Trigger warning: mentions of casteist incidents and suicide
PhD scholar Deepa Mohanan ended her hunger strike just today. She was protesting the casteism she experienced at the Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) in Kottayam, Kerala.
Casteism remains prevalent in academia—the myth of colleges campuses and classrooms being free of caste discrimination is perpetuated to paint a fanciful picture of a caste-free India in the minds of its members from Savarna castes.
While the so-called “merit” of Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan (DBA) communities who access higher educational institutions (be it as faculty or as students) is often discussed, the humiliation and discrimination that they face is ignored.
It is infuriating that the issue is ignored till someone like Rohith Vemula or Payal Tadvi are tortured to death. Anti-caste activist Manisha Mashaal recounted the discrimination she has faced:
“Upper caste students asked me the name of my caste before they asked me my own name…They refused to talk to me, share notes with me, study with me or eat with me.”
Deepa, a 36-year-old woman, is currently pursuing a PhD after completing her MPhil and Masters in medical biology. She joined MGU in 2011 for her MPhil, only to face obstacle-after-obstacle in her academic progress over the next decade.
Why? She insists that the director of the institute i.e., Nandakumar Kalarickal is responsible.
Since her first year, he has been hindering her education. She believes her caste location is the reason. “Nandakumar had told her (pro vice chancellor Sheena Shukkoor) that Dalit students should not be encouraged, in order to keep discipline intact.”
As Bhim Army’s national vice president, Anu Raji PR, rightly said, “For each and every Dalit student, this life is an unending fight against casteism.”
According to a report by The News Minute:
“Nandakumar has denied her access to her research materials and seating at the workplace, worked to block her stipend and locked her alone inside the laboratory. The PhD she could have ideally completed in 2015, is still unfinished because of Nandakumar.”
Deepa had three demands—the main one being the removal of Nandakumar Kalarickal from the institute. Her other two demands were:
By November 1, the university agreed to her first two demands but refused to remove Nandakumar. But, Deepa remained firm in her demands.
If he stayed on, she wouldn’t back down. She knew from past experience that he would have the power to disrupt her academic progress.
In 2015, Deepa had filed a case of caste discrimination against Nandakumar at the MGU. A two-member committee found the allegations to be true and recommended that she be provided with all the facilities needed to complete her research.
However, one needs to note that no action was recommended or taken against the perpetrator.
Reports of caste discrimination that are filed against the institution are often disregarded, despite the truth to their claims. “Institutes have continuously failed to establish a robust mechanism to recognize and counter caste-based discrimination practised by its dominant caste faculty and students.”
Deepa had alleged that because Kalarickal is close to top leaders from the ruling party in Kerala, CPI(M), he wasn’t being punished. One can assume that the Students Federation of India (SFI)—the student wing of CPI(M)—has not offered her its support for the same reason.
Anu Raji PR told YKA user Sofia Babu Chacko that, “Deepa is a symbol that shows how the brahmanical system suppresses Dalits and prevents them from accessing education, which is a basic right. This protest and our demands are for all Dalit students.”
On November 6, Dr R Bindu, the minister for higher education and social justice in Kerala, tweeted informing the public that the government had intervened in the matter. The government had instructed the university to replace Nandakumar, and if delayed any further, it would directly intervene.
If the decision to replace the accused teacher continues to remain pending, the authorities will be specifically instructed to ask the teacher to step down.
The student is requested to consider this an assurance from the side of the govt and withdraw from the strike.
— Dr R Bindu (@rbinducpm) November 6, 2021
Following this order, a notice was issued by the vice-chancellor of MGU, Sabu Thomas, which said that the post of director would be taken over by the vice chancellor himself.
However, Deepa had questioned why the notice doesn’t explicitly mention Nandakumar’s replacement, but only that Sabu Thomas would take over his responsibilities.
Deepa, supported by the Bhim Army, felt that the new decision only served to misguide her.
“Nandakumar is currently in a foreign country, so they temporarily took away his position. When he is back, the position will be given back to him. The vice-chancellor is protecting him,” explained Mansoor Konchukadavu of the Bhim Army’s Kerala unit, to The News Minute.
Deepa was on a hunger strike for 10 days, even though she has health complications. She suffers from anaemia and congenital VSD (ventricular septal defect).
In an open letter she posted on her Facebook wall on October 31, she said:
“… I cannot move back from the protest without fighting for justice. I should fight for my people. I should win here for the many who lost.”
After the Kerala state government’s repeated assurances, Deepa ended her hunger strike on November 8, but it remains to be seen what action the MGU will finally take. Her hunger strike might have ended, but the fight to eliminate casteism in her academic space has just begun…
Note: The author is part of the Sept-Nov ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program.