very respectable distance from the deity. The high caste students would sit near to the teacher and the deity. And because we would sit far from the teacher, aspects of segregation, such as not being encouraged to ask questions, or not being supervised, happened.

Two years later, the village school building was constructed and this distinction gradually disappeared. But after Class 4, I went to a Christian school, which was 15-km away.

So you would travel there everyday?
I was in the hostel. For Class 4 and Class 7, I came back to my village because I couldn’t endure the hostel life. Thereafter, I was admitted to a school which was six miles from my village. I used to walk to the school and then walk back home.

Was this a Christian school?
No, it was a government school. I did not experience discrimination as such here. But I do remember one instance, though. There was a dinner hosted at the teacher’s residence. It so happened that a high caste boy couldn’t find a place to sit other than next to me. The teacher asked him to sit with me, but he refused.

But at least the teacher did not discriminate against you.
The teacher was a Dalit. That is why it was so comfortable for us. In fact, as often children do, we wouldn’t go to the school. Since we had to walk six miles, we students would all go together, sit at the bank of the river, have our lunch and then return home. Since we were a sizeable number, our absence was felt. Only one boy would attend the school and he would return to tell us what had been taught. Then the Dalit teacher came to the village and asked our parents why they had stopped sending us to school.

For Class 8, I went to another Protestant Christian school, where everything was free, including clothing and food. But it was a crazy place – the fee had been waived in return for wage labour. The hostel had 25 acres of land attached to it. On returning from the school and having our lunch, we were required to work in the fields till 5 pm. The school was located 2 km away, in the tehsil. In the morning, we were required to carry and distribute milk in the tehsil. We couldn’t study because we would get so tired.

Were only Dalit students required to provide labour?
Everybody, but almost all students were Dalit. I couldn’t tolerate it. So I ran away from my school, wearing two dresses and carrying all my books. For two months, I idled around. Then someone persuaded my father that I should be sent to school. There was a relative of mine who stayed in another village 3-km away. I went there and my mother came along. She used to work in the field and cook for me, and that was how I completed Class 8.

My educational journey was very nomadic. After that, I went to a school in Amravati. It was a Catholic missionary school. On the basis of my performance in Class 8, I was granted a scholarship of Rs 250 a year. I completed my matriculation there. I got a first class.

Was this Catholic missionary school a good experience?
It was an excellent school. Studying there was a very good experience. There were Dalit students in the hostel, and though the facilities were the minimum, I was well provided for.

Thereafter, I went to Aurangabad, where my uncle was doing his MA. Thousands of students from the region went to this college, which was established by Dr BR Ambedkar. It was called Milind College of Arts. Nearly 90% of the students were Dalit, so the question of discrimination did not arise. I was there from 1964 to 1969. It was here that I came in touch with Dr Ambedkar’s movement and writings. I came in touch with the Buddhist ideology.

You became a Buddhist?
My father had converted to Buddhism when I was in Class 3. I was born in 1949, and the conversion to Buddhism [under the aegis of Ambedkar] took place in 1956. I was seven years old.

So your father converted to Buddhism with Ambedkar?
My father and elder brother went to Nagpur. They did participate in the conversion ceremony. That’s how Buddhism came into my family. I, in a sense, inherited it.

That makes you a second-generation Buddhist…
Yes, but there was also a huge social movement. In our village we were not allowed to enter the temple and access the well. There was an anti-untouchability movement in the village. As a child, I grew up in this atmosphere. There are many incidents of how we struggled to get our rights. I was part of the social movement – the Dalit Panther movement – and consequently lost a year or so. I completed my MA in 1973, got married and took up a job.

What was your experience in JNU?
When I entered JNU, there were about 10 Dalit students and perhaps two tribals. JNU was started in 1969, and I was admitted in 1975.

So what was the atmosphere in JNU back then?
It was fantastic. That was the time when Sitaram Yechury, Prakash Karat [both Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders, who were Students’ Federation of India leaders at the time) and DP Tripathi (now in the Nationalist Congress Party) were at their peak. It was a mature period of politics. It was wonderful to listen to all these leaders. Since I had come from the Ambedkarite background, I had certain questions for these SFI leaders, questions to which I didn’t get an adequate answer. So we started the Ambedkar Study Circle, where we read and discussed both [Karl] Marx and Ambedkar, as also other thinkers.

Three years later, after the number of Dalit students increased in JNU, I established the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Association. That became the platform to highlight the caste question and issues of untouchability, atrocity and reservations in JNU. It is because of the SC&ST Association that reservations exist in JNU. Because JNU was dominated by the Left, the atmosphere was favourable for us Dalits – reservations in admission there started as early as 1982.

But shouldn’t reservations have been there earlier given that it is a statutory requirement?
For the students, reservations began at the inception. But I am talking about the reservations in the faculty. In JNU, reservations for teachers, non-teachers and in residential facilities began in 1982. By contrast, it was implemented in Delhi University in 1999. With the support of the Left, we Dalits asked for participatory representation wherever there was scope for it.

Considering you have been in academia all your life, do you think our universities have become more democratised and less discriminatory over the decades?
It is difficult to make a comparison because no study of this kind exists. You can get a still picture, that is, a picture at a given point in time. We don’t know what kind of discrimination existed from the 1950s till the early 1970s.

Wouldn’t access to educational institutions have been more of an issue in the 1950s and 1960s?
It could have been, but it wasn’t because higher educational institutes were predominantly government-owned. We did not have this category of self-financing institutions. The government institutions were cheap, and those who wished to get admitted did manage to do so. But the number of those who cleared Higher Secondary and wished to go to college was very low. The Dalit enrolment rate must have been even lower. So as the school education gathered momentum, higher education too picked up.

Nevertheless, I do think Dalits who went to public institutions must have experienced a very high degree of discrimination. I did not because the possibility of differential treatment in my college wasn’t there, for the reason I have already explained.

How do we compare the differential treatment over the years?
There must be a decline in some areas, at least.

Couldn’t it also be that since Dalit students have increased, opposition to incidents of discrimination is sharper, more intense?
I think it has become more an issue of sharing. The increase in the participation of Dalits, Other Backward Castes and others is cutting into the space or share the higher castes enjoyed earlier. The nature of discrimination, as also the responses of the higher castes (to Dalit opposition), is of a different nature.

Could you cite an example in this regard?
You can see it in the general opposition to the reservation policy and the quota system in super speciality courses. There is a feeling of uneasiness, even opposition, to the entry of Dalits in the higher education. And that is because it encroaches on the share of upper castes. This is different from traditional caste equations. Earlier, Dalits were stigmatised; it puzzled higher castes as to why Dalits wanted to enter the higher education system. Now, it is an issue of gaining and losing space in the system.

It is like upper castes saying they had a share of 80%-90% and it shouldn’t now come down to 50% for them.
Yes, and the loss of share is very evident. This breeds a sense of antagonism, which is purposeful, because it means a loss of traditional privileges. It is like saying, “Education is my field, not yours, and you are encroaching upon it.”

So the nature of opposition has changed?
Yes, it is also the same story in jobs. Therefore, opposition to Dalits in the higher education is more pecuniary, more material in nature.

Overall, you do think the situation has improved for Dalits on the campuses?
I would say so, despite not having any data to back my claim. In the 1950s and the 1960s, the discrimination was mutely accepted because the Dalit population on the campuses hadn’t acquired a certain criticality, nor were there organisations to take up the cause of Dalits. This isn’t the case any longer.

When the Union government decided to introduce OBC reservations in higher education, there was a furore. Then many Dalit students of All India Institute of Medical Sciences complained of harassment. The health ministry appointed a three-member committee under you to investigate the charges. Your report makes me feel you were quite shocked at the level of discrimination. Am I right?
I certainly was [shocked]. My difficulty was that the students wouldn’t talk to the committee. Those who were helping me with the investigation claimed that discrimination was rampant. I couldn’t, obviously, imagine the situation and write the report. Therefore, I prepared a questionnaire. The students were prepared to fill the questionnaire without furnishing their names. That is how I generated the data, and since I am an economist, I calculated percentages. It showed that the magnitude of discrimination was massive in just about every field in AIIMS.

Yes, in just about every field in AIIMS, well over 50% of students said they encountered discrimination.
True. But what was shocking was the discrimination the AIIMS faculty indulged in.

You never thought the faculty would give fewer marks to lower-caste students?
That wasn’t a shock. I had expected it. Since I am from the university system, I was well aware that discrimination, whether mild or severe, did persist. That is why I was able to prepare the questionnaire. But I never imagined that discrimination against Dalits would have multiple forms.

For example, Dalit students being pressured into moving into hostels that tended to be exclusively inhabited by their social group. Or a Dalit having a room near the higher caste’s suddenly finding a lock on his door with graffiti asking him to move out. Then the exclusion of Dalits from the cultural festival called PULSE, or class monitors not informing Dalit students about the changes in teaching schedules. I wasn’t prepared for all this.

My report came as a shock to the AIIMS faculty. They were not prepared to accept it. They didn’t, ultimately. I came to know about the faculty’s decision in a very odd way. A year after I submitted my report, a Dalit student committed suicide. The AIIMS Director asked me to chair another committee. When I went there, I found the faculty and students cooperative. They had mellowed down. I had a series of meetings. But even then they didn’t tell me that my earlier report hadn’t been accepted.

It was while seeking earlier documents that I came across one which said the Thorat Committee report had been rejected. I lost interest in the second committee and didn’t go ahead with my investigations.

In your report, you say the Dalit students faced problems because of the medium of instruction being English. You suggested that remedial classes should be provided for.
Yes. The University Grants Commission has provided a system for remedial coaching for all universities. This applies to AIIMS as well.

Perhaps institutes don’t organise remedial measures because teachers question why they should shoulder the extra burden. Do you think it would make sense to have a separate set of teachers to conduct remedial classes?
It is complicated. In JNU, for instance, a separate set teachers hold remedial classes in the languages [such as French], or when members of the faculty conduct it, they are provided an honorarium. But you can’t do this for core courses. The teacher has to conduct the remedial classes. We developed a system in JNU, following one failure after another.

I recommended to Professor Alagh what was called a personalised remedial system. Since JNU doesn’t have undergraduate courses other than in the languages, I recommended that each centre [economics, history, etc] should have a coordinator for remedial classes. It was the coordinator’s responsibility to identify weak students at the end of one semester, and then ask the teacher to identify where the student’s performance was poor and provide help. There was also the system of senior students acting as mentors to their weaker classmates. That created wonderful results in JNU.

But all this requires commitment and a concern for the weaker students. I didn’t find that commitment in AIIMS. Also, AIIMS did not have peer groups comprising higher and lower castes. So how does the latter benefit? You don’t see the consequence of exclusion because it isn’t visible. If a peer group doesn’t have members who are better students from high castes, then Dalit students are denied of assistance. He or she is on his or her own, as his/her group doesn’t have members who could provide help.

Compare this with JNU. For instance, if a Dalit is a member of the SFI, its members interact, help and teach him or her. This is the advantage of having a mixed peer group based on ideology, and not on caste or religion.

Let me ask you a politically incorrect question. Couldn’t it be possible that Dalits feel discriminated against because of an inferiority complex?
Obviously. But, you see, the consequences of discrimination are many – one of which is that it undeniably creates an inferiority complex. This is because a Dalit is told, right from childhood onwards, that he or she is inferior. He or she is segregated, denied from having relationships outside his or her own social group. Dalits are told they are untouchables, that they can’t touch this or that. These ideas are internalised and the person develops an inferiority complex. The person has a psychological baggage.

In case the same person is encouraged, it would help. For instance, in my own college where I studied, 90% of students were Dalits. I was encouraged to participate in debates, read Ambedkar and Buddhism. By the way, this encouragement came from Brahmin teachers, because that was how Ambedkar appointed the teaching faculty. In the milieu in which there is a helping hand, the person can and does overcome his or her complexes. But in case that is lacking, the person would obviously be in trouble.

Do you think with OBC reservations in higher education, the situation has, in comparison to the earlier times, become better for Dalits?
Although there is a cleavage between OBCs and Dalits, I do think the situation would have become better for the latter. And that is because even though OBCs might have good relations with the upper castes, they do face opposition on account of reservations in education and employment. So, therefore, the divide will be between OBCs and Dalits vis-à-vis others.

You can see this in the Central University of Hyderabad. A few of the students who were interviewed by TV channels [after Rohith Vemula’s suicide] were not Dalit, but OBC.

You have been a visiting faculty to Iowa University? How would you compare the experience of African Americans with that of Dalits in India?
I think there is a great similarity between the two. The African Americans, too, face isolation. Their participation in academics is also poor. Since they do not have a quota system, they are perhaps in a more vulnerable situation than the Dalits here in India.

However, when I compare the academic output and writings by African Americans to what Dalits have produced in India, there is a massive difference between them. The African Americans are far ahead of Dalits in this respect.