NEW DELHI: As the suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula -- who hanged himself in a hostel room at Hyderabad University following his expulsion along with four other Dalit students -- focuses the spotlight on casteism and discrimination in educational institutions, the figures reveal even murkier waters.

Hyderabad University alone has seen at least eight Dalit student suicides in the last ten years, with discrimination against Dalits on campus being a recurring theme. Vemula highlighted this reality in a suicide note.

In 2013, M Venkatesh, a PhD scholar like Vemula, committed suicide, with his death being linked to discrimination against Dalit students at the University. In 2008, Senthil Kumar, a PhD scholar from the School of Physics allegedly committed suicide by consuming poison in the hostel room. Like Vemula, Kumar too had seemingly stopped receiving fellowship funds.

"Eight suicides is not a small number, but the university has still not woken up to the issues of Dalit students. Rohith's death only highlights a larger issue of caste-based discrimination prevailing on campus," said Zuhail KP, president of the UoH Students Union, on Monday (as quoted in The Times of India).

Ironically, a letter by Union Minister of State for Labour Bandaru Dattatraya on August 11 to the HRD Minister Smriti Irani, highlighting “casteist, extremist and anti-national politics” in Hyderabad University seems to be the precursor to the five students being expelled. The letter reads: “As you are aware I represent Secunderabad in Parliament which constitutes the major part of Hyderabad. Hyderabad University, a central University located in Hyderabad, has in the recent past become a den of casteist, extremist and anti-national politics. This could be visualised from the fact that when Yakub Menon was hanged, a dominant students union, Ambedkar Students Association, has held protests against the execution. When Shri Shushil Kumar, president ABVP, in the campus protested against this he was manhandled and as a result he was admitted in the hospital. What is more tragic is that the University administration has become a mute spectator to such events. I am also enclosing a few details to buttress my point…..”

And it is from this date that the harassment started. The five Dalit scholars were singled out, and faced enquiries, threats and persecution that led them to be ‘expelled’ from the hostel, without access to the university facilities except basic classes. Sources said that the emboldened ABVP made them a target, and for weeks since they have despaired of getting justice in the University. In this case, the government was complicit in casteism and extremism, harassing the Dalit students by meddling in University affairs.

Tragically, the story is the same across India. An article by Prerna Gupta in India Resists examines the reality of caste based discrimination among students and faculties in educational institutions across India.

A partial list of Dalit student suicides is as follows:

1. M. Shrikant, final year, B.Tech, IIT Bombay , 1st Jan 07

2. Ajay S. Chandra, integrated PhD, Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore – 26 Aug, 07

3. Jaspreet Singh, final year MBBS, Government Medical College, Chandigarh , 27 Jan 08.

4. Senthil Kumar, PHD, School of Physics, University of Hyderabad – 23 Feb 08

5. Prashant Kureel, first year, B.Tech, IIT Kanpur , 19 April, 08

6. G. Suman, final year, M.Tech, IIT Kanpur , 2nd Jan, 09

7. Ankita Veghda, first year, BSc Nursing, Singhi Institute of Nursing, Ahmedabad , 20 April, 09

8. D Syam Kumar, first year B.Tech, Sarojini Institute of Engineering and Technology, Vijayawada , 13 Aug, 09

9. S. Amravathi, national level young woman boxer, Centre of Excellence, Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh,Hyderabad , 4th Nov, 09

10. Bandi Anusha, B.Com final year, Villa Mary College, Hyderabad , 5th Nov, 09

11. Pushpanjali Poorty, first year, MBA, Visvesvaraiah Technological University, Bangalore , 30th Jan, 10

12. Sushil Kumar Chaudhary, final year MBBS, Chattrapati Shahuji Maharaj Medical University (formerly KGMC), Lucknow , 31 Jan, 10.

13. Balmukund Bharti, final year MBBS, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, 3rd March, 10

14. JK Ramesh, second year, BSc, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangal ore, 1st July, 10

15. Madhuri Sale, final year B.Tech, IIT Kanpur , 17th November, 10

16. G. Varalakshmi, B.Tech first year, Vignan Engineering College, Hyderabad , 30 Jan, 2011

17. Manish Kumar, IIIrd Year B.Tech, IIT Roork ee, 13 Feb, 11

18. Linesh Mohan Gawle, PhD, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi , 16 April, 11

A look at the details of the suicides throws further light on caste based discrimination.

Quoting from the article on India Resists:

In 2014, Aniket Ambhore, fourth year electrical engineering student at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay on committed suicide by falling from the sixth floor of a hostel inside the campus. Caste-based discrimination was cited as a reason for under tremendous stress. He was undergoing psychiatric treatment following poor performance in exams. He had backlogs from the first, second and third year. Aniket’s father had alleged his son used to be taunted for being a student from scheduled caste. A head of dept once passed a derogatory comment about him, said his father. The family didn’t make any formal complaint though.

In 2012, on March 3, Anil Kumar Meena, an adivasi medical student at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, killed himself in his hostel room. Educated in the Hindi medium, the son of poor farmers in Baran, Rajasthan, Meena had scored 75 per cent in Class 12 and a second rank in the AIIMS entrance test. He was following in the footsteps of Bal Mukund Bharti, a final year MBBS student, who exactly two years ago hung himself to death in his hostel room in AIIMS.

In 2011, Manish Kumar of Indian Institute of Technology, Roorke, committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of his hostel. Manish was from Muzaffar Nagar and was a bright student. Both his father and mother had found that their son was a victim of caste abuse by fellow students and complaints to the authorities went in vain. Even after he shifted out of hostel the taunts did not stop and he went into depression leading to his death.

In 2010, Bal Mukund, a Jatav (Chamar) Dalit from Kundeshwar in Uttar Pradesh, the first Dalit from the village in 50 years to enter an elite institute like All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi committed suicide. The whole family, including his mother and sister, had toiled hard to pour all their earnings to support Mukund. Mukund, a topper all through his life, had scored 82 per cent in Class X; had won the International Mathematics Contest and cleared the IIT and AIIMS entrance examinations but chose AIIMS as he had the dream of becoming a doctor. For Mukund, urban life and its myth of being caste-free space and questions of anonymity were mere terminology. He was taunted every now and then by the faculty and fellow students just because he was being born a Dalit. “How could Chamars become doctors? You have come here only because of quota, you cannot go ahead” were the usual comments that chased him in classrooms, hostels and canteen.He tried to change his name as Srijan Kumar to escape caste. He repeatedly talked on phone about caste and settling down abroad but before that depression made him commit suicide in March 2010.

In 2010, Sujaya(name changed) was saved by friends at the prestigious The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU),from committing suicide at the nearby railway tracks. She was a student of the 5-year Integrated MA Progamme in German, School of Germanic Studies. Born in an illiterate agricultural labourer family in a village in Andhra Pradesh, Sujaya was too depressed over her course backlogs and eventual rustication from the university. Consistently humiliated by department faculty, both inside and outside the class, for her ‘weak’ language skills and being ‘not fit for German language course’, Sujaya’s friends were witness to her continuous struggle to cope up with the academic pressure and not so academic hostility towards her from the centre and therefore were on the alert when she finally broke down after months of unsuccessful pleading with the centre and university administration to provide her academic support and to prevent caste-based harassment by the department faculty. Sujaya was the lone Scheduled Tribe student among the 24 students admitted to the first batch of the 5-year Integrated MA Progamme in German in 2008. But she was not alone in this suffering. Out of 4 Scheduled Caste students in her class, 3 dropped out in the middle of the course and the remaining one had to fight hard to get a 3 years bachelor’s degree in 5 years but was wise enough to immediately leave the university to pursue her academic career elsewhere.

In February 2008, just after one year of his admission, Senthil Kumar committed suicide in his hostel room. University authorities immediately claimed that he had died of cardiac arrest. But the postmortem report gave the cause of death as poisoning. Surprisingly, this report was kept as a secret until the Dalit students started demanding an enquiry and compensation for his family. After the political intervention from the Tamilnadu M.L.A. Ravikumar, the University of Hyderabad had appointed an internal fact finding committee under Prof Vinod Pavarala. From the batch of 2007, Senthil was the only student who has not been assigned a supervisor till his death. In this batch, initially four students had not been assigned a supervisor.Out of these four students, two eventually left the programme as dropouts and one got allotted a supervisor. All the four students were from the reserved categories. Senthil failed in one of the four required courses. He failed the same course in the supplementary exam in January 2008 also. He had the provision of writing the exam again in March to clear this backlog. The students with backlogs, stop receiving fellowships as per the University of Hyderabad guidelines. Hailing from a poor family, the University fellowship was the only source for him to support his family and his own survival. The University changed the rule of curtailing the fellowship to the students who had to clear the backlogs, a week before Senthil’s death, but did not make it public. Prof Pavarala committee made very clear in its report that, “All the Physics students that this Committee could meet have reported their sense that the School was acting against the interests of the SC/ST students.”

In 2008, Jaspreet Singh, a Dalit by birth and a student from Chandigarh, ended his life unable to bear the insults and taunts thrown at him at the medical college library. Unable to overcome the loss of her elder brother, his sister, a student of Bachelor of Computer Application, also committed suicide, heartbroken at the injustice done to him. The suicide note recovered from his coat pocket charged his head of the department with deliberately failing him and threatening to fail him over and over. Seven months later, after the National Commission of Scheduled Castes intervened; a three-member team of senior professors re-evaluated his answer sheet and found that he had in fact passed the examination. Jaspreet was an excellent student throughout and had never failed in any subject until he reached the final year.

In 2004, Rejani. S. Anand a student of Institute of Human Resource Development Engineering (IHRDE) College at Adoor in south Kerala, committed suicide by jumping from the seventh floor of the Office of the Entrance Commissioner (Medical and Engineering courses) at Trivandrum.

She got admission on 6.11.2002 in the government quota seat under merit. The Scheduled Caste (SC) Department had remitted her fee. On 22nd July 2004, she The sequence of events that could show the immediate trajectory that led her to take her own life is as follows – Since her college had no hostel facilities, Rejani was staying in a nearby N.S.S (Nair Service Society) hostel. The government had been paying an amount of Rs 315 as a monthly stipend to the SC students that was not sufficient for Rejani to meet her hostel fee of RS 1000 apart from transportation charges, cost of books etc.

Her father was a daily wages labourer and was unable to support her education. Rejani and her parents tried to get a Bank loan to meet her essential financial requirements. She first went to Indian Oversees Bank (Puzhanadu branch) for the educational loan, which was refused to her .Her father was a labourer and his daily wages were essential for the family. She had applied for an educational loan, which does not require surety legally. According to the Reserve Bank of India’s circular on the educational loans – any merit candidate could avail herself a loan of up to Rs 4 lakhs for one course without furnishing security and without accruing interest on the loan until she gets employment. Afterwards, Rejani went to the State Bank of Travancore but here also she was denied the loan. Then her parents approached Thampanur Ravi (the local MLA) for financial assistance. Though he immediately made the promise but never bothered to fulfill it. They went to the Block Panchayat for assistance but were told that it had no such financial assistance programme and funds. They went to Pazhavangadi Scheduled Caste office but were returned empty handed. She could not go to her college for more than two months as her hostel authorities were threatening her to deposit the hostel fees. The last straw seems to be the apparent denial of Transfer Certificate (T.C) from Adoor Engineering College due to the non-payment of the fees. Rejani had got a chance to join Mary Matha College, which had promised her free education and lodging. When she approached her college for a T.C, they sent her off to pay the dues. She was sent to the Entrance (Engineering and Medical courses) commissioner’s office. It is here that she committed suicide by jumping out from the seventh floor of that building.