“If you will not provide my remaining SRF [senior research fellowship] of one year within one week, then I will make suicide in front of administrative bloc, JNU, New Delhi. For this death, you and JNU will be responsible.”

On the eve of Republic Day, Jawaharlal Nehru University vice-chancellor SK Sopory received a letter from a Dalit scholar at the institution. In his letter, Madan Meher threatened to commit suicide if he did not get an extension on his doctoral research work and the remaining funds owed to him as part of his research fellowship.

The incident shook the academic community, especially given that it took place just a week after another Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide in Hyderabad University, alleging that he had not received his fellowship money in seven months.

Now, many other students are speaking up against what they believe to be a caste bias at some of the country’s most prestigious universities.

Common cause

In Meher’s case, his letter prompted the JNU authorities to provide an assurance that they would look into the matter and resolve it shortly. What remains unresolved, however, is the continued pressure on students from backward communities to continue with their studies, even as universities continue to dilly-dally on providing them with adequate funds or supervisors for the purpose.

Just a day after Meher’s letter came to light, nine more Dalit students from the same department – Center for International Politics Organization and Disarmament – alleged that they were being harassed and discriminated on the basis of caste.

The Union human resource development ministry directed the university to look into the grievances of scholars and resolve them swiftly. But the central ministry itself has been facing criticism for its decision to withdraw and review the non-National Eligibility Test fellowships that are availed by more than 35,000 students in central universities across the country.

Students on campus, meanwhile, claim that these are not isolated cases. They say that Dalit scholars are by now accustomed to facing the brunt of an “insensitive system” that refuses to acknowledge the difficulties faced by first generation scholars. These individuals often face societal and financial pressures, thus prompting them to give up on their education much earlier than they would have liked.

“Scholarships and fellowships have always been a big issue across universities and JNU is no different when it comes to stigmatising and harassing students from the backward communities,” said Ishan Anand, a PhD scholar at JNU and a member of the Democratic Students Federation. “Every one in ten students in the campus is likely to be Dalit, but the caste bias which has persisted since decades refuses to go. There are various ways in which it is carried out, but Dalit students who often hail from weak financial backgrounds are the worst hit when their fellowships are stopped or delayed.”

Anand, who is not a Dalit, faces difficulties of his own. He claims that his fellowship money is often delayed by months. He said that apart from grant delays, there is the legwork and paperwork that all students have to endure, making life only more difficult for them.

“I can think of supporting myself, but many of our peers send money home and survive on these funds, and any sort of cutback is basically a nudge for them to get out of education and find a job that can pay their bills,” Anand said.

Anand’s claims resonate in the case of Dalit scholar Senthilkumar, who killed himself at the University of Hyderabad in 2008. There were claims that his distress was because of his scholarship being stopped just weeks earlier. He was using the money to help his family back in his village. Of the three other students apart from Senthilkumar who were not appointed supervisors, two ended up dropping out.

An uneven field

According to academicians, reservation and quotas for students from backward minorities has resulted in a surge in the number of seats available for Dalit scholars. The number of teachers hailing from the disadvantaged backgrounds has also increased. But as it turns out, gaining entry to universities is only the first obstacle.

“Over the last two decades, we have seen more Dalit students being admitted and at the same time, the nature and number of fellowships have improved to be able to support these students,” said Professor K Satyanarayana, who teaches at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. “However, the system is designed such that discriminatory practices seep in despite best efforts, and those from the margins stay on the margins.”

Satyanarayana explained that teachers in major public universities in the country are still finding it tough to come to terms with the reality of a Dalit scholar being as deserving as a normal student.

“Fellowships are available to all in most cases, but if it is being used as a tool for punishment as it happened in Rohith’s [Vemula] case, then we are just defeating the purpose,” he said. “Instead of being provided with remedial classes, more grants and support to continue their studies, Dalit scholars who underperform are punished with curtailment of avenues. Teachers are complicit too since there’s hardly any secrecy about a person’s caste background and it is used by them to mock and shame students in classrooms at times.”

Satynarayana’s words find echoes among many Dalit scholars in the country’s campuses. According to Subhanshu Singh, who is pursuing his M.Phil in political sciences at JNU, SC/ST students are regularly given lower marks in viva tests than their general category peers.

“This is a common practice, which can be established over the years and across departments that, those scholars moving from M.Phil to PhD are often marked on their caste rather than their abilities,” said Singh. “They presumably try to weed out Dalit students thinking of them as undeserving, while those from the general category are marked on their abilities and performance and not their lineage.”

There were also claims of bias at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where a study group modelled on the philosophies of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar was banned last year. Students allege that the campus is overwhelmingly upper caste and hasn’t strictly followed reservation norms while admitting students and hiring faculties from various categories.

“The norm of 49.5% reservations for faculty hailing from backward castes is constantly flouted at many IITs including this one,” said Azhar Moideen, a student at IIT-M. “We have collected data and it constantly shows that students and teachers from the Dalit communities are missing from the campus.”

Moideen, however, said that fellowship grants work much better at the IITs as compared to other universities because of its autonomy and a central grant that doesn’t differentiate.

“All students benefit from fellowships here irrespective of their surnames,” he said. “There’s hardly any delay or bureaucracy in receiving funds as opposed to Junior Research Fellowships or Senior Research Fellowships in central universities. The key at IITs is that they fund everyone and then decide on evaluating students rather than the other way round.”