Suicides at elite institutions blamed on discrimination

As many as 122 students at India’s top higher education institutions committed suicide during 2014-21, according to the latest government figures, which has revived claims of discrimination against students from marginalised and disadvantaged groups at elite institutions.

Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan informed the Lok Sabha, the country’s lower house of parliament, last month that of the students who committed suicide at top institutions, 24 belonged to scheduled castes, 41 to ‘other backward classes’ (OBCs), three to scheduled tribes and three to minority communities.

This included students from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISER), Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs), central universities and other central government institutions.

Scheduled castes and tribes are groups listed under the Indian constitution as being particularly disadvantaged. Federally funded higher education institutions ‘reserve’ some 7.5% of places for scheduled tribes and 15% for scheduled castes which include Dalits – formerly known as ‘untouchables’.

Since 2008, an additional 22.5% of places have been reserved for other socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged students, or so-called OBCs in a bid to promote affirmative action.

Pradhan told the Lok Sabha that the government and the higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC) had taken several steps to prevent cases of discrimination and harassment of students.

He pointed to the UGC’s Redressal of Student Grievances Rules, 2019, “to protect the interests of students”. However, academics say these are not specifically aimed at disadvantaged groups and non-specific discriminatory practices.

Pradhan informed parliament the government had also taken steps to address student mental health, including the Manodarpan programme, with a wide range of initiatives to provide psychological support to students, teachers and families for mental and emotional well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

“Besides, institutions hold workshops and seminars on happiness and wellness, regular sessions on yoga, induction programmes, extracurricular activities including sports and cultural activities and appointment of student counsellors for overall personality development and de-stressing students,” he said.

Manodarpan was launched in July 2020 to provide psychological support to students during the coronavirus pandemic and includes a national toll-free helpline for students, with support provided by a pool of experienced counsellors, psychologists and mental health professionals. Its website includes a national database of counsellors.

Caste oppression taking a toll

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a writer and Dalit rights activist and former head of the political science department at Osmania University in Hyderabad, told University World News there was no doubt that caste discrimination exists in universities.

“It is quite rampant in higher education. Caste oppression and untouchability are taking their toll on these students.”

Anil Chamadia, educationist and former professor at Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (Mahatma Gandhi International Hindi University), referred to caste tensions within Indian society spilling over into universities.

“What is happening in society is what we are seeing in these institutions also. It is only here that the mode of repression changes,” he told University World News.

“These [disadvantaged] students are given less marks or they are made to do more work or are not taught at all, due to which they feel exploited and neglected,” Chamadia said, adding that the government should take responsibility for these deaths.

“Why are these students resorting to such measures after all?” he said.

According to media reports, ceiling fans were removed from student accommodation at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore because three of the four students who committed suicide at the institute after March last year hanged themselves from the ceiling fans in their hostel room. The institute is replacing the ceiling fans with wall fans or table fans following the recommendation of health experts.

However, academics and senior student leaders say that the student suicides are not going to end with such measures, as rampant discrimination continues.

Disadvantaged groups targeted

Munna Sannaki, a researcher at Hyderabad Central University and a leader of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) – a student organisation representing students from scheduled castes and tribes – said: “Discrimination is not necessarily the reason behind all cases of student suicides in central universities, but it is the driving force in most of the cases.”

He pointed out that teachers can target disadvantaged groups. “The teachers often tell them that they are worthless and are not fit to receive education. Some students feel isolated and helpless. These circumstances push them towards the decision of suicide.”

According to Sannaki, discrimination against such students is clearly visible in the premier institutions when it comes to scholarships

“The government rarely provides them scholarship money on time. Due to this delay, students cannot pay their fees on time and they are given notices that they will not be allowed to sit examinations or even that their admission will be cancelled. The result is that the confidence of the students is shattered. And they are under stress,” Sannaki said.

Sannaki ran a campaign in support of a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, who committed suicide at Hyderabad Central University in 2016, leading to widespread protests.

Vemula was a PhD scholar at the university. From July 2015, the university stopped paying him his monthly stipend. His friends claimed he was targeted for raising issues on campus under the ASA banner.

Vemula and four other Dalit students had allegedly protested against their expulsion from the university’s housing facility. They were suspended from the university in December 2015 and a month later Vemula committed suicide. His death sparked protests and outrage across the country and gained widespread media attention as a case of ‘state-sponsored discrimination’ against Dalits in Indian universities.

“It is not difficult to understand why students end their life. The first reason is their rural background. Students from rural backgrounds get admission after hard work. When they get admission in the campus, they have to deal with the core curriculum of the course without basic training. It affects them. Their lack of proficiency in English is also a big issue,” Sannaki told University World News.

Dalit activist Shepherd also pointed to the problem of English as the medium of instruction at top institutions.

“In elite Indian institutes, if a student struggles in English, then teachers humiliate them. These students then start thinking that they are of no use and end their lives,” he said, adding that teaching in English should be stressed in schools in the regions where regional languages prevail.

Pradhan told parliament on 20 December that among the measures brought in by the government, “technical education in regional languages has also been introduced to reduce the study pressure on children”.