The death of a brilliant tribal student at the presitigious AIIMS uncorks an ugly epic of organized caste discrimination which starts from the top
Aakshi Magazine Delhi
If you google 'AIIMS student suicide', two names land up on your search page: Balmukund Bharti and Anil Kumar Meena. Both were 'reserved category' students; their being 'lower' caste was what was common to them.
Balmukund was born to a Dalit 'chamar' family in Madhya Pradesh. He was in his final MBBS year when he killed himself two years ago at the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) campus in Delhi. Three weeks ago, first year student Anil Meena, from a tribal family in Rajasthan, did the same thing. AIIMS, the legendary institution, had failed them, despite the faith, excellence and hard work they had invested into it.
Unlike the general perception that such instances could only happen because of not knowing English, or 'personal issues' of not being able to cope with the 'professional and academic' stress of rigorous studies, something else is at work here. Both Balmukund and Anil were school toppers and had been doing extremely well till they stepped into the AIIMS campus. When life was supposed to become easier, having cracked the tough entrance test for AIIMS, it became only tougher and torturous.
When a student from a 'lower' caste background, enters the world of an elite institution like AIIMS, he finds himself in a space where everyone seems to have already decided what his capability can be.
Dr Ashok (name changed to protect identity), an intern at AIIMS, explains how this happens: "We are forced to stop going for classes because we are singled out. This inhibits us, leads to a drop in self-confidence. We are out-casted from everything; teachers deliberately neglect 'reserved' category students in class."
This is significant because it possibly explains why Anil Meena was short on attendance.
In a documentary available on YouTube called The Death of Merit, Balmukund's parents echo the same thing. He had told them that teachers would "torture him and tell him that he had come on reservation". A teacher directly told him: "You can never become a doctor."
"They don't like me because of my caste," he told his father, and wanted to change his name.
‘You can never become a doctor,’ a teacher told him. ‘They don’t like me because of my caste,’ he told his father
"If it was only a matter of language, then most students would do badly initially, in the first exams they take. But that is not so. Most 'reserved category' students' performance shows a gradual decline over the years. This is because the problem is in the situation in which we study and live," Dr Ashok further explains.
None of this is hidden knowledge. Information about caste discrimination in AIIMS is easily available in the public domain. The Death of Merit has been available since April 2011 on YouTube. There is a Dalit and Adivasi Students' portal on the internet (http://www.scststudents.org/). And in 2007, much before Anil Meena joined AIIMS, the Thorat Committee report ('Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST Students in AIIMS, Delhi') had systematically documented the nature of the problem and the institution's complicity in this oppressive scenario. (Prof Sukhadeo Thorat was then the UGC chairman. Currently, he teaches at Centre for Study of Regional Development, JNU.)
The three-member committee was set up by the government in 2006, the year Balmukund would have been in his second year. Maybe, he also gave his testimony to this committee when it was investigating allegations of differential treatment and caste-based discrimination in AIIMS. Incidentally, the committee did not receive any cooperation from the AIIMS administration. Notices that were supposed to convey information about meetings with the committee were not displayed on campus. It was then decided to meet the students outside the campus premises.
The Thorat report that came out a year later categorically reported that SC/ST students were treated 'differently' from 'general' students. And that the institute was complicit in this. This was evident in every sphere of the students' lives – in their hostel, mess, classroom, examination and interaction with the faculty (see box).
The attitude of the faculty towards students belonging to the SC/ST community ranged from "avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, discouragement and differential treatment..."
Students faced discrimination like a simple, everyday act like "teachers trying to humiliate by asking simple questions" in class. Many felt, "Teachers are fine till they do not know your caste. The moment they come to know it, their attitude towards you changes completely... In group interactions, SC/ST students are made to feel inferior."
During the viva exam, "about 85 per cent... mentioned that SC students don't receive enough time with the examiners, as compared with higher caste students." "...76 per cent reported that the examiner had asked their caste background, and about 84 per cent mentioned that their caste was asked either directly or indirectly..."
If Anil was short on attendance, then, at least one person from the faculty could have asked him the reasons for it. The system at AIIMS is insensitive to students who are not ‘upper’ caste
Significantly, the report mentioned two things that a harassed Anil Meena eventually discovered: the absence of remedial coaching in English language, and the nature of internal assessment which is unregulated and unchecked, and therefore "gives scope for faculty to misuse this privilege, if s/he wishes to do so". This is exactly what happened to Anil because in the supplementary examiation, the weightage given to internal assessment was changed from 25 to 50 per cent after the exam had been conducted, an arbitrary decision taken without any check on why this would be so.
This is important in Anil's case because, as sources told Hardnews, had the weightage been kept at 25 per cent, Anil would have passed that examination, a small but significant thing that could have given him hope.
Anil's caste clearly played a central part in how he was treated. According to a memorandum drafted by a students' committee, Anil was one among six students who had been 'detained' and not allowed to write the exam for being short on attendance. Not one of them was from the 'general' category. The memorandum alleges that "44 other students who were also short on attendance" had been allowed to sit for the exam. Moreover, in order to seek guidance on the issue, Anil went to the director's office, "four times but he was not allowed to meet him".
If Anil was short on attendance, then, at least one person from the faculty could have asked him the reasons for it. The system at AIIMS is insensitive to students who are not 'upper' caste and, therefore, he was only told before his exams that he would not be able to sit for them.
All this could have been avoided had the Thorat report been taken seriously and its recommendations implemented. In a report published in The Hindu in September 2007, a committee set up by AIIMS to review the report was quoted as rejecting the Thorat report "in totality", describing its composition as "biased" . The only thing that was introduced is English remedial classes. But these are too few in number and are not in tune with the students' needs. What is needed is assistance with medical terminology, not just basic English, which these classes don't touch upon.
Three years after the report came out, Balmukund killed himself. Shortly, Anil Meena joined AIIMS.
"When the world outside AIIMS changes, so will the world on campus," feels Gurinder Singh Azad, student coordinator with Insight Foundation, which works with students belonging to the SC/ST community in higher educational institutions. Gurinder cites many cases of harassment faced by SC/ST students in different institutions all over the country – scholarships are not assigned, Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) doesn't get cleared, students are deliberately not allowed to pass in examinations. All this happens only with students who come from certain castes.
The attitude of the AIIMS faculty towards students belonging to the SC/ST community ranged from ‘avoidance, contempt, non-cooperation, discouragement and differential treatment…’
"In Udaipur, 90 students from the Meena community have not been given a scholarship." Apart from those still fighting, there is a shocking number of 19 student suicides in just five years in different institutions all over India, all of them belonging to the SC/ST community.
The idea of reserving seats for disadvantaged sections evokes maximum resistance in technical and medical institutions like the AIIMS. In 2005, when the then HRD minister, Arjun Singh, announced the implementation of 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, AIIMS had erupted into a huge anti-reservation stir. In these rather organised protests, the administration was quite actively involved. Tents had been set up, water provided. The Thorat report says the then AIIMS director, P Venugopal, had "played a pivotal role in instigating the anti-quota agitation".
Otherwise acclaimed as a centre of excellence in research and a medical institution with a host of brilliant and committed doctors, AIIMS has a history of deflecting and not implementing reservation properly. As of today, there are very few teachers in the faculty who belong to the SC/ST community. And those who are, are not always in a position to take decisions independently since they are part of a system that seems fundamentally opposed to the idea of social justice and affirmative action for weaker sections.
At the heart of this question seems to be a preoccupation with the idea of 'merit'. This is immediately debunked when you realize that students on reservation are not any less qualified than those who are competing on general seats. It is just that the reservation policy, rightly, takes into account the context in which a student studies, lives and attempts exams. If someone from a remote area in MP is a first-generation learner and still manages to top his exam, his 75 per cent is obviously equal, if not more, to an 85 per cent of someone who has access to more resources and privileges than him. Why does this not become a part of common knowledge, and what makes this so difficult to understand?
"Merit, actually, is nothing," says Gurinder. It is an idea that is used to mask the need to preserve the structures of society as they are. Despite the contention that reservation does not really help those who need it, the passions evoked by it, and the manner in which they are expressed, suggests that it does have the possibility of denting the structure of society. Being a doctor is not just being in a profession, what comes with it is also culture capital, and a denting of traditional caste roles.
During the 2005 anti-reservation uproar, relationships among students were at their most polarized. In the hostels, there was systematic segregation on caste lines, with SC/ST students being forced to shift to the two top floors of Hostels 4 and 5, after sustained pressure, humiliation, abuse and even violence by 'upper' caste students. Messes were divided.
It was because memories of that phase of vicious discrimination were fresh on their minds that when Anil Meena died and the AIIMS Students' Union (SU) requested that this should not be made into a "caste issue", some students agreed. "There are some limitations to fighting something on caste lines. It leads to a wall between general and reserved category students," Dr Ashok feels.
However, can a caste issue be fought adequately without addressing it first as originating from entrenched caste bias?
‘We are forced to stop going for classes because we are singled out. This inhibits us, leads to a drop in self-confidence. We are out-casted from everything; teachers deliberately neglect ‘reserved’ category students’
Despite evidence, Balmukund's suicide has never been seen as a caste issue. The AIIMS administration had issued a statement saying he was "a student who went into depression as he was not able to cope up with the rigorous academic environment of AIIMS".
Some students are struggling to ensure that this won't happen this time. This time at least newspaper reports have mentioned that caste is a factor in what has happened.
There seems to be a rift in how different students view the issue. In just a few weeks, some students felt that the AIIMS SU's position was not adequate, and that it was diverting the issue. Thus was formed the Students Action Committee (SAC) which issued a memorandum with three demands: compensation for the family, a judicial enquiry, and implementation of the Thorat committee recommendations with immediate effect. The introduction of the last two clauses makes sure that caste as a factor in the case would be duly acknowledged.
The SU's position and the differences among students is a typical example of how caste works. Tungish Bansal, president of the Undergraduate Students' Union at AIIMS, told Hardnews: "I don't see this as a caste problem. This is a general problem, everybody is affected by it." But why would you refuse to acknowledge caste as a factor of discrimination, especially on a campus like AIIMS. Many feel this in itself is a kind of caste prejudice.
At the time of writing, we were told by Bansal that AIIMS has agreed to give a compensation of Rs 15 lakh to the family. The SAC is still fighting for its demands to be implemented. The issue has to be recognized as one involving caste discrimination, and a judicial enquiry has to be conducted.Despite everyday and institutionalized discrimination, students are ready to struggle for what is their right, even when they know it could mean more harassment.
Anup Kumar, founder of Insight Foundation, in an editorial article in the Indian Express, has asked an important question: "These students came up by beating all odds and proved their merit in more than one way. Do our premier educational institutions, AIIMS, IITs and top universities, have the required merit and efficiency to be able to teach such brilliant students?"
These students came up by beating all odds and proved their merit in more than one way. Do our premier educational institutions, AIIMS, IITs etc, have the required merit and efficiency to be able to teach such brilliant students?’
Today, the dominant discourse is preoccupied with questions around the 'merit' of those who enter universities on reservation. But the question that will haunt Indian society in the years to come is the sensitivity and compassion of those 'general' students who crack this inhuman and divided system successfully and emerge as doctors.
Box: 'Always, students of reserved category are failed'
CASE I: "The attitude of the faculty is also biased, the student belonging to the reserved category are failed. Many a time it is impossible to prove caste discrimination and there is also no administrative authority that can deal with such matters..."
CASE II: "After the final professional examination, one professor asked me... which place I came from... In front of a senior resident... he said that this fellow is a bad character (badmash) and he needs to be stopped from clearing the examination. Thereafter I was continuously failed in medicine... I had never failed in that subject during the preceding three semesters... (and) had also secured 60 per cent marks in this course in pre-final examination... I repeated this examination after six months in which I again failed and also continuously failed in subsequent examinations. I kept on giving examinations for the next one year... In the end I passed and cleared four papers including this paper in one attempt... because the concerned doctor had gone on leave and the examination was taken by another faculty. The repeated failure had damaged my image and affected (my) psychology."
The AIIMS administration was actively involved. Tents had been set up, water provided. The Thorat report says the then AIIMS director, P Venugopal, had ‘played a pivotal role in instigating the anti-quota agitation’
CASE III: "Always, the students belonging to reserved category are failed. Last year no scheduled caste students was allowed to clear... first year final professional examinations. For instance, Sujo Attari had got 70 per cent in first professional and 55 per cent in second professional examination, but was not cleared in last professional examination. Due to this he suffered mental depression and received psychological treatment... those who did well in earlier examinations were kept hanging in last examination..."
CASE IV: "...Ajay Kumar Singh hails from UP, his father is not educated, but he scored high marks in his entrance examination... Despite his background he passed all his examinations without losing time and reached the final year. During the anti-quota agitation he came out openly with pro-reservationists, protested against the behavior that was meted out to SC/ST students. His name was on top of the list of 44 students who had written a complaint to the director about some upper caste students who behaved violently with SC/ST students. It was believed by SC/ST students that there would be repercussions against them for complaining... Ajay Kumar Singh was failed in three final year subjects...
...During the examination casteist comments were made against him and reference to his role in cooperating with the committee investigating against the crimes against SC/ST students were made. Ajay Kumar wrote to the president and director of AIIMS with copy to the (Thorat) committee enquiring into discrimination of SC/ST students in AIIMS. The director ordered a reexamination thereby admitting that there was a problem with the first examination. However, he had the examination conducted by the same people who had expressed bias against SC/ST students... the outcome was that he failed again."
Excerpts from 'Report of the Committee to Enquire into the Allegation of Differential Treatment of SC/ST SStudents in AIIMS, Delhi'