The suicide of 26-year-old Rohith Vemula, one of five Dalit students expelled from their hostel at the University of Hyderabad two weeks ago, has put the focus back on the way Indian academic institutions treat students from backward castes.
Vemula and the others had been suspended by the university after a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad accused the five students of having assaulted him. The five claimed this was a false allegation and had been staging a sleep-in protest outside their hostel since the expulsion.
Even though the 26-year-old said that no one was responsible for his suicide, his final note did make reference to the way he was feeling. "I am not hurt at this moment. I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this," Vemula wrote in his suicide note.
Those are words that would be familiar to Dalit students across the country, who often have to deal with severe bullying and ostracism in many Indian institutions. The video above, from a three-part documentary series called The Death of Merit, documents the suicide of a 20-year-old Dalit student at IIT Roorkee in 2011.
Manish Kumar Guddolian jumped to his death from the fifth floor of his hostel. While the police put the death down to depression, his family members spoke to the filmmaker about the many months of bullying he faced in college from a group of students who tried to put him down by calling him names like "chamar" and circulating a video of his photos to be laughed at.
The college administration's response when the matter was taken to them was to suggest he should focus on his studies and perhaps he should be moved out of the hostel. His parents and relatives tell their part of the story in the film.
Another case covered by the series was the suicide of a 22-year-old medical student Dr Jaspreet Singh who was routinely failed in exams by one professor. The aspiring surgeon was a bright student, who scored well all through school and in college, barring one subject. On 27 January 2008, he hung himself to death on the fifth floor of his college's library.
Following his suicide, when his papers were examined by an external body at the behest of the National Scheduled Caste Commission, he passed. College authorities tried to put his suicide down to depression despite Singh explicitly mentioning professor NK Goel in his suicide note. The professor though went scot-free and continues to work at the Government Medical College in Chandigarh.
Reservations are another source of harassment for young Dalit students. Balmukund Bharti, a final year MBBS student at AIIMS committed suicide on March 3, 2010. His parents allege that the professors told him that people like him who come on the back of reservations can never become doctors.