Statistics put India at the 33rd rank in education in the world. Definitely we are not at the top but everyone claims we are progressing. We have moved from the 40th rank we were in in 2018. Yes, there has been progress – our total enrolment in higher education has increased nearly 4.14 crores in 2020 – 21. The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) for 2020-21 says female enrolment and the Gender Parity Index show positive trends. Also the enrolment of SC and ST students is increasing. In addition to this, the study also highlights that the enrolment of students in Institutes of National Importance (INIs) has increased by nearly 61% during the period 2014 – 15 to 2020- 21 with the number of these institutions also almost doubling in this period.
There is also yet another set of statistics – 33 students have died by suicide across the IITs since 2018, according to the Ministry of Education, as stated in March 2023. In total the IITs, the NITs and the IIMs have registered 61 cases of suicide during the same period. “Academic stress, family reasons, personal reasons, mental health issues, etc. are some of the reasons for such suicide cases,” according to the written response by Minister of State Education Subhas Sarkar.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) in its report states that intolerance, prejudice and harassment towards Dalits have occurred in institutions of higher education where discrimination is practiced by senior upper-caste students, teachers, faculties, and administrations. The caste bias manifests itself in the way teachers ignore Dalit students and unjustly fail them in exams, in social exclusion and physical abuse, and in the unwillingness of the university administration to assist Dalits and support them. In India alone, 18 Dalit students have committed suicide in one of the country’s premier institutions between 2008-2011, and this number only represents the official cases. Counting all the Dalit students whose families did not protest against the incessant discrimination that eventually led to suicide, the number is likely to be much higher.
Juxtaposing these two sets of data reveals to us that all is not well in the Indian higher education system or to put it more plainly all is not well for those students who come from marginalised backgrounds. This is in reference to the recent suicides of students in our premier higher education institutes. The Government in its response in Parliament lists out the provision for counselling systems for handling stress and emotional adjustments in institutions as mentioned in NEP 2020. To quote the Minister, he talks of steps such as peer assisted learning, introduction of technical education in regional languages for students in order to ease the academic stress and also a wide range of activities to provide psychological support to students, teachers and families for mental and emotional well-being during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond.
But the gaping hole in this whole repertoire is the lack of any support systems specifically designed for students of marginalised backgrounds entering our premier institutions. Adjusting and getting acclimated to higher education is a difficult process for any student, but worse yet, for someone from an already challenging socio economic background.
Let’s face it. We have a system of equal opportunity in the form of a reservation quota system in higher education and employment in tune with the principles of our Constitution. But in reality these opportunities for equality, these opportunities to ensure that our students coming from SC/ ST backgrounds can avail of higher education an equal platform with others taking into consideration that they have had more challenges and more difficulties along the way. Many of them still suffer caste-based discrimination, they are marginalised, pushed to the corners of society, pushed to its margins and anyone will know looking in on the centre from the margins is much much more tough and difficult and horrendous. First of all, access to higher education is still a dream – a lost dream for many of the students. If they are able to come into premier institutions that itself is a major victory but it would have been a huge struggle for them so far.
Secondly we must understand our social fabric. We have a fabric that thinks that the reservation quota system is a freebie; is something that is not needed; it is something that is just an extra prize given to some. Many believe that the quota system generates more inequality, many reassert that students of SC and ST backgrounds have it easy to just get in, without any effort while others toil and suffer to get into the same institutions.
Nobody understands or nobody is helped to understand that the journey for these students is equally tough. A quota system is not a freebie; it is a right . It is not a privilege; it is an opportunity. It is an extra step – a small way of acknowledging that Indian social fabric is not equal even today and definitely not empowering, even today.
Entering an IIT or IIM or any Institute of National Importance is a super difficult struggle. The marginalised students who enter these institutions come with the hope that they are the light for their family and for their communities. They believe they are changing history, they are history makers, but the environment so clearly is not conducive. There are reports of faculty, fellow classmates, senior students mocking them. Several students share that they go through horrific instances of discrimination , of alienation, of inequality, of injustice and now we are seeing lives being taken because of this. The Vemulas and the Solankis, the many more – precious lives lost !!! We will never know the actual truth because our system denies transparent, honest, open investigations. Our institutions close up instead of being transparent and open and understanding of these challenges. Shouldn’t the mental health arena, the counselling arena spoken of by the Honorable Minister be expanded to also take into account the socio-economic adjustments and the challenges our marginalised students face in thes elite institutions? We need to think; we need to think NOW!!
India has to wake up or the higher education system has to wake up. Faculty, institutional heads and other students have to wake up. We need to understand that India is still reeling from caste-based discrimination. We may be educated. We may think we have moved away from the past – so many of us are no more marginalised. Caste is just an identity – something we take into consideration during marriage and social events. But the actual pain of caste-based discrimination is only felt by those pushed down in the system.
What has been hidden from higher education systems and institutions is the deep entranced notion of inequality. The notion of denial of true access to education. Now it has come to light and there is the dire need to open our eyes, open our minds to first accept that nothing is okay, to first acknowledge that these challenges are true; these challenges are real and these challenges are heartbreaking. We have to act – Act now to save more lives!!!
Dr. Anita Christine Tiphagne, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Department of Social Sciences, Lady Doak College, Madurai.