Rahul Sonpimple was one of the last people to meet Jawaharlal Nehru University research scholar and Dalit student Muthukrishnan, also known as Rajini Krish, on March 13.

Muthukrishnan was cheerful, and showed no sign of hopelessness or anguish, Sonpimple, who belongs to the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student’s Association, recalled about the last time he saw the 27-year-old PhD student at the Centre for Historical Sciences Department in JNU.

“He loved Rajinikanth and his movie Kabali,” Sonpimple said. “That morning, I was translating a Punjabi song I was humming for him, and he was translating a dialogue from the movie for me. We parted ways with Magizhchi,” Sonpimple said, using the Tamil word for delight, famously used by Rajnikanth in the film Kabali.

By evening came the news of Muthukrishnan’s death.

He was found hanging from the ceiling fan in a room he had locked himself in at his friend’s home in Munirka Vihar.

While already widely reported as a case of suicide, the police said it was premature to jump to conclusions about circumstances surrounding his death, or what the immediate trigger for the alleged act might have been.

No suicide note was found.

Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union Vice President Amal PP, was quoted by the New Indian Express as saying that Muthu had participated in Holi celebrations on campus. He said he was tired and left to rest at his friend’s place in Munrika Vihar at 1.30 pm.

“He had come to his friends’ house this afternoon to have food,” a senior police officer told the Express. “He said he wanted to sleep and went to a room and locked himself inside. Later his friends called him out and on getting no response, they called the police,” the officer was quoted as saying.

His friends knocked on the door two hours later and grew suspicious when he did not open the door. That is when they called the police, who forced open the door.

‘When equality is denied’

“When equality is denied, everything is denied,” began Muthukrishnan’s last Facebook post, written on March 10, which ended with:

“There is no Equality in M.phil/phd Admission, there is no equalitiy in Viva – voce, there is only denial of equality, denying prof. Sukhadeo thorat recommendation, denying Students protest places in Ad – block, denying the education of the Marginal’s. When Equality is denied everything is denied.”

Muthukrishnan was referring to the Ad-Block movement at JNU where students and teachers have opposed a May 2016 University Grants Commission’s notification that changed admission norms for MPhil and PhD students. The new policy, which makes performance in viva-voce​ the deciding factor, is widely seen as discriminatory, especially against reserved-category applicants – Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. The procedure followed by JNU in adopting the notification is being challenged in the Delhi High Court.

Belonging to a poor Dalit family in Salem, Tamil Nadu, Muthukrishnan had struggled hard for an education.

He joined Hyderabad Central University in 2012 for a Master’s degree in History. After completing his MA, he applied for admission in MPhil in 2014. He discontinued the course when he was in his second year in MPhil at HCU once he was selected for a PhD in 2016 at JNU.

He cleared the JNU exams on the fourth attempt and friends recalled his elation at that time. “I remember, it was a long Facebook post with a picture of him triumphantly smiling next to the Nehru statue in the university. We were all so proud of him,” said one of his friends Bhanupriya (name changed on request, as she did not wish to be identified).

Given his Dalit background, parallels with Rohith Vemula were inevitable. Particularly, because at Hyderabad, Muthukrishnan had aligned with the Ambedkar Student’s Association, the students’ group that Vemula belonged to.

Muthukrishnan reportedly participated in some pro-Vemula meetings and protests opposing the new UGC admission policy, though opinion is divided on how active he really was.

Discrimination at JNU?

While details are not known, the Centre for Historical Sciences Department in JNU has already come under question for discriminatory practices from many of Krish’s friends and colleagues.

“We’ve heard of many instances of CHS students being put through a difficult time,” said Bhanupriya. “When they do their Vivas, or submit their thesis, the external [examiner] who is assigned to the job is often discriminatory even if the teachers themselves aren’t. It has a reputation and everyone knows that,” she alleged.

Vikas Moola, a close friend of Muthukrishnan, recounted some of his conversations. “He told me that at CHS he faced a lot of discrimination. His department was infamous for marking Dalit students a painfully low grade. He wanted his supervisor to be changed to another supervisor. But the other supervisor already had a lot of students under him and said he couldn’t take him. When he went back to his previous supervisor, he got embroiled in the politics of it all.”

Muthukrishnan wore his Dalit identity on his sleeve and paid a price for it, said Moola. “It’s different when they greet Dalit students and the way they greet other students,” Moola said. Muthukrishnan would often be ignored by the people he knew from protests, Moola said, as even his smile of greeting would not be acknowledged.

The CHS head, Prof Vijaya Ramaswamy, was busy preparing for a condolence meeting when Scroll.in reached her for a reaction. “We are all deeply shocked by this child’s death. The boy was very close to my heart. He was from the region where I belong,” she said. “We are holding a condolence meeting with the students. What can we say in response to students making allegations? Our centre has had a lot of Dalit students and many of them have gone on to become professors in other universities. Please let us grieve in peace.”

Responding to the allegations of discrimination, a history department teacher said that the change of supervisor was also held up by a court case challenging the new UGC regulations on admissions into MPhil and PhD. “The new regulations limit the number of students we can supervise and many of us in the history department have more than the cap fixed,” he told Scroll.in, requesting not to be identified. “This would mean we cannot take any admissions for the next few years. The new regulations have been challenged​ in court and we are waiting for her decision before formally assigning supervisors because that will be impacted.”

Cash crunch

Muthukrishnan’s fellowship money was always delayed – it arrived after four months – and Muthukrishnan therefore often struggled to buy his food. “We helped him out,” Moosa said. Muthukrishnan would often be up till early hours of the morning, studying, and as a result he would often miss the hostel mess breakfast because he would be sleeping when it was served, Moosa said.

“He would tell us that when he was younger, he wasn’t even aware that caste was a reason he was discriminated against. He wanted to write like these other European and American scholars, and felt this constant pressure to become like them,” Moosa said.

The last conversation Moosa had with Muthukrishnan was about bhang. “We warned him not to drink it because it would affect him. I don’t know whether he did,” he said.

Caste discrimination

“He lived in the library,” Sonpimple said. “He’d talk about what books he read, how he spent nights at the library. But we could all feel that he was going through a severe cash crunch. I once gave him Rs 10 for a photocopy and he was very grateful to me.”

Finally, Muthukrishnan’s fellowship money arrived after months of waiting. But he still appears to have felt a strong sense of isolation and discrimination in the university.

Although there is no information on the circumstances leading to Muthukrishnan’s death, members of several student groups believe that his experiences as a Dalit student may have had something to do with it and contributed to his distress.

Dalit Scholar Stalin Rajangam said that the educational system today is entrenched in veiled caste discrimination. “It starts small. Your thesis could be sent back. Your English could be criticised. These things can easily put one down, especially those who have come a long way from villages and small towns,” Rajangam said.

Dalit youngsters now are going through a surge in upward mobility and aspiration, Rajangam said. “They’re entering a space where no Dalit has earlier been before. With strong winds of political change that are currently blowing in our country, this poses a threat. A huge threat.”

C Lakshmanan, a Dalit studies scholar with the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai, said it is a problem of alienation and isolation. People carry the baggage of their local hegemonies and caste binaries to the classroom. “There’s been an anti reservation mindset for the past two decades. The realisation for Dalit students that the system is probably not for them is damning because they worked so hard to get there.”

At JNU, Muthukrishnan took comfort in his fellow Tamil-speaking friends and Ambedkarites. “I was like his sister,” Bhanupriya said. “We would joke in Tamil and call him Rajini Krish because he was always talking about how anyone named Kabali, usually a Dalit person who was historically subservient, rose to the top in the movie.”

Muthukrishnan’s father Jeevanandam was never told about his struggles. “He used to call us and always tell us about how he’s doing well and everything was fine. No complaints,” Jeevanandam said, sobbing, when he spoke to Scroll.in, from the airport. “I’m going to New Delhi for the first time only to see his dead body,” he said.

“He wasn’t the kind to end himself,” Jeevanandam said. “He worked so hard to get there, and he threw it all away, including his family.” Muthukrishnan has three sisters.

Further to fly

The first time Muthukrishnan saw an aeroplane was when, working as a building painter in Chennai, he saw a flight crossing the sky on the Neelangarai Beach, one of his friends recalled. “He prayed to God that if he had one more birth, to please make him into a bird,” the friend said. “He wanted to see the world and asked for wings.”

Muthukrishnan was consumed by a wish to travel to Delhi by air. “He went to the Omalur airport with his savings and tried to catch a flight and asked his father for money apart from the Rs 2,500 he had,” the friend recalled. “His father said that they had given him good health and a good life, and that that was enough.”

Muthukrishnan finally realised his dream of travelling by air after cracking the JNU admission test on his fourth attempt. Because he couldn’t afford the inflight beverages and snacks, his friend recalled, he asked if he could get anything for free. “Water,” the stewardess replied.

He showed his NRS-Mess water-bottle, smiled, and said, “I have enough of water, madam, thank you. Magizhchi,” recalled the friend.

Like Rajinikanth in Kabali, Muthukrishnan took delight in saying “Magizhchi” whenever he was happy. He was easy to please.