The sharply truncated life of Anil Meena was marked by a ferocious tenacity.
From the mud house in rural Rajasthan, where he grew up in a family of subsistence farmers, he made his way first to school and then to the top of his class. He studied with monomaniacal intensity and passed the entrance exam to the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the most prestigious of India’s professional colleges – an achievement almost unfathomable in the largely illiterate aboriginal community from which he came.
At AIIMS, he battled through classes where he couldn’t understand a word of the English being spoken and pored over a dictionary to get through textbooks. When an arbitrary rule change – that just happened to affect only students from backgrounds such as his – cost him a passing grade in a crucial exam, he tried repeatedly to meet his course director, his friends say. He sat outside the man’s office for four or five hours at a time for a week.
But Mr. Meena had come up against something his intelligence and perseverance could not overcome: Students of his kind are not welcome at AIIMS, no more than they are at other prestigious Indian universities. They rarely graduate. No one was prepared to help him succeed.
On March 3, Mr. Meena hung himself from the fan in his small dormitory room. He was 22.
His death was a crippling blow to his family, a shock to his friends and an ugly blemish for AIIMS. It was also the 20th reported suicide in four years at an elite Indian educational institution by a student who was either aboriginal or Dalit – the people from the bottom of the Hindu caste system, once known as untouchables.
The suicides have emerged as a subject for fierce debate. Following the promise of the new India, these students are hyper-achievers from the grimmest of backgrounds, who made it into the schools that produce engineers, doctors and business leaders who are sought the world over.
But when they get there, they are often isolated, humiliated and discriminated against. They are told overtly by their professors that they will never make it to graduation. Yet many feel they cannot drop out – families and communities are invested in their success, and many have taken huge loans.
Some, trapped in this dilemma, have chosen to end their lives.
In the very places that produce the innovators who are supposed to shape its future, India is dogged by the darkest forces from its past.
“It’s very pervasive and very invisible,” says Shweta Barge, who monitors educational discrimination for the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights. From a Dalit community herself, Ms. Barge often tried to keep her identity cloaked as she managed to earn a postgraduate degree. “Those [Hindu] ideas of purity and pollution exist across every stream, in every school. It gets to hard-core Indian values: It’s not just about where you reach; it’s about where you came from.”
The suicides have occurred at 16 different institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and at the universities of Hyderabad and Bangalore.
In 2008, a final-year Dalit medical student at Government Medical College in Chandigarh in the Punjab hung himself in the college library; Jaspreet Singh left a note in his pocket describing how the head of his department told him repeatedly to his face that he would never, ever be permitted to be a doctor.
That professor had failed him several times in course work, although Mr. Singh had never before had anything but top marks. After his death, an external committee re-evaluated his exams and found that he should have passed. He was awarded his degree posthumously.
On March 3, 2010, exactly two years before Mr. Meena’s death, another young aboriginal man killed himself at AIIMS. Bal Mukund Bharti, 25, was just weeks away from earning his degree, something unprecedented in his community in Madhya Pradesh.
His parents, who’d taken out massive loans to support him, told a team from of investigators from the Insight Foundation, which works to support Dalit and aboriginal students, that he repeatedly complained of harassment from his professors.
He said that one often complained, “I don’t know where they come from, these Dalits and [aboriginals], getting here without studying anything.”
Yet Mr. Bharti was, in fact, brilliant. He had scored eighth among hundreds of thousands of students nationwide in the intensely competitive engineering entrance exam – he passed up the seat to become a doctor instead. AIIMS carried out no investigation and says he had psychological problems.
And this April, an MBA student hanged herself at a private college in Gurgaon, the new technology and industry hub on the edge of Delhi. Dana Sangma was aboriginal, from Meghalaya state in India’s remote northeast.