‘Institutional murder’ isn’t a new term for India. Over the past few years, we have heard of it more and more often with the suicide of Rohith Vemula at Hyderabad Central University and the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). There are countless news stories of students taking similar steps at institutions across the country for various reasons.
Still, no number of protests over such incidents has resulted in real change when it comes to casteist or religious bullying; bullying I have faced myself.
The news of the death of a student of Lady Shri Ram College for Women is what has led me to write this essay. The second-year scholarship student died by suicide last week at her hometown in Telangana, citing financial troubles in a note. Her scholarship funding was delayed, and the family was unable to buy a laptop during lockdown so that she would be able to join in on online classes. This horrible turn of events made me look at how there are more layers to peel when it comes to stories like this, and how it’s not always about the scholarship and the money.
The reason for a campus suicide can also be the attitude of the classmates and teachers. Remember Fatima Latheef, who died by suicide in November 2019 in her hostel room at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras? Her father had alleged that she took the step due to the religious discrimination and constant humiliation she faced at the hands of faculty members. As one report found, though three IIT-Madras students died by suicide last year, students said that the institute has remained focused on protecting its reputation instead of actually trying to change things on the ground.
Some people drown in this sea of institutional bullying. I struggle to swim the best I can.
As a reservation student and an ST, I have found very few people who are genuinely empathetic towards those who are like me and from my community. Others either try to assert their power over us, or pity us.
During my undergrad days, I had to file an RTI over the mismatching of my internship marks and my teachers remarks. To date, I still haven’t got an explanation. This was an institution where three suicides took plan over the span of just two years, and none of them were reported widely. This was an institution where it was normal for a professor to ask a student in class if they were Brahmin. During those years, I tried my best to hide this side of it all from my parents as I wanted to finish my course, and knew they would tell me to drop out.
I then had a tough time at the college I joined for a PG course in Trivandrum in Kerala. When I asked a question, a teacher replied, “Aren’t you an ST. You need to smooth out your rough edges.” Though I complained about the teacher, a popular activist in the state, no action was taken and I discontinued the course. The head of department later said that my complaint letter had gotten lost.
A few years later, after teaching in school for a while, when I approached the then administrator of Lakshadweep, a Hindi speaker, for extra ordinary leave for higher studies, he joked, “I’ll sanction your study leave, but you’ll have to change your name, it’s very dangerous.”
I perfunctorily laughed at his ‘joke’, but only because I wanted to leave and had been doggedly following officials for permission for a long while.
Then, while speaking to a senior from my undergrad days about having secured admission in a post graduate course at JNU, he told me, “So what if you got into JNU, aren’t you a reserved category student?” The fact that he had always worn liberal colours stung me all the more, and I was left numb.
When I would get to JNU, I told myself, things would be better.
But that was not what fate had in store for me. I was laughed at, and faced countless taunts over my name. I tried to explain that it’s an Arabic term and not a Hindi word. Though the pronunciation is different, they said however they wanted to – twisting it every which way they chose.
Sometimes I wanted to scream and let them know how silly their names were in my language, but I didn’t want to be like them. Over time, I began to see just why students of other centres had dubbed Centre for English Studies (CES) a “hub of elites”.
In November, during a conference at the centre, a Malayali classmate denied me food. When I picked up a plate to serve myself, she asked me to put it back “because I didn’t have a coupon”. Fun fact: it was me who had made the coupons and distributed it to my classmates. She didn’t ask anyone else to put their plates back for a lack of a coupon.
A few weeks later, when student protests exploded in JNU and other places around the country, many of us learned several revolutionary songs in each other’s languages. While I was teaching a Malayalam song to a Hindi-speaking classmate, the same Malayali student came and said, “She is not a Malayali, her Malayalam is not good. I’ll teach you, I am the original one.”
That time she said it, it was an offhanded joke. But then it was repeated. And repeated. I stopped trying to teach people my mother tongue as a result. The language in which I thought, I spoke, and taught was forcibly made to feel foreign to me.
Whenever she made fun of my language and identity, I kept mum. When I had left home, my father had said, “You are not going there to fight with anyone. Remember you’ll have younger ones than you, as your classmates. They are kids, like the ones you taught in the school. You should forgive them whatever happens.”
But now when someone asks me if I am a Malayali, I hesitate to say ‘yes’. Because I doubt my identity and I am afraid some ‘real Malayali’ in earshot would get affronted.
I, and many other students like me, have faced similar bullying. It can be subtle at times, but it’s there and in that moment, you feel so helpless. I would smile and let out a fake laugh, and then go to my room and hate myself for my inability to react.
The best thing I could do was to avoid such people. Soon enough, ‘the original Malayali’ stopped me at the Hauz Khas metro station, where I was going with a group of volunteers to help victims of the Delhi riots, and questioned me in front of everyone about having blocked her on my social media accounts.
In fact, while choosing courses for the third semester, I looked for classes that she was not taking – she had instilled a fear in me that I was unable to shake off.
On another instance, during a discussion about a student-teacher argument, I took the side of the teacher to try and provide my opponent another perspective. She then suddenly said, “You do not know anything, you do not know anything about human psychology” and wound up the discussion.
I couldn’t say that I had learnt psychology for four years. I was slowly getting accustomed to being humiliated, and making some sort of peace with it.
Because if we resist, we can’t exist in places like this.
In the five years between my undergrad course and joining JNU, I had been teaching primary school classes – I had to start from base point again, and it was quite an achievement for me when I cleared the NET in my first attempt.
But still, the first question people would ask me was: “Aren’t you an ST?” Even a friend who called to ask about which book I had studied to prepare for the exam asked me this question. What is wrong with everyone? Why do they think people like me are ‘good for nothing’?
Along the way, I too have started to think I am lesser – all thanks to the world around me.
Even during the pandemic, when I was forced to head home to Lakshadweep and was struggling with many personal problems, network and electricity issues, a professor (not from CES), asked me if I was faking my problems. Is it that far fetched a notion to believe that someone living on an island is facing network issues?
And how could I say yes to online classes as long as I stayed on an island where I could barely make calls? I was shattered when one classmate asked the ones who have connectivity issues, which included me, “to think about the other half”, while she sat with her amenities and resources ready. How can someone ask that of students who are already going through a version of hell in a year of such great uncertainty?
Another person said, “We are here to study.”
And what were we there for? It was certainly not to while away time for the sake of it.
I’m not sure people can even begin to imagine the risks some of us have to take for our education. I had to wait for someone to fall ill and get a medical evacuation by helicopter as it would be the only way for me to reach the mainland from Lakshadweep. When I got the medical schedule, I cried thinking of my selfishness – I felt that the patient fell sick because of my prayers.
I didn’t have a place to stay on the mainland. I had to travel to Bangalore from Kochi and from there to Hubli, searching for a place to stay. I know the people I speak of would not understand the stress I went through to get to the mainland, the physical exhaustion of it and how expensive it was. I travelled for more than a week to reach my destination, making bookings form one place to another – just to attend classes.
When a classmate says something like ‘we are answerable to our parents about our course’, what should I say? Our parents are not well educated as your parents. But they want us to attend a good college and make a change. They are unaware of the concept of ‘going to a therapist’ during difficult times. They do not know how to help. So in times of toughness, they say, “It’s enough. Drop your course.” They do not know better; that they should push us to see it through for our own benefit.
For that reason, many students like me hide our emotional and mental struggles from our families. It would only bring more stress.
I am not answerable to anyone as I chose to educate myself. I know how important it is to get a good education. We struggle to strengthen future generations, to help carve spaces that we did not get – that our parents before us could not.
Some of us chase down an education so that we get a voice to speak up about various issues, such as gender violence at home – so that we can put an end to it, and in the very least find the strength to report it.
So amidst this chaos, we were forced to say yes to online classes as my classmates insisted. And now, those who have good network can attend full classes, but what about the others who have been accorded a secondary status? Some can access only the audio, others complain of breaks in the audio and video. Yet others view a recorded class.
Can we ever dare dream of narrowing these differences?
Raseela P.A. is pursuing a masters in English at CES, JNU.