In Row Over Alleged Casteism, One PhD Scholar Has Been on Hunger Strike For a Week

Since October 29, 2021, Deepa P. Mohanan – a 36-year-old scientist pursuing her PhD in STEM – has been on an indefinite hunger strike outside the International and Inter University for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at Mahatma Gandhi University (IIUCNN) in Kottayam, Kerala. According to News Minute, Nandakumar Kalarickal, the director of the institute, has been trying various ways to not let her complete her PhD for the last ten years.

And the reason, she alleges, is because she is a Dalit.

In order to advance the field of nanomedicine, and help injured people, Mohanan has been building wound-healing scaffolds using nanoparticles. She completed her MPhil after giving birth to her child, the News Minute reported. According to her Facebook post, which she wrote on October 31, she takes tablets for anaemia and also has a congenital VSD (ventricular septal defect).

Yet, today marks the seventh day of her indefinite hunger strike.

Casteism on campus

In 2011, Mohanan joined the institute after completing her postgraduation in medical microbiology. And since then, she alleges, Kalarickal has been creating all kinds of hurdles to stall the process – such as stopping her from accessing the laboratory, accessing chemicals and polymers at the lab, denying her seating at the workplace, blocking her stipend, and so on. According to the News Minute, in one instance, Kalarickal even locked her alone inside the institute’s laboratory.

The report further adds that he has also been rude and abusive towards her on many instances.

“…One fine day, during his [Kalarickal] term as the joint director of the centre, he decided that I was not to be provided the infrastructure. That meant I was not to be allowed the lab facilities. What is the point of a science student if they are denied the basic facility of a lab to work? What surprised me was that he did this only with me, and I was the only Dalit student in that batch,” she told Two Circles.

In an ideal situation, she should have completed her PhD in 2015, but it has been six years and she still hasn’t received her degree. “I have done the synthesis for my nanomedicine project, I have developed a scaffold and optimised it. But I still haven’t been able to finish my PhD because of Nandakumar,” she had told the News Minute in a 2015 interview.

For now, she wants the institute to change her research guide, provide her with materials to complete her research, and remove Kalarickal from the institute.

Sexual harassment

On November 3, the matter took yet another turn when Mohanan spoke about being sexually harassed by a fellow researcher in 2014, The Hindu reported.

While talking to the media at the university entrance, she said, “A research fellow in the university, forcefully held my hand when we were about to leave the classroom. I managed to escape somehow.”

According to Mohanan, though she reported the incident to Vice Chancellor Sabu Thomas, and to Kalarikkal as well, they ignored her complaint. She told The Hindu that she will file a complaint with the district collector soon.

The VC, according to The Hindu, said that he never received any complaint from Mohanan on this matter. “Though the incident is said to have happened in 2014, she never raised any complaint. Had she done that, I would have constituted an inquiry,” he said. He added that he was willing to order an inquiry if she files a fresh complaint.

Hunger strike

Several student unions such as Bhim Kerala, Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association, and Ambedkar Student Association, and other Dalit leaders and social justice organisations have extended support to Mohanan and have been putting pressure on the institute to pay heed to Mohanan’s demands.

However, the student federation of India – a left-wing student organisation affiliated to the Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) – has not said anything on the matter on their social media platforms. The reason, Mohanan alleges, is because Kalarickal is close to the CPI(M) leaders of Kerela.

On November 1, the institute agreed to meet her demands of providing her with research material and changing her research guide, but refused to remove Kalarickal from IIUCNN. The News Minute reported that Vice Chancellor Sabu Thomas will take charge has as Mohanan’s interim guide. He told the media that Kalarickal cannot be removed from the institute due to some technical reasons, details of which weren’t divulged.

Mohanan, however, stands firm on her decision and will not budge until Kalarickal is removed.

In 2015 too, Mohanan had filed a case of caste discrimination against Kalarickal, according to Two Circles. The administration, at that time, had set up a two-member committee to look into the matter. The committee found her allegations to be true and had recommended that the university provide her with all the facilities – a process which Kalarickal was blocking. A year later, in 2016, Mohanan filed a police complaint against Kalarickal under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

However, no action was taken. According to the News Minute, the police detained her at that time and kept her in a station for two days when she tried to meet the governor to address her complaint.

As for the present strike, Mohanan, in her letter posted on Facebook, wrote about other Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula, who died by suicide after caste-based discrimination at the University of Hyderabad, and said that she will continue fighting till the end.

“Going through this situation, I understand why my dear brother Rohit Vemula passed away. But I will not be able to withdraw from the struggle without justice. All I have to do is fight for my people. I have to win here for a lot of losers. For those who have nothing to lose, life is a struggle,” she writes in the letter.

Featured image credit: Twitter/@MissionAmbedkar; Editing: LiveWire