suicide of a first generation dalit research scholar in Hyderabad
Here is a piece I wrote on hearing of the suicide of a first generation dalit research scholar in Hyderabad.
Thoughts of a Teacher
The recent suicide of a research scholar from a premier institution of higher education in Hyderabad, must force us to reflect on larger questions of the moral purpose of education.On the face of it, it is a single incident.The boy, a first generation student in his family, belonged to the working class, was depressed and had health problems.His attendance was irregular.He was subjected to criticism by the teachers that he found disempowering.Whether the teachers intended it to be so is not relevant.That he experienced it as such is sufficient.In general, the portrayal of the student in the press, especially as it comes across from published statements of university authorities, conveys to the lay reader that the boy was not an asset to the university.Not someone the university is proud of.Certainly not a flag bearer of the institution. Just one of those who was more absent than present and received material support from the institution.
As a teacher, this is something I would force myself to reflect on. Institutions of higher education do present very hostile environments to first generation dalit and adivasi students.To deny this would be dishonest. A first generation student of mine, unable to speak or even comprehend English, came to us with just the burning desire to graduate from our institution and do his village proud.He had nothing else working in his favour.While he coped with difficult [impossible] work schedules, cultures of dominance in the student community that sifted the meritorious apart from those that lacked merit, he just kept a conversation going with me on what he wanted out of life.He spoke to me once about the discrimination he faced from his room mate, who told him he did not deserve to be in the institution.That by coming here he has denied a meritorious student of a seat.When he sought to press charges of discrimination with the authorities in writing, he was advised by some faculty members that putting this in writing would work against batch solidarity and divide the class instead of "preserving unity".He was angry, but lacked any support in his class to go public, although there were some who sympathized with his predicament.He kept his conversation with me going through it all.Finally, an opportunity presented itself.One teacher decided to have class presentations on the merit argument in reservations.Two Brahmin students [coincidentally?] opted to present in favour of merit and he opted to present against the merit argument.He let the others speak.When his turn came he simply posed a question:What is merit?Who decides what merit is?How can I even hear your argument if your people set the measure for the definition of merit and then decide that you are the only ones who measure up? What has happened to the voice of my people in the setting of this measure?By this same argument, if my people set the measure, chances are, none of you can ever measure up.In posing these questions, he was hitting at the base of the merit argument.It is nonsensical, he was saying, to speak of merit when there is a fundamental inequality that is insurmountable by the simple application of the idea of equality.But his journey to this point was difficult, lonely and traumatic.That he emerged victorious is the good fortune of the university.
What this student and many others like him teach us, their "teachers", is astounding.They force us, by their very presence and the questions they ask, to ground our knowledge and put our faculties of understanding to test, without respite.They force us to revisit our moral obligations as teachers.They enrich our institutions of higher learning by their sheer presence.Living as we do in a fractured society, each of us understands very well the insurmountable odds first generation students must overcome in order to enter these institutions.The entry is a victory.For the student, certainly, but far, far more for the institution.Because it is through the perseverance and determination of these students that public institutions like ours are able to fulfil their obligations under Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution.Our institutions owe them a debt of gratitude, and it is the repayment of that debt that is the foundation of our moral obligation as teachers through the entire time when these students are with us and beyond.And clearly our responsibility extends far beyond just teaching them in class, marking attendance and awarding or withholding scholarships.Objective performance and attendance requirements are a routine part of educational administration that can be managed with a fair degree of ease, if the environment is cleared of hostility.When entry into the portals of higher education is the fulfillment of a dream for first and second generation dalit and adivasi students, why are there so many reports of students either being very depressed or very angry? Have we as teachers forgotten that our responsibility lies in enabling students to realize their dreams?The upwardly mobile, affluent students from privileged backgrounds do not depend on the teacher's commitment or goodwill to access their dreams.Where they cannot do it through their personal resources, they will demand it from the teachers and class/caste privilege can scarcely be ignored especially by the average middle class teacher.The challenge is in keeping the dreams of students from difficult social backgrounds alive.The challenge is in enabling them to realize their dreams, because it is only through them that we can fulfil our moral obligations as teachers.And somehow, it is not enough anymore to say "he had a problem."It is time for us to ask, "How have we, as teachers, pushed him towards the problem – either actively through words and action, or passively by refusing to acknowledge the situation -- rather than snatching him away from it and towards us?"Because in the ultimate analysis, every student we lose in this manner takes us further away from our constitutional obligations.
Kalpana Kannabiran -- "nivedita" 314 St 7 East Marredpalli Secunderabad 500 026 AP 9140 27733853