In August 2015, a student of College of Engineering (Trivandrum) died after she was mowed down in the campus by a jeep driven by other students during Onam celebrations. Sajeev Mohan, an assistant professor in the same college, penned an apology letter to the parents of the victim and posted it on Facebook. Mohan’s post listed out several reasons including campus politics, political interventions and academic system in the college as reasons for the unfortunate developments in the campus. He wrote another post and analysed the problem with more details. He mentioned the caste, rank and the dismal academic record of the prime accused (the man behind the wheels) in the case. He criticised the system of caste-based reservation that facilitated a student with 56,000 plus rank in the entrance exam to get into one of the state’s best colleges. He also listed out how the student had over 30 back papers to clear. The post was flooded with various responses in a few minutes and a significant number of people were in agreement with Mohan.
The comments on his post point to the crossroads at which the nation stands today. Caste-based reservations started out with the eloquent goal of transcending caste at the time of independence. However, the Indian society has now ironically been split into two unequal and implacably opposed compartments due to the same action.
For one section, caste has yielded all that it can and the traditional caste capital has been converted, over decades, into money, power and position. This section is often presumed to be ‘casteless’. The second section represents the majority of the population, which has been suppressed for decades and for them, caste based reservation seem to be the only way out of the vicious cycle. Hence, caste remains hypervisible for the latter, while at times, it seems to be invisible for the former.
Pages of history are replete with many instances of the upper castes being the decision makers and the lower castes acting as the supplicants, even after an age old civilisation woke up to to the calls of modernity. Caste still simmers underneath the surface of our world-class universities, colleges, glitzy malls and workplaces.
In the novel “Nooru Simhasanangal”, Jayamohan describes the caste hierarchy in the modern profession. The novel reiterates that while the number of students from oppressed castes seeking higher education has increased over the decades, what remains the same, however, are the harrowing experiences that these students face.
There’s a joke on the internet which says that after a decision was taken to send 20 people to the moon, feverish negotiations began, finally resulting in the selection of nine OBCs, six SCs, three STs and if any space was left, two astronauts. A deeper look into the joke will reveal that it identifies the astronauts by their qualifications, not by their castes, while the people belonging to the backward castes are identified by their castes. This joke points towards the reality of the present day Indian society. Though the upper caste identities can be overwritten by professional identities of choice, the lower caste identity is so indelibly engraved that it renders all other identities and achievements illegible.
In many parts of India, the prejudice is still so severe and has been alleged to have led to many suicides and drop outs. There have been 11 suicides in different institutes in Hyderabad between 2007 and 2013. Most of the students have been Dalits. The academic expert, Anoop Singh, opined that there was enough and more evidence for the caste elements that played a part in driving these brilliant young men and women to end their lives. He said, “In elite educational institutions, caste prejudice has become so deeply entrenched that it is considered normal.”
The recent student agitations that took place in universities across India and the wide support it received from the young generation are also rays of hope. The protests that followed Rohit Vemula’s suicide heralded the birth of a generation for whom, caste would no longer be a part of their identity. It is the generation of young men and women who promptly reacted to Rohith Vemula’s suicide and raised their voices against the grim shadow of caste discrimination.
As Vemula had penned: “Maybe, a day when no person’s birth is a fatal accident is not so far away. Then, the value of a man will not be reduced to a number, a vote or a thing. A man will not be treated as a mind, but as a glorious thing made of stardust. Every man will then receive the opportunity to emerge from the shadow of his own being and love without getting hurt.”